The Ultimate Guide to
Film Lights

You’ve decided to make a movie. You have an amazing cast, your script is perfect, the set design is flawless, but now you need to really set the tone of the film by choosing the perfect lighting.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not.

Choosing the correct lighting in a movie is one of the more challenging tasks you’ll face. It’s possibly the most important aspect of filmmaking. It sets the mood and tone of every scene, and immerses the audience in your story.

When selecting your lighting kit, you’re faced with a LOT of options. We’re breaking down all the different types of lights available, and the ways you can work with them. You’ll learn the strengths and weaknesses of the lights, and everything else you need so you’ll know exactly what lights to choose for your kit in your project.

Table of Contents

Film Lighting Definitions and Techniques

When it comes to film lighting, there are a lot of terms used on set that you need to make yourself familiar with. We’ve selected the most common terms and go through each of them so you have a good foundation.

What is a Key Light?

The Key Light is the main source of light used in film and photography. It’s the strongest and most direct light source. It’s typically used to light the actor or subject.

In setups with more than one source of artificial light the key light is usually the light source which has the largest overall effect on the image subject, highlighting it’s dimensions and overall form. Because of this, the term key light doesn’t refer to a specific type of lighting equipment and can be anything from a lamp to a camera mounted flash unit.

What is a Fill Light?

When using a key light, you’ll notice it casts shadows. Fill lighting is used to remove those shadows. Fill lights are almost always used on the opposite side of the key light to balance everything out, and they’re usually not as powerful.

What is a Back Light?

A back light does just what is says – it lights the back. Back lights hit the subject from behind and slightly above. If you have a dark background, you’ll want to use a back light to pull the actor or subject from the background. There are times actors will look flat and two-dimensional and adding a back light will give the subject depth.

Now that you know the definitions of Key Light, Fill Light, and Back Light, you know all the parts of a traditional three-point lighting setup, but we’ll get to that a little later. For now, let’s look at other lighting types you should be familiar with.

Back-light is the cinematographer's friend.

What is a Sidelight?

This one shouldn’t be too tough to figure out. A sidelight is a light that comes from the actor’s….wait for it….side. Clever name, huh?

A sidelight is often used to create a dramatic mood. It was very common in the Film Noir period of filming and is used in chiaroscuro lighting.

What is a Practical Light?

This took me way longer than I’d like to admit to figure out when I was working on set. A practical light is the name of the light being used in the scene. Desk lamps, floor lamps,a TV, flashlights, and even a candle all qualify as a practical light if they’re being used in the shot.

Many times, the bulbs in a practical light (like a desk lamp) will be swapped out with a bulb using a different wattage or color temperature. LED bulbs are becoming very popular in practicals because you can adjust the intensity and color temperature.

I like to work simply, as simple as possible! I’m using a lot of practicals, but the practicals are more there to give set decoration and a little more glow to a scene, and then from there you work in a little more lighting, but I don’t like too much light. I always feel like you should start with one light and see what you get. Perhaps that is enough, you never know!

What is Motivated Lighting?

Motivated lighting ties in with practical lighting. It’s when another light source is used to imitate the practical light in the scene. If the practical lighting is a candle, and it’s not giving off enough light, you can enhance it with motivated lighting using another light source that gives off the same color.  

What is Diffusion?

If you have a light that is too bright, diffusions or diffusion gels will reduce the power from the light source. This is helpful if your backlight is brighter than your key light and you need to tone it down. It also helps if you’re using sunlight and want to soften the shadows.

What is a Bounce?

A bounce is the light you get when light is reflected (bounced) off a surface. That “surface” can be just about anything that light can reflect off of, and there are tools made specifically for this. Silk, metallic reflectors, and foam boards are common reflectors, but you can bounce light off a wall or ceiling, or even a white (or colored) sheet.

Light bounces are used to shape lighting in film, and we’ll discuss other ways to shape light below.

What is Ambient Light?

Another quite obvious one. Ambient light is the light that already exists where you’re at. Any light that is at your location is “available light,” so that could be sunlight, street lights, or any other light source.

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What is Lighting Intensity?

Intensity refers to a light’s brightness and output and is generally referred to in watts, which vary depending on the bulb/fixture. That’s it – pretty easy to understand! But, difficult to control.

What is Soft Light?

Soft light is based on the size of the light source vs what the actual fixture is or the fixture’s placement. A large light source, whether a large fixture or diffusion sheet, gives you soft light. Soft light will produce very soft shadows.

What is Hard Light?

Similar to soft light, hard light is all about the size of the source. A small source will provide hard light. Hard light leaves you with harsh shadows, and is often unwanted in filming.

The beauty of film lighting is that one lighting placement can end up being many of the items listed about. You might have a TV in the scene, which is a practical, but it could also be the key light.

Shaping Light

With shaping light, you are selectively choosing where shadows fall and what shapes they take. When considering the shape of your light, it’s essential to remember that the absence of light is just as important as the prevalence of light. Here are some of the most common tools to help shape light.

What is a Black Flag?

Black flags are the most basic tool used for shaping light in film. Also known as cutters, black flags are usually available in rectangles and squares and are placed in front of lights to shape how the light falls onto a scene.

What is Skirting?

Skirting changes a lights’ direction by preventing spill from walls and ceilings. This technique is commonly used on overhead lights by placing black fabric over them so they only shine towards the floor. That cloth over the light creates an actual skirt, and adds dimension.

What is Blackwrap (Cinefoil)?

Blackwrap (Cinefoil) is matte-black aluminum foil that can be easily molded to just about any support fixture. You can mold it into just about any shape you desire and is super versatile for shaping light in a pinch.

What are Grids?

Grids are fun, but a little more difficult to explain. They help restrict the light to a focused area to provide a spotlight-like feel on a subject. Grids give you more control so that you can focus the light.

What are Lighting Cookies?

A cucoloris (more commonly known as a “cookie”) are used for breaking up your light into patterns. Almost anything can be used as a cookie. Things like tree branches, fabric, or specially made patterns specifically made for lighting.

Film Lighting Techniques

Most of the definitions listed above are actually considered lighting techniques. There are, however, specific lighting arrangements that are frequently used in film.

Three Point Lighting Technique

Three point lighting is the most basic lighting setup in the film industry. Using a key light, fill light, and a back light, we’re able to give shape to our subject and separate them from the background.

It is not a formula or a set standard, but rather a guide as to how and where to place your light sources so as to light your subject and scene.

The placement of your lights in this lighting setup helps create different moods for your image.

High-Key Lighting Technique

High-key lighting is not a particular piece of equipment, but a lighting style used in filming (and photography). This lighting style results in brightly lit subjects with more fill light and softer shadows. Fill lights are used to increase the amount of ambient light in a scene and reduce the contrast.

Low-Key Lighting Technique

If High-Key lighting is a technique used to keep everything bright and reduce contrasts, you can think of Low-Key lighting as the opposite.

Low-Key lighting in film is typically much darker, with more shadows than light. You would almost never use fill light in this style and focus on using the shadows as your subject.

For good examples of low key lighting, think of your favorite horror or suspense movie, and you’ll probably know exactly what low key lighting looks like.

Usually, if you notice good cinematography, then the cinematographer's failing. I try to make light feel like it's always motivated and natural in some way and hope that the lighting goes unnoticed.

Types of Lights Used in Film

We’ve talked about lighting setups and terms used on sets, but now we’re going to dive into the actual bulbs and fixtures that create the light sources.

Open-Faced Fixtures

Open-faced fixtures are used for creating a hard light and dark shadows. It’s a simple light that consists of the housing and a reflector for the bulb, and not much else.

The commonly known 800W “Redhead” and 2000W “Blonde” are examples of open faced video lights.

Fresnels

A fresnel has a very specific lens. The lens is divided into concentric circles, making it much thinner. The light from a fresnel is more even, and allows for the beam to be varied from flood to spot by changing the distance between the lamp/reflector unit and the lens.

Tungsten (Quartz Halogen/Tungsten Halogen)

Tungsten lights are in the same family as incandescent bulbs we all had in our houses until recently.

The key difference is that these use bulbs that take advantage of what is known as the halogen cycle. The pressurized halogen gas inside the bulb helps to redeposit evaporated tungsten metal back onto the filament.

These lights work at a much higher temperature than incandescent tungsten bulbs, which allows them to have a higher color temperature, and higher luminous efficiency.

Tungsten lights give off a warm light, but blue gels can be used to correct the color and provide a daylight look.

Uses of Tungsten Lights

Tungsten lighting is usually used to light interiors as it matches the warm light associated with domestic incandescent lighting.

Strengths of Tungsten

  • The color rendition is close to perfect
  • Cost effective
  • Do not contain mercury like fluorescent lights
  • Have a fairly long life compared to incandescent lights
  • They reach full brightness instantly

Weaknesses of Tungsten

  • They get extremely hot
  • They require a lot of power
  • Not able to touch the bulbs – they are very sensitive to oil

HMI Lights

HMI stands for Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide and is a metal-halide gas discharge medium arc-length lamp.

A HMI bulb contains mercury vapor mixed with metal halides. An electrical arc between two electrodes excites the mercury vapor and metal halides resulting in a very high light output and luminous efficiency. HMI lamps are capable of between 85 and 108 lumens per watt, up to four times that of conventional incandescent lamps.

The specific mix of gases in a HMI bulb is designed to emit a 6000K color temperature light, closely matching natural sunlight. Electronic ballasts produce a flicker free light due to their very high frequency operation. Pulse width modulation can be used to dim HMI lights.

Uses of HMI Lights

HMI’s are often used when high output is required and when recreating or augmenting sunlight shining into interiors, or for exterior lighting. Powerful HMI’s can be used to light large areas.

Strengths of HMI Lights

  • They have extremely high light output
  • Much more efficient than incandescents
  • They have a high color temperature

Weaknesses of HMI Lights

  • More expensive, but the cost is made up for by the higher light output
  • They require a lot of power to operate
  • Requires an external ballast for arc ignition (up to 70,000 volts)
  • Limited dimming capabilities, and the light temperature changes when dimmed, giving off a bluer hue

Fluorescent Lights

A fluorescent lamp uses low-pressure mercury vapor to produce ultra-violet light, in turn causing a phosphor coating on the inside of the glass tube to glow giving off light in the visible spectrum.

A fluorescent light gives off almost the same output as an HMI, and is a lot more efficient than an incandescent light.

Uses of Fluorescent Lights

While LEDs are starting to replace fluorescent lights at record pace, they are still occasionally used in fixtures containing banks of tubes. The tubes are normally color balanced for tungsten or daylight. The light they provide is soft and even and can be used close to the subject.

Strengths of Fluorescent Lights

  • Higher efficiency than most other fixtures
  • Require very low power
  • Very affordable
  • Long lamp life
  • Cool
  • Able to produce soft, even light over a large area
  • Lightweight

Weaknesses of Fluorescent Lights

  • Some fluorescent bulbs not made specifically for film can produce flicker

LED Lights

LED stands for light emitting diode and is a solid-state semiconductor device. LEDs are a newer technology, but they are now capable of reaching similar outputs to the other lights in this list, and they are extremely efficient.

LED lights can be daylight or tungsten balanced, sometimes switchable or having variable color temperature. Many have variable color through the entire RGB spectrum, which is something not possible with any other lighting technology. The CRI rating of LED lighting can be over 90.

Uses of LED Lights

LED’s are becoming more and more common on film sets. They can easily be battery powered making them very portable and requiring no separate ballasts or heavy cabling. Panels made from LED lights can be small and compact, or large for a variety of situations.

LED’s are also powering more traditional Fresnel style lamp heads such as the Arri L-series.

Strengths of LED Lights

  • Even and soft lighting
  • No UV-artifacts
  • Highest efficiency out of all lights
  • Low power consumption, can be battery powered
  • Very flexible dimming options
  • Long lifespan
  • No risk of explosion

Weaknesses of LED Lights

  • LEDs are sometimes more expensive, but recently, the prices have come down considerably.

Luminous Efficiency Compared

Tungsten Quartz Halogen: Up to +/- 35lm/W
Fluorescent: Up to +/- 100lm/W
HMI: Up to +/- 115lm/W
LED: Up to +/- 150lm/W

Color Temperature and CRI

Color Temperature

Color temperature refers to the “color” of white light emitted by a light source based on that radiated by a perfect black body at a given temperature measured in degrees Kelvin.

White light can be warm (yellow/orange) or cool (blue) and our eyes automatically adjust. However, the color temperature of light sources and especially the mixing of different color temperatures becomes very important when designing film lighting.

Temperature Source

  • 1,700 K: Match flame
  • 1,850 K: Candle flame, sunset/sunrise
  • 2,700–3,300 K: Incandescent lamps
  • 4,100–4,150 K: Moonlight
  • 5,000 K: Horizon daylight
  • 5,500–6,000 K: Vertical daylight
  • 6,500 K: Daylight, overcast
  • 15,000–27,000 K Clear blue poleward sky

CRI

CRI stands for Color Rendering Index. It refers to the ability of a light source to properly and faithfully reveal the color of an object compared to an ideal or natural light source. The highest possible CRI is 100 and is attributed to a perfect black body (a tungsten light source is a perfect black body, as is the sun).

That's a Wrap

As you probably guessed, almost all film lights have a specific purpose, and it’s common to see everything listed here on a movie set.

If you’re building a lighting kit, or looking to rent a kit, it’s a good idea to get a mix of all types of film lights to make sure you can light any scene exactly the way you want.

LEDs are making big waves in film lighting, so things may change in the future, but for now, HMIs aren’t going anywhere, and tungsten is still heavily used on set.

We will do deeper dives into different aspects of film lighting and will link them all here so you have a complete resource for film lighting.

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