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The basics of film lighting

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When I started out as an aspiring DOP, I found it difficult to find general information on how various scenes should be lit for film. How should I light a room? How should I light a car? How should I light a forest? There wasn’t a how-to guide for all of these scenarios and I thought there had to be a way it should be done and I was just missing something. I had read about the method of three point lighting but thought it sounded far too basic for what I was looking for.

After reading a number of different text books, attending many courses, working on-set with very experienced cinematographers and two years worth of reading American Cinematographer magazine, I learnt the following key points that I think would have been very useful when I was starting out. Firstly, the good news is most lighting set-ups across various different scenes and locations are comprised of, or are an extension of the three point lighting method. It is that simple. Obviously there are huge productions that incorporate hundreds of lights per scene, but for most independent productions I have found this to be true. Secondly, generally you are aiming to emulate and amplify the way light falls in a room naturally – unless of course you are using the lights for a particular effect. Thirdly, there aren’t really any rules. If it looks good, then go with it! Finally, the best way to learn is to start experimenting. I definitely learnt the most by making mistakes, backtracking and figuring out where I went wrong. So don’t be afraid to throw yourself in the deep end.

A three point lighting set-up consists of a key light, fill light and back light also known as a “rim light” or “kicker”.

Key Light

The key light is used as the main source of light for the subject or scene. Generally it is a soft source, either daylight or tungsten (depending on the scene) used to emulate a main source of light I.E. the sun, the moon, a ceiling light, a lamp, etc. It can be placed in a range of positions horizontally from in-front to the side of your subject and vertically from above to eye level of your subject. Lights that make great key lights are Kino Flos, Soft boxes, HMI or Tungsten Fresnels with a diffusion trace frame and more.

Fill Light

The fill light is the secondary source of light, which is generally softer than the key light even up to 50%. Remember these points are general and will apply to most scenarios. There may be cases where you don’t use a fill light at all but it is generally used to balance the light from the key light so the subject doesn’t have dark shadows cast over them. It can be placed on the opposing side to the key light. Lights that make great key lights are the same as key lights but at a lower output.

Back Light

The back light shines on the subject from behind and is used to separate the subject from the background. It creates definition of subject and highlights contours. It can be placed anywhere behind the subject at a range of intensities. Generally but not strictly to one side. Lights that make great back lights are Kino Flos, Dedo Lights, HMI or Tungsten heads, which can also be shot through windows to emulate the sun or moon shining through.

A few extra pointers are:

Always keep some ND, diffusion, CTO and CTB lighting gel handy in various strengths. Dimmers or various light bulbs with different wattages for practical lights can be extremely helpful in controlling your mood. ND and Polarising filters are also essential aides in constructing the perfect lighting for your scene.

It is important to remember that as filmmakers we never stop learning. There will always be new technology, ideas and methods to adopt, so just go for it and start experimenting!