top of page
  • Sele Got

Lighting Considerations

According to Wikipedia, “Cinematography (also called Direction of Photography) is the science or art of motion picture photography by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as film stock”. 

The cinematographer/director of photography works closely with the gaffer to create the look of the film using light.

There are a lot of factors to consider during pre-production and on-set. This article explores some techniques that will enable you to get results.

Cinematography is the mastering of the technology in service of the art.

Light has 4 characteristics namely quantity,quality, color temperature and direction.


This refers to the intensity or amount of light present.


Hard light is harsh, directional and casts strong shadows and bright highlights. The hardest source of light known is the noonday sun.

Photo : Lee Pelling Photography

Soft light is non-directional and comes from a diffused source. The illumination comes from all directions and cancels out the shadows.


Photo : No Film School

Colour Temperature

The color temperature dictates the mood of a scene.


Photo :

Color temperature is measured on the Kelvin scale and ranges from 1000K on the red, warm end to well over 12000K on the blue, cool end of the scale.

color chart

Photo :


This is simply the direction that the light is coming from.

Three-point Lighting


Photo :

Key Light – The first and usually most important light in this setup. It’s purpose is to highlight the form and dimension of the subject.

  1. High key lighting – Refers to imagery that is mostly bright, with a range of light tones and whites and not very many blacks or mid-tones.

Photo :

  1. Low key lighting – Relies on shadows, deep blacks and darker tones with very few whites or middle tones. A majority of the scene is underlit but some parts are correctly exposed or overexposed. This tends to be more dramatic and cinematic.

Photo :

Fill Light – Fills in light on the opposite side of your key. More fill light, less contrast and thus becomes high key light. Used more in comedies, romances and beauty shots.

Backlight – Illuminates the back of the talent. A bit high, it then becomes hair light and to the side, rim light to create a halo. It generally fulfils the function of seperating the subject from the background.

Photo :

Schools of Lighting

Naturalism – This school of lighting would follow the natural, logically established sources of light in a scene.

Pictorialism – This school of lighting use light angles that violate this logic to achieve a more pleasing picture.

The cinematographer decides the practical and hypothetical sources of light and the direction of lighting. These choices will be influenced by the script and the director’s concept of covering the scene. It can be helpful to know the camera setups in advance to avoid painting yourself into a corner with lighting.

Imagination and improvisation are very important.

Lighting Scenarios

Location Interior

Photo :

Day Interiors

For day interiors windows are the most logical light sources.The time of day will influence the character of the lighting because of the position of the sun.

Photo :

Night Interior

For night scenes, hard, directional lighting is more justified. The illusion of night is created by the angle and distribution of light. One strategy is to underlight foreground objects or even characters in relation to what is behind them. It is most often built around the lights visible in the scene.

Photo :

Location Exterior


The sun is the harshest source of light. Light can be used to bright up an overcast day. Shooting sunset depends on the focal lenght of the lens, geographical location, air pollution and the clouds. You’ll need to balance this with lights to avoid silhouettes.

Photo :

Your environment bounces light, so reflected light becomes a softer source with low intensity

Photo :

Day for Night

Keep an eye on the background and changes in brightness of the sky. Make light adjustments to keep the relationship between the sky and closeup illimination in constant balance. When shooting, the sun shouldn’t be visible as the scene will be set at night. The footage is graded to arrive at the final look.

Photo :

Night for Night

This can be a logistical and budgetary nightmare. With skillful lighting of the foreground, you can utilize available light in the background. You have to preserve the night character of light and to create a feeling of depth. Scout the locations at night and also perform rigging operations at night.

Working with fog filters is relatively easy when compared wth real smoke or fog. It affects light sources as well as the surface on which the light falls.

You might want to re-create moonlight or practical sources such as street lamps or city lights.

Photo :

A cinematographer not only has to be a scientist and artist but also a manager and a people person


Emotions are evoked by the tone of the film, the shadow, the colour, how the camera moves and when it moves. Decide whether you want the audience to see everything clearly or whether you want to withhold certain things (shadows).

Photo :

General Advice

  1. Read the script multiple times as you’ll discover something new everytime that will improve your interpretation .

  2. Ask lots of questions. The partnership between the cinematograher, production designer and the director is essential.

  3. All lighting should serve only one thing; the story.

  4. Create a mood board.

  5. Study paintings to be inspired.

  6. Try to make your lighting and camera work as a character within your story.

  7. Watching movies together is a quick way of having some points of reference when discussing style.

  8. Shoot a grayscale and color tone card, it will  help the cinematograher and colorist have true colour during grading.

  9. Composition in framing and lighting directs the viewers’ eye to the appropriate part of the scene.

  10. Turn off the houselights and turn on your desired practicals.

  11. Light for emotional value or to draw attention to something.

  12. Technology should inspire ideas not take over the creative process.

  13. The eyes are the windows to the soul and care should be taken to show the actors. It’s necessary for the dramatics of the scene and infusing subtext.

  14. Lighting is art, there is no wrong way. It’s just that it’s sometimes unflattering.

  15. Add your point of view, your interpretation to things. Your style will be determined by your personal experience and what moves them, so live a little and make new memories. These will be influenced by what you have learnt, so keep learning and researching new techniques.

  16. Use light, darkness, composition, colour, position and texture to comment on things.

  17. Play with the lights because once in a while happy accidents do happen.

  18. Watch films and analyse the shots.


Colour Gels – Transparent colour material used to colour light and for color correction.

Catchlight – Light that is visible in the subject’s eye.

CTB – Colour Temperature Blue

CTO – Colour Temperation Orange

Flag – A device used to block light.

Bounceboard – A foam board used as a reflector to bounce light back on the subject and fill in shadows.

Scrims – A tool used to cut down the output of light.

Gobo – A stencil or template placed in front of light to control the shape of the emitted light.

Practicals – Lights that are visible within the scene/frame.

Freshnel  Light – This is a light that uses a freshnel lens to provide light control to either flood or spot an area.

HMI Light – Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide, or HMI uses an arc lamp to produce light.

China Ball – This light uses a Chinese paper lantern to create soft light.

LED – Light-emitting diode is a two-lead semiconductor light.

Light Meter – A device used for measuring the amount of incident light and light on a spot to show the optimum exposure.

Got The Picture?

#art #shadow #Filmmaking #dramatic #DOP #featured #Photography #Film #science #Gaffer #Cinematography #cinema #equipment #Lighting #SeleGot

bottom of page