Tips on How to Properly Light Your Scene

You’ve got a great storyline, the film crew is fully capable of pulling off the production, the actors have been cast and the set looks amazing–but have you considered the various lighting techniques for cinematography that will cast the deepest impact on your viewers? Whether you’re new to lighting techniques in film or you’re a seasoned cinematographer, making the most of your shots with appropriate lighting effects can be challenging. That’s why we’ve put together this list of tips on how to properly light your scene to help you get your message to the audience.

Different lighting techniques in film are essential to creating the looks and styles desired. Whether you’re filming a natural-looking shot or something that tugs deeply at the heartstrings, the lighting almost always sets the scene. Done right, cinematic lighting techniques can serve several different purposes in your production making your film connect with viewers on another level.

  1. Use Key Lighting to Set the Scene

The key light is the primary light on the scene but it may not always shine directly on the subject. Just because it’s the “main” light source does not mean it has to shine directly on the subject in the scene. Key lighting can be used as a basis for a more complicated multi-light setup, but in doing so it is usually the first of several lights to go on stage. Place the key light to the side or behind the subject to create a darkened mood. When using basic lighting techniques such as key lighting try to avoid placing the light right next to the camera as this could flatten the appearance of the subject.

  1. Use Fill Lighting to Eliminate Dark Shadows

Various types of lighting techniques in film serve their own purpose. Fill lighting is rather simple in that, it fills in shadows and dark spaces that would otherwise wash out your scene. Fill lighting creates a warmer and less intense light drop on the subject which helps you to add dimension to the scene when placed in the opposite direction of your key lighting.

Fill lighting should be set further away or diffused with a reflector to generate a soft, evenly spread light on the scene. As the most basic lighting techniques, the use of fill lighting and key lighting alone are often enough to set the scene.

  1. Create Three Dimensional Scenes with Backlighting

Cinematic lighting techniques can increase the dimension of your scene so that you get added depth to the exposure. Using backlighting, cinematographers create a three-dimensional scene that is made up of a three-point lighting setup. The backlighting faces the subject from behind and shines slightly higher so as to separate the subject from the background that is exposed.

Backlighting can be intense so it should be diffused to create a more natural appearance that covers a wider area of the subject. Backlighting can be used solely without fill lights or key lights to create a silhouette view of your subject.

  1. Illuminate the Sides of the Scene with Side Lighting

Side lighting techniques in cinema do exactly what they are called–they light the side areas of the scene. Side lighting runs parallel to your subject and is sometimes used solely or with very faint fill lighting to create a dramatic mood referred to as “chiaroscuro” lighting. Creating this cinematic lighting effect requires the side light to be strong enough that it creates visible contrast paired with low key lighting that gently reveals the texture and contours of the subject in the film.

  1. Include Practical Lighting to Liven the Scene

Practical lighting is often brought in by set designers to create a scene that feels natural. These include lamps, candles, a television or some other light source that makes sense in the scene and can add an intentional layer of depth.

Keep in mind that candles and lamps are likely not enough lighting for your scene without supplementary lighting to ensure your subject can be visibly seen throughout the scene. When practical lights are not enough, include motivated lighting on dimmers to boost the intensity.

customer testimonial video production

  1. Bounce Lighting off Subject or Scene to Create Visual Balance

Bounce lighting is a cinematic lighting technique that involves bouncing the light from one strong lighting source towards the subject or scene. Using a reflector to bounce the light from one area to the other, this technique can create a sense of a larger area by spreading the light more evenly across the scene. When properly executed, bounce lighting can soften up the key, fill, top, side and backlighting to produce visual balance even if you do not have a diffuser or softbox to work with.

  1. Reduce Shadows, Build Drama & Replicate Outside Lighting with Soft Lighting

Soft Lighting is not a direction of the light source but rather a lighting technique that refers to the use of soft lighting that create aesthetic balance on the scene to reduce shadows, create a sense of drama, or replicate the lighting that would naturally shine in from outdoors. Soft lighting can serve one, or all of these purposes on the scene.

  1. Draw Attention to Your Subject or Scene with Hard Lighting

In many sets and scenes you will want to avoid hard lighting such as that from natural sunlight or an exceptionally strong light source, but for scenes where you want to immediately draw attention to the scene or subject, hard lighting may come into play. This cinematic lighting technique can be created with direct sunlight or some other small, powerful lighting source that shines directly on the subject or scene.

Hard lighting will create deep, dark shadows, but it can quickly draw attention to the area. This form of lighting is often used to generate contour around the subject or to develop a silhouette view.

Our Camera Crew setting up to shoot on a Green Screen

  1. Use High Key Lighting Techniques to Eliminate All Shadows

To create a visually shadowless scene, use high key lighting to brighten things up to a point of near overexposure.  This type of lighting essentially ignores lighting ratios and shines lights of the same intensity to produce a very brightly lit scene. We see this lighting technique used frequently in TV sitcoms, commercials and music videos.

  1. Use Low Key Lighting to Create Shadows

Just as high key lighting results in essentially no shadowing effect, low key lighting results in the production of a shadowy scene. This lighting technique is used to create a sense of mystery or suspense. Low key lighting can also be used to build a sense of drama and is often used for horror films and thrillers.

  1. Use Motivated Lighting Effects in Film to Create Natural Balance

Just as practical lighting is used on the scene to create a natural view of the scene, motivate lighting techniques are used in film to produce the image of sunlight, moonlight or street lamps shining at night. The idea here is to enhance the use of practical lighting while offering up a separate light source to visibly illuminate the scene.

Filters are used to create window shadows and colored gels are sometimes used to replicate the sense of warm sunlight or the cool, bluish tint coming from the moon at night.

  1. Use Ambient Lighting to Your Advantage

While it’s great to use all of the above lighting techniques in film production to set the scene, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t also utilize the ambient lighting that is readily available in your shooting location. Whether it’s natural sunlight, moonlight, or the street lamps that are shining already, the ambient lighting that already exists on your scene can set the stage for a professional shot.

Filming a Testimonial on a FS7

Ambient lighting such as the sunlight on a nice day can reduce the need to diffuse or supplement the scene with secondary light sources saving time and money. Consider shooting times and the weather, and use the existing ambient light sources to your advantage when setting the scene for your production.

Following these tips on how to properly light your scene will ensure that you have everything in place to create an emotional connection with your audience. Before your next production, consider the above lighting techniques and all the ways that you can source lighting and benefit from it.

Take a look at how Beverly Boy Productions utilizes lighting for this short interview

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