Cinematography: Understanding Lighting in Film

7 min readMar 20, 2021


How do filmmakers use different lighting techniques to set the scene?

Lighting is a quintessential part of filmmaking in visually setting the mood and atmosphere of a film, which oftentimes define the genre of the film. It’s a powerful tool that can direct the audience’s eye to a part of a scene, a specific actor or prop and even reflect the emotions and personality of a character.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Three-point lighting

The three-point lighting system, developed in the studio era in Hollywood, is the basic and most commonly-used lighting technique in films today. It consists of three light sources:

Source: Martech Zone
  • Key Light: It provides the primary light which is the strongest and brightest light source in scene or on the subject. It casts the strongest shadows.
  • Fill Light: Positioned near the camera and around 120° from the key light. It softens the illumination on the subject and the environment by “filling in” the shadows casted by key light.
  • Backlight: Positioned behind the subject and around 120° from the fill light. It separates the subject from the background and counterbalances the brightness of the key light.

What Is Cinematic Lighting?

Cinematic lighting goes beyond the standard three-point lighting system by varying the intensities and direction of lights. This is what creates depth, drama and atmosphere in a scene. Techniques in cinematic lighting includes diffusing and bouncing light as well as adjusting colour temperatures to create the desired atmosphere and effects necessary in visual storytelling.

Here are some of the lighting techniques used in today’s filmmaking.

Quality of Lighting

The hardness or softness of the light depends on the light source, whether it is large or small, and how it affects the shadows on the subject.

Blade Runner (1982)

1. Hard or Harsh Lighting

Uses smaller light sources to cast larger, clearer and crisper shadows on the subject as well as heighten contrast.
Creates a dramatic, suspenseful and intense atmosphere.
- It’s suggestive of the underworld and villainy.
- Evokes a sense of fear and wickedness.
Common genres: Chiaroscuro (or film noir), horror, and mystery.
Common Sources of Lighting:

The Godfather (1972)
  • Low-key Lighting — Light comes from only one source to create lots of strong shadows and high contrast.
BlacKkKlansman (2018)

- Kicker light with soft fill — A backlight shines on the side of the subject’s face to create a rim light effect while a soft fill light gently illuminates the face.

Her (2013)

2. Soft or Diffused Lighting

Larger light sources that are distant from the subject and in the scene with plenty of fill lights are are used to create soft lighting. The lights tend to illuminate the whole frame as opposed to a single subject. This results to a lower contrast and little to none shadows on the subject.

Portrays a dreamy, romantic and fantastical atmosphere.
- Conveys the sentiment of hope and peace.
Common genres: Romance, Fantasy
Common Sources of Lighting:

Bruce Almighty (2003)

- High-Key light — Fill light and backlighting illuminates the entire frame so that everything within the shot is lit with low contrast.
Tends to have a neutral effect.
- However. extreme high-key lighting creates a sterile (e.g. scenes shot in hospitals) or peaceful atmosphere (e.g. scenes set in heaven) and makes characters appear peaceful, amiable and even angelic or saintly.
- High-key lighting also conveys as sense of transparency and intelligibility like in TV sitcoms.

Skyfall (2012)

- Diffused overhead lighting — Suitable for close-up shots. Materials like gels or Chinese lanterns can soften the light source and reduce shadows.

Other Lighting Techniques

Shape Of Water (2017)

Side lighting — The actor is illuminated from the side, highlighting the contours of the face.the actor from the side and focuses on the contours of their face. It heightens contrast for a dramatic effect.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Bounce lighting — A reflector is used to bounce light from a strong light source towards the subject. In effect, it softens and spreads the light in a shot.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Motivated Lighting — Making use of studio lights, lanterns or other artificial lights to imitate a natural light source, such as the sun. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the light source behind the character mimics moonlight.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Practical Set Lighting — It refers to the use of existing light sources such as studio lights or lamps around a set to light the scene. This comes in handy when illuminating a wide portion of the set or when movement in longer takes is necessary. Practical lighting often makes logical sense in illuminating a constructed shot as we can see where the light is coming from. For instance, in this scene, light is evidently produced by the candles, which illuminate the entire shot including the subjects and the environment.

The Revenant (2015)

Natural Film lighting — Also known as ambient lighting, utilises the light already available at the location for the shot. It tends to be more reflective of the environment of the setting. The Revenant is an excellent example of how natural lighting from the sun sheds light onto the shot and brings attention to the environment’s characteristics.


Titanic (1997)

1. Warm Lighting

Definition: Creates red, yellow or orange tones.
Effect: Evokes a sense of romance, comfort, nostalgia, warmth, hope and happiness.
Genres: Often used in romance or rom- coms, teen dramas, and coming of age stories.

Lost in Translation (2003)

2. Cool Lighting

Definition: Creates blue, green or grey tones.
- Conveys the feeling of loneliness and coldness.
- Suggests a dull, gloomy and creepy atmosphere.
Genres: Sci-fi, horror and war films.

Passengers (2008)

3. White Lighting
Uses white light with no coloured tones
Effect: Mainly neutral and doesn’t evoke strong emotions. However, extreme use of white light be overwhelming.

La La Land (2016)

4. Coloured Lighting
Lighting is tinted with different colours.
Effect: Different light colours can set different moods. For instance, red reflects romance or danger whereas green insinuate villainy or illness.

Lighting for Characters

Apart from illuminating a shot and setting the mood, lighting also helps the audience get an idea of the characters and their emotions in a scene.

IT Chapter Two (2019)
  • Underlighting — Light shines from under the character’s face, creating a sinister and creepy effect.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
  • Backlighting — the light source is located behind the subject. Illuminating from the back of the subject creates a halo effect around the subjects head, making them looking angelic.

Lighting can also enhance an actor’s features.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
  • Kicker — backlighting on the subject’s temple to highlight chiseled cheekbone.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  • Eye light — the light source is usually placed on the camera so that is illuminates the front of the face creating a glamorous twinkle.

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Disclaimer: Any views and opinions expressed are personal and solely belong to the authors. They are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club organisation, company, individual or anyone or anything.




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