What is Practical Lighting in Film?

Practical lighting is one of our favourite sources of light in film. Why is that? Well, it’s simple. We constantly focus on the professional lighting setups, which are essential, but practical lighting within a scene adds additional depth. It drives the narrative of your film, and most importantly, it creates dimensions to your scenes.

This lighting method builds atmosphere and lends itself to other light sources. It’s the perfect partner to some of the mainstay lighting setups. In today’s article, we look at what practical lighting in film is. And how you can use practical lighting with ease and conviction.

Let’s delve into practical lighting below!

What is practical lighting?

It’s a form of lighting in film that uses the lighting within the shot frame. This is called the art of practical lighting in film. These light sources are known as practical lighting and can come in many forms. 

An example is fairy lights, candles, lamps, even a torch as your protagonist scours through the house of their arch-nemesis, looking for their next clue. It creates a sense of realism for the audience. 

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What is practical lighting used in film for?

What is practical lighting used in film for?

Practical lighting in film is used in many ways, but the most obvious one is to add depth and separation within the shot. By adding the practical lighting within the shot, it allows an increase in depth to be created. 

It essentially lights the back of the shot, differing from your main light source, which could be hard and soft lighting, low key lighting, high key lighting, bounce lighting or any of the other forms of lighting.

Also, it helps you to develop the narrative. You can compose your scene and add lights to complement the narrative. I.e. a torch if the character’s sneaking around someone’s basement snooping to find something. Or as simple as a candle as two people sit over dinner having a deep conversation.

These additional touches help give your film depth and add to the overall atmosphere. It’s the ideal time to experiment with these throughout the storyboarding of your film. See what works, what doesn’t – then, when you come to shoot the scene, you’ll have an idea in place and can tweak the angles, light sources to get the perfect lighting setup. 

Finally, it’s a motivating light source. By this, we mean that using practical lighting in a way, there’s a motivation. You may have Halloween lights hanging outside the protagonist’s house; there’s a reason for that, it’s Halloween. 

This adds to the atmosphere and creates another dimension to the scene. 

Let’s look at these different types of practical lighting and how you can use them in your next film.

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How to use practical lighting in film

Here’s how to use practical lighting to its best in your next film production. The practical lighting adds a cinematic edge that can be pretty subtle but adds lots to the production value. 

Let’s check out the best practices when using practical lighting in film.

Create more cinematic light sources – Motivated lighting

Yep, that’s it. You need to create a motivation for your cinematic light sources. What do you mean by this? 

Well, you need a clear motivation for adding in your practical lighting. This is because it sells the scene to the audience; they see the motivated lighting, which feels natural.

For instance, adding flashy lights if your characters are out competing in a 70’s discotheque displays an actual situation in an exact location. 

The practical lighting motivates the story and the audience and allows them to buy into your story; it makes them feel as if they’re there, encapsulating their imagination. It also adds to the cinematic experience, so if you can pair the lighting with the narrative and create a story infused with real lighting setups, you’re onto a winner.

A great read: Bounce Lighting – Key Tips and Techniques

Practical props allow you to drive the narrative.

Practical props allow you to drive the narrative

Practical lighting helps you drive the narrative of your story. Using these within your scene can allow you to reveal certain aspects of the film to the audience. Figuratively you can spell it out to the audience. 

A brilliant example is within a horror film; your protagonist is looking for a clue in a dark, dingy manor. Instead of using normal light, give them a candle to explore the depths of this unknown realm. 

This will add to the tension, build the atmosphere, and drive the narrative. It will pull through the tension and fear, projecting it onto your audience. This, paired with well-composed background music, will add another dimension to your scene; it’s incredible what you can do to create a compelling and real scene for the audience.

A great example is in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners film. Paired with the talented Roger Deakins, Denis Villeneuve used a flashlight as their form of practical lighting. This allowed them to reveal information to the audience and light the scene to portray the tension, and dynamically light the scene—cinematography at its finest. 

As well as adding to the narrative, practical lighting adds to the mood of the scene. Ensure you pair the right lighting with the premise of the scene. If it’s a happy scene, look at softer practical lighting. Maybe you could use a nice bright, well-dispersed lamp. Or, if you’re looking to portray gloom, look at using a poorly lit room complemented with candlelight. 

There’s lot’s you can do with practical lighting, and pushing the narrative is probably the most fun. You can be creative and light a shot with just a few accessories, and the end product is one of a cinematic masterpiece. 

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Create dimensions

Creating separation and depth using this technique is essential. Many filmmakers struggle to make depth within their shots, which can leave your scene looking flat. 

Creating depth is the crucial factor when you look to create a cinematic scene. Placing the lights behind the subject or subjects allows you to create another dimension, adding to the depth of the shot. This is often used within the three-point lighting setup. 

If you feel your scenes looking flat or aren’t carrying a cinematic edge, don’t immediately buy new lights or adjust the key light setup. Look at the small, intricate details you can change and then alter the practical lighting to create the depth deception. 

This will allow you to create a well-rounded, exciting scene that oozes cinematic brilliance. Tinker with the lighting setup, and most importantly, look to practical lighting to ensure you make the difference within the shot.

You may also be interested in reading: Key light in film. What is key light in film?

Practical lighting, our farewell

It can be subtle, but it’s incredibly powerful. It allows you to create depth, add dimensions, push the narrative and create real situations for your audience to buy into. 

This is one of the best lighting setups, in our opinion, as it’s subtle but takes your film to another level. Adding another dimension and creating separation allows you to create cinematic shots, paired with a well-written script, the audience will be reeling for more. 

Remember, it’s not the cost of the lights, but the way you utilise them and practical lighting does fit the bill. Replicate the setups in your pre-production meetings and use them within your storyboard setup. Play around with the designs and ensure you are lighting your scene to fit the narrative. It will do wonders. 

We hope you enjoyed today’s article on “What is practical lighting in film”. Let us know your thoughts down below in the comments; we love to hear them!

Scroll below on more in-depth articles on cinematic lighting setups to ensure you get the most out of your film!

Happy filmmaking!

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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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