What is flat lighting? You may have heard the term applied to a sitcom or used derisively in a critique of a film’s cinematography, but what does it actually mean? We’ll be providing a definition for flat lighting, explaining the causes and how to avoid it, and detailing when and why flat lighting might actually be the best way to light a scene. 

What is Flat Lighting 

Let’s start with a flat lighting definition

Before we jump into flat lighting, it can help to have a working understanding of basic film lighting techniques including the three-point lighting setup. And, if you come across any other unfamiliar terminology, our ultimate guide to cinematography terms is a great resource for looking up definitions.


What is flat lighting?

Flat lighting is a style of even lighting that produces very little depth and contrast. Flat lighting is generally not considered a good thing but there are reasons why it may be preferable in a specific context. A scene can wind up with flat light intentionally or by accident. The term “flat lighting” is used in both photography and film/video.

Flat Lighting Сharacteristics:

  • Usually considered a negative
  • Can be purposeful of incidental
  • Applies to film/video and still photography

Flat Light Photography

When to use flat lighting

Even though flat lighting lacks contrast and is usually considered a bad thing, there is a time and a place where it makes sense to use it. TV programs, especially those taped in front of a live studio audience, are the productions most commonly associated with this type of lighting. 

News programs, infomercials, and reality shows commonly make use of flat lighting as well. Sitcoms and soap operas are practically synonymous with this style of lighting. While flat lighting would typically be considered unacceptable in a film, it is expected and accepted in a sitcom, soap opera, or reality show.

Vox explains why so many sitcoms look the same  •  Flat lighting examples

The main benefit of this type of lighting is that it creates a standard, unified look for an entire set. This eliminates the need to adjust lighting between every setup like what would happen on a film.

This can save a great deal of time, which is extremely valuable when shooting on the tight schedules of sitcoms and soap operas. This method can also be valuable when trying to make a film with a micro-budget.

Covering an entire set with flat lighting can also reduce or eliminate the need for subjects to stick to precise lighting marks. This is especially useful in unscripted content like reality TV where the subjects are free to move around an area as they see fit. Blocking and staging becomes far less restricted when using this type of lighting.

One cause of flat lighting that can arise by accident or necessity is through a camera flash. If you take a photograph with your camera’s flash on, there is a decent chance that the resulting image will look flat.

Beginners guide to flash photography  •  Photography flat light

While it is certainly possible to capture high-quality photographs using a flash, it is likely best to use external lighting sources whenever possible.

The same applies to any bright light mounted on a camera such as you might find on an ENG camera.

Using flat lighting for flawless skin  •  What is flat light

Flat lighting can also be used for a slight beautifying effect, especially in still photography. It can smooth out a subject’s skin to a degree, lessening the visibility of things like wrinkles or blemishes. This is done in the same vein as the old soft-focus photography beautifying technique.

Flat Lighting Examples

When to avoid flat light

There are far more situations and reasons to avoid flat lighting than there are to go for it. When just beginning to learn different lighting techniques and styles, you may find your images looking flat purely by accident.

Over time, as you continue to develop your knowledge of lighting and cinematography, your images will begin looking more dynamic and dramatic. Here's venerated DP Roger Deakins on how he approaches lighting.

Learning to light with Roger Deakins  •  Subscribe on YouTube

If you want your footage to look cinematic, then flat lighting should be avoided at all costs. There are many different film lighting techniques that will produce dynamic results, and flat light is not one of them.

Focus on depth and contrast. Make use of rim lights, fill lights, and key lights. And, study the lighting techniques as used by the best cinematographers.

Nailing the cinematic look  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Unless you’re shooting a sitcom, a soap opera, a reality show, or you need to shoot extremely quickly with minimal time between setups, then it is best to avoid flat lighting whenever possible.


The Basics of Film Lighting

You now know exactly what flat lighting is, when to use it, and when to avoid it. But, there are many other types and styles of lighting. Continue your journey into film lighting styles by learning about the basics of film lighting. Learn about the characteristics of light, how to manipulate light, and pick up on a number of tips from the great Roger Deakins.

Up Next: Film Lighting Basics →
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