6 Film Lighting Techniques Every Lighting Designer Needs to Know5 min read

film lighting technique using led lights on film set
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When you’re working on a film – either as a cinematographer or a lighting specialist – using the right film lighting techniques in your lighting design is incredibly crucial. It goes far beyond simply illuminating a set or actor; it lets you accentuate a mood, create drama, time reveals, and so much more.

While there are a plethora of amazing lighting techniques in film, certain ones often serve as the foundation of lighting design. If you want to make sure you’re on solid ground, here are six film lighting techniques every lighting designer should know.

6 Classic Film Lighting Techniques Every Lighting Designer Needs to Know

1. Three-Point Lighting Setup

three point lighting setup on set for filmmaking

If you had to identify a single quintessential lighting technique, the three-point lighting setup would have to be it. It is the solid ground upon which every other approach is built upon, ensuring that your subject is properly illuminated and set apart from the background.

As the name suggests, a three-point lighting setup is comprised of lighting from three different places: the front, the back, and a side angle. However, the design itself starts with the key light.

The key light is the brightest light in the three-point design. While it’s usually toward the front, it doesn’t have to hit the subject straight on. After that, you’ll have a fill light, which helps prevent unwanted shadows, as well as a backlight, which further illuminates the subject and separates it from the background.

2. Hard Film Lighting

With hard film lighting – also called low-key lighting – you limit the number of light sources to create dramatic shadows. Film Noir is classically associated with this lighting technique, though it is also seen frequently in other dramas, as well as horror or thriller films.

This approach to film lighting is incredibly directional. Fill light is used sparingly, ensuring that distinct shadows remain on the subject. Backlighting can also be limited, or may be positioned to create a slight halo around the subject, leading to a gentle glow that separates them from the background.

3. Soft Film Lighting

With soft film lighting, you’re avoiding hard lines and strong shadows. It usually relies on a high-key lighting setup, where fill lights help create a bright scene with essentially no hard shadows.

In some cases, diffusion materials are used to reduce shadows further. Often, this includes the use of specific gels, though other techniques can also do the trick.

Essentially, the goal is to keep the light from seeming overly directional. Instead, the aim is to create a sense of an all-surrounding glow, with only enough shadows present to cultivate a gentle sense of depth.

4. Natural Lighting

Natural film lighting relies heavily on what a space provides on its own. Sunlight through windows is a prime example, though it can also involve other light sources that are simply present in the area.

Many filmmakers take advantage of the magic hour – a brief moment where the light created by the sun creates a gentle, golden softness – for natural lighting. Also known as the golden hour, it actually occurs twice during the day, once in the early morning, right after sunrise, and once in the evening, just before sunset.

5. Motivated Lighting

Motivated lighting is a scene-specific film lighting technique. With this approach, the lighting designer or cinematographer identifies points in the scene where light would naturally exist – such as windows, lamps, and television screens – and positions lighting based on where those sources sit.

With motivated lighting, you can make where the light is emanating from feel natural to the audience. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t augment the light source to make it stronger than it would typically be or soften it slightly for subtlety.

It’s important to note that, with motivated lighting, the light source doesn’t necessarily have to be visible in the scene or that it has to exist as a genuine source. For example, you can mimic sunlight through a window even if there isn’t any sun actually coming through.

In the simplest sense, the light source has to feel justifiable based on what would naturally exist in the space. Whether it actually exists naturally in the area is irrelevant.

6. Practical Lighting

Similar to motivated lighting, practical lighting relies on light sources within a scene that feel logical, such as lamps or overheads in a room. The difference is that this film lighting technique relies on practicality, making use of what’s genuinely present to create a natural look that aligns with the audience’s expectations.

With practical lighting, every light source is usually seen by the audience. It legitimately exists. For example, if a lamp is used to illuminate an area, there is actually a lamp present in the scene. That’s practical lighting in a nutshell.

Choosing the Right Film Lighting Techniques for a Production

Ultimately, every lighting technique has a place in film in general. The trick is to choose approaches that set the proper tone while also providing enough illumination.

It isn’t uncommon to combine film lighting techniques to get the needed effect and some cross-over commonly occurs. For example, natural film lighting and soft filming lighting techniques can easily go hand-in-hand.

Consider the mood the scene needs as well as what needs to be visible. Examine the space to identify potential light sources, including those that already exist in an area. Then, determine whether they meet your need, should be augmented, or aren’t ideal. Once you decide that, you can figure out how other lighting sources if any, may be necessary to create the desired outcome.

Suggested Reading: The 25 Best Film Lighting Books for 2021

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