9 Essential Lighting Techniques in Film EVERY Filmmaker Must Know

Lighting techniques in film, are understated and crucial. These lighting techniques help you achieve that cinematic look to your film – lighting techniques in film are invaluable.

Having your film lighting basics set correctly helps bring the words of your screenwriter to life. It also allows the director to tell the story in the right way. It sets the mood, and most importantly gives your film an edge.

In today’s article, we are going to look into the various lighting techniques in film and how you can implement them in your next film with relative ease.

Let’s check out the 9 essential film lighting techniques every filmmaker should know below.

The 9 Essential Lighting Techniques in Film

Here are the 9 essential film lighting techniques you should learn to help improve your filmmaking ability. Using these different lighting techniques, it will allow you to emphasise certain feelings, and develop an atmosphere that will leave your audience on the edge of their seats. 

Let’s check these film lighting techniques out in more detail.

1. Natural Lighting

Lighting Techniques in Film: Natural film lighting
Credit: The Revenant

Natural lighting in film is perfect for the indie filmmaker. It’s utilising daylight to help light your set correctly. It’s a great way to save some money – especially if you are shooting on a tight budget, and save yourself a bit of time.

Preparation is key when using natural light as a lighting technique in film. You must make sure you scout out the area properly beforehand to ensure you know the time of day when the light will work best for your scene.

As a visual reminder, here is The Revenant official trailer:

To help alter the light, try using bounce cards, reflectors and flags to help you achieve the perfect angle. Using natural light as your core lighting technique can produce incredible results, especially if you shoot your defining scene in the “Happy Hour”. 

You may also like to read: Natural Light: How to shoot using Natural Light

2. Key Lighting

Lighting Techniques in Film - Key Lighting

Key lighting is the main source of lighting during a scene. This is the primary source and helps define the mood of the scene. This will light the key aspect of the scene or the subject.

Try to avoid placing your key lighting near to your camera or you will find it will fall flat and leave your scene one dimensional.

3. Low Key Lighting

Low key lighting technique for film is a type of hard source lighting technique that uses blackness and a lot of contrast and shadows.

Low key lighting is a lighting technique where the main light source is positioned to the side of the subject and pointed at them at a low angle, creating a dark and contrasty image. This creates deep shadows and a high degree of contrast between the lit and unlit areas of the subject, and can be used to create a moody and atmospheric look.

Low key lighting is often used in conjunction with other lighting techniques, such as fill lighting or backlighting, to create a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing image. It can also be used to create a specific mood or atmosphere in a scene, such as by using low key lighting to create a sense of mystery or suspense.

To achieve good low key lighting, the key is to position the light source at a low angle to the subject, and to adjust the intensity and quality of the light to suit the desired effect. This might involve using diffusers or filters to soften the light, or using reflectors to bounce light back onto the subject and fill in any shadows.

Low-key lighting in film is usually used to portray mystery and is the perfect setup to create tension within a scene. It’s great to use it as a contrasting method within your film to show the audience the protagonist’s life is taking a turn for the worst. 

Also, If you have a scene packed with danger,  low key lighting hands itself perfectly.

You may also like to read: Low Key Lighting: How to create a dramatic atmosphere immediately

4. High Key Lighting

Lighting Techniques in Film - High Key Lighting

High key lighting is a lighting technique where the main light source is positioned to the side of the subject and pointed at them at a high angle, creating a bright and evenly lit image. This creates a low contrast and a high degree of detail in the highlights, and can be used to create a clean and modern look.

High key lighting is usually used to deal with high contrast, however, it’s now used to set the mood in the scene. Usually, one of a light-hearted and happy scene – but can also, for example, be used for an “out of body experience” scene.

High key lighting is often used in conjunction with other lighting techniques, such as fill lighting or backlighting, to create a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing image. It can also be used to create a specific mood or atmosphere in a scene, such as by using high key lighting to create a sense of happiness or optimism.

It’s primarily white tones from bright lights and lacks darkness – High key lighting is used quite often in music videos and commercials, but can be seen in series such as “The good place“.

To achieve good high key lighting, the key is to position the light source at a high angle to the subject, and to adjust the intensity and quality of the light to suit the desired effect. This might involve using diffusers or filters to soften the light, or using reflectors to bounce light back onto the subject and fill in any shadows.

You may also be interested in reading: High Key Lighting: What is it? And How to Master it!

5. Side Lighting

Lighting Techniques in Film - Side Lighting Example Joker

In filmmaking, side lighting is a lighting technique where the main light source is positioned to the side of the subject, rather than directly in front of or behind it. This creates a strong contrast between the lit and unlit sides of the subject, and can be used to create a sense of depth and dimension in the scene.

Side lighting is often used in conjunction with other lighting techniques, such as backlighting or fill lighting, to create a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing image. It can also be used to create a mood or atmosphere in a scene, such as by using soft, warm side lighting to create a romantic or intimate feeling.

To achieve good side lighting, the key is to position the light source at a 45-degree angle to the subject, and to adjust the intensity and quality of the light to suit the desired effect. This might involve using diffusers or filters to soften the light, or using reflectors to bounce light back onto the subject and fill in any shadows.

READ MORE: How to become a resourceful and innovative filmmaker

6. Bounce Lighting

Lighting Techniques in Film - Bounce Lighting
Credit: IMDB

In filmmaking, bounce lighting is a lighting technique where the main light source is directed at a nearby surface, such as a wall or ceiling, and the light is then reflected back onto the subject. This creates a softer and more diffused light than if the light were directed directly at the subject, and can be used to create a more natural and flattering look.

Bounce lighting is often used in conjunction with other lighting techniques, such as fill lighting or key lighting, to create a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing image. It can also be used to create a specific mood or atmosphere in a scene, such as by using a colored surface to bounce light back onto the subject and create a warm or cool tone.

To achieve good bounce lighting, the key is to position the light source and the bounce surface in the right way. The light should be directed at the bounce surface at a slight angle, and the bounce surface should be positioned so that the reflected light hits the subject from the desired direction. The distance and angle between the light, the bounce surface, and the subject can all be adjusted to control the intensity and quality of the light.

This method is best utilised with large whiteboard/cardboard. You can bounce the direct light off and onto your subject – this helps highlight the subject without shining light directly at them.

The bounce lighting is an indirect lighting technique but gives you a larger area of lighting evenly spread across the shot.

7. Hard Lighting

In filmmaking, hard lighting is a lighting technique where the main light source is positioned close to the subject and pointed directly at them, creating a harsh and contrasty light. This creates deep shadows and a high degree of contrast between the lit and unlit areas of the subject, and can be used to create a distinctive and dramatic look.

Hard lighting is often used in conjunction with other lighting techniques, such as fill lighting or backlighting, to create a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing image. It can also be used to create a specific mood or atmosphere in a scene, such as by using hard lighting to create a sense of tension or danger.

To achieve good hard lighting, the key is to position the light source close to the subject and at a slight angle, so that it creates deep shadows and a high degree of contrast. The intensity and quality of the light can also be adjusted using diffusers or filters to soften the light and reduce the harshness, or by using reflectors to bounce light back onto the subject and fill in any shadows.

Brilliant for creating a silhouette in your shot as well.

8. Soft Lighting

Soft lighting is a lighting technique where the main light source is positioned far from the subject and pointed indirectly at them, creating a diffuse and even light. This reduces the contrast between the lit and unlit areas of the subject, and creates a softer and more flattering look.

Soft lighting is often used in conjunction with other lighting techniques, such as key lighting or backlighting, to create a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing image. It can also be used to create a specific mood or atmosphere in a scene, such as by using soft lighting to create a warm and inviting feeling.

To achieve good soft lighting, the key is to position the light source far from the subject and at a wide angle, so that it illuminates the subject evenly and creates soft, diffuse shadows. The intensity and quality of the light can also be adjusted using diffusers or filters to further soften the light, or by using reflectors to bounce light back onto the subject and fill in any shadows.

Soft lighting doesn’t have one main definition but is the main source of light that cinematographers use to eliminate shadows from their shots.

Creates subtle shades of light to cast on your subject, perfect for accentuating the subject of the shot.

READ MORE: Essential tips for an indie filmmaker

9. Practical Lighting

This is anything practical but practical lighting in film can use a TV Set, a lamp, a sidelight, wall lights, a candle – anything that can add to the current light setup. These are always added on top of the current light setup.

Practical lighting is a lighting technique where a light source that is built into the set is used to illuminate the scene. This type of light is called a “practical” because it is part of the set and is intended to look like a natural light source, such as a lamp or a window.

Practical lighting can be created using a variety of different light sources, such as fluorescent bulbs, LED lights, or incandescent bulbs. The light can be positioned and adjusted to create the desired look and feel in the scene, and can be dimmed or turned on and off to match the action in the scene.

Practical lighting is often used in conjunction with other lighting techniques, such as key lighting or backlighting, to create a well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing image. It can also be used to create a sense of realism in a scene, by making the lighting look natural and believable.

These are additional pieces to the set to help with the ambience – but make sure the practical lighting object matches the temperature of the shot.

Why are lighting techniques important?

They are used to create the visual look and feel of a film, and to convey the mood and atmosphere of a scene. Good lighting can make a scene look more realistic, more dramatic, or more emotionally resonant, and can help to guide the audience’s attention and reactions.

Lighting techniques can also be used to create a sense of depth and dimension in a scene, by using different lighting directions and intensities to model the shapes and surfaces of the objects in the scene. This can help to make the scene look more three-dimensional and realistic, and can add to the overall visual impact of the film.

In addition to their aesthetic and storytelling functions, lighting techniques are also important for technical reasons. Good lighting can help to improve the quality and clarity of the image, by reducing the amount of noise and artifacts in the footage. It can also help to reduce the need for post-processing and color grading, which can save time and resources in the editing process.

Overall, film lighting techniques are an essential part of the filmmaking process, and are important for creating the visual look and feel of a film, as well as for technical and storytelling purposes.

More on Lighting Techniques

Here are some additional articles on lighting techniques.

Happy filmmaking!

Photo of author

Jay Neill

Jay Neill is the founder, owner, and managing editor of iFilmThings and believes everyone should have access to the film resources they need to plan their filmmaking project, which is why he’s dedicated iFilmThings to helping all filmmakers.

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