Cinematography: Understanding Lighting in Film

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.

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)
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.

Bruce Almighty (2003)
Skyfall (2012)

Other Lighting Techniques

Shape Of Water (2017)
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Revenant (2015)


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)
La La Land (2016)

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.
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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