Shooting projects on a budget can mean limitations on your gear. So how can you maintain a “cinematic” look without a cube truck full of lighting equipment?

In today’s post, we’ll examine what exactly it means to have a cinematic look. Then we’ll break down several lighting techniques that are achievable on any budget.

Although cinematic lighting is predicated on creative interpretation, these principles of film lighting can form the basis of your creative choices.

To show this, we’ve taken several examples of how the best DP’s (directors of photography) create specific cinematic effects with thoughtful lighting setups of their own.

Prepare to be inspired!

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Bridge of Spies

DP Janusz Kiminski and his lighting equipment surround the set of Bridge of Spies

Basic lighting: the three-point lighting setup

The most basic lighting in film is the three-point lighting setup. Lighting from three directions shapes your subject and sets them apart from their background.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Amelie

Film lighting basics: Amelie (2001), shows cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel using the three-point lighting setup.

To achieve this, your film lighting equipment needs to face your subject from three directions: front, back and side (generally).

Key light

The key light is the light that registers most prominently in your frame. So, when you look at the image of Amelie above, you’ll see that the screen-right portion of her face is brightest. That’s the key light.

Fill lights

Quite simply, fill lights fill in the shadows of your frame. You’ll notice that the screen-left portion of Amelie’s face is in shadow, but with her features still plainly visible. That is a fill light at work.

Back light

The back light gives an edge light to the rear portion of your subject. Often, the backlight shoots down from a higher angle. You can see that Amelie has a light contour along her shoulders and the nape of her neck.

You’ll generally want to flank your camera with your key and fill lights, spaced about 60 degrees on an axis from your camera.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - StudioBinder

Basic lighting techniques: Back, Key, and Fill lighting arranged around a camera.

The cinematic types of lighting in film

Every cinematographer is an artist who makes creative decisions on how to guide the viewer’s eye within the frame using lighting equipment. Their applications are broad, but their creative interpretation is what makes their lighting cinematic (or not).

Aperture recently published a helpful guide that shows examples of the kinds of decisions cinematographers make everyday. They include:

  • Which props and scene elements should be emphasized
  • Whose perspective we’re seeing the scene through, and how much light they should be able to see
  • How characters differ from one another in a frame
  • Which emotions are being expressed through harshness of light, or its color

Each of these decisions are then realized technically by planning and executing lighting setups to create the desired effect. But the cinematographer must dream up what these effects will be before setting up any lighting equipment.

Soft film lighting

When talking about how a scene should feel emotionally, one thing that is referenced by cinematographers frequently is how hard or soft the lighting should be.

The hardness or softness of light concerns how large a light source is, and how it affects shadows on your subject.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Restless

Soft film lighting in a day exterior from Harris Savides’ cinematography in Restless

Hire key light

This is an effect created by heightening the key light and using fill lights generously. This keeps the lighting bright and balanced in your frame, creating almost no shadow.  This balances the lighting from object to object in your frame -- which is known as your lighting ratio.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - The Hobbit

High key film lighting in The Hobbit

Diffused overhead lighting

You can soften a light source with diffusion materials like gels or Chinese lanterns to reduce shadows. This is great for conversation close-ups.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - The Quiet

A Chinese lantern lights this close-up in The Quiet. Cinematography by M. David Mullen.

Hard film lighting

Conversely, smaller light sources, including bright sunlight, will heighten the shadows on your subject. Conservatively, this should be avoided. But it can also create dramatic effects, as was popularized in the classic film noirs, which featured suspicious and volatile characters.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Blade Runner

Hard lighting creates harsh shadows in Blade Runner's film lighting.

Kicker light with soft fill

In this effect, the back light hits the side of your subject’s face. It can create an angelic rim of light, while a very soft fill light keeps the face gently illuminated.

Film Lighting Techniques - Northfork Angel Scene

An angel-to-be receives an angelic kicker light in Northfork. Cinematography by M. David Mullen.

Low key light

Low key lighting refers to minimizing, or eliminating, the fill light your shot so that it is intentionally shadowy. This can create dramatic, suspicious, or even scary effects.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Fight Club

​Among the types of lighting in film, low key lighting is great for extracting mystery from the shot.

Motivated lighting

When cinematographers light a set, they always ask themselves where, within the scene, the light comes from. 

They might, for example, choose to take the practical lights that are already in a location and elevate their effect. This is motivated lighting.

Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins is known for the motivated lighting choices. Consider this shot from his work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:

Donuts.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Jesse James

Motivated lighting from carried lanterns in The Assassination of Jesse James

As you can see, the lighting in this scene is motivated by the lanterns carried by the actors. When motivated lighting is done right, the audience is unaware of the artifice at work.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Jesse James 2

Lanterns create motivated light sources that sell the lighting choices in The Assassination of Jesse James.

Practical set lighting

Film Lighting Techniques - The Quiet Dinner Table

A practical overhead bulb lights the subjects in this wide shot from The Quiet, cinematography by M. David Mullen

Often times, using existing lamps and light sockets around the set can be used to light a scene. This is referred to as practical lighting, and is particularly useful when you need to reveal wide portions of the set, or move around it in longer takes.

This was the case in the diner scene in Moonlight. In an interview for TIFF Originals, DP James Laxton spoke about how he used practical set lighting to keep his location visible in wide frames.

In essence, he swapped out the bulbs in the existing light sources around the diner to make them stronger. Since the scene reveals wide portions of their location, he relied on the practical sources, with some of LED light mattes brought in as well for additional soft, balanced light.

Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - Moonlight

Practical lighting techniques at work in James Laxton’s cinematography in Moonlight

Natural film lighting

Natural film lighting refers to using and modifying the light that is already available to you at your location.

Before you shoot, you can take your camera to the location to see how well the natural light holds up. You can decide from there how what additional lights you might need, or how you might adjust the light. For example, you can use bounce boards for reflecting the light, or black flags for blocking it out.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki maximized natural film lighting on Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant. His interview with GoldDerby is a wonderful primer on finding and controlling available light in outdoor shooting locations.
Film Lighting Techniques - 3-Point Lighting - The Revenant

Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar-winning cinematography in The Revenant created beautiful imagery with natural film lighting.

For example, he speaks about using Magic Hour, or the soft light created by the sun at the end of the day, for specific moments. And, further, he talks about how the selection of locations, and how they appear at different times of the day, created appropriate moods for the shoot. 

It required a great deal of flexibility and preparation, but the results are stunning. 

The set lighting technician's handbook and other good reads

Trade books can get you more comfortable with cinematography tools, common problem solving practices, and a deeper sense of how to make your vision actionable. 

Here are a few that can be your lifesaver during pre-production and production:

Set Lighting Technician's Handbook: Film Lighting Equipment, Practice, and Electrical Distribution

This guide puts you in the trenches of assembling lighting gear, with industry-standard techniques and hints to keep you sane during production.

Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics

This book takes you through the theory of creating visual imagery and how to apply them in modern production settings.

The Bare Bones Camera Course For Film and Video

A straightforward, affordable, and easy-to-understand guide to lighting and cinematography. It is a slim volume, but extremely thorough.

The Little Black Book of Lighting For Film and Video

Kino Flo is an industry standard light manufacturer who host this free film lighting techniques PDF on their website. Naturally, it is to be used in conjunction with their own equipment. But it takes you through many universal lighting tips and tricks for broadcast, documentaries and more.

Wrapping up

Like all aesthetic principles, lighting choices have highly individualistic interpretations, based on the DP or director. 

These techniques are purely meant to maximize cues that can create evocative imagery.

For further reading, read about out how cinematography techniques, beyond lighting, that can enhance your storytelling.

And, as always, be sure to let us know in the comments which techniques have worked well for your own shoots, and any we may have missed!

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