Lighting is a key, yet often overlooked, part of filmmaking. We use it to enhance the shot by supporting the story’s mood and atmosphere. Without the correct lighting, however, the shot and scene can be ruined.

Camera screen shows an actor who is lit with hard light.
Camera screen shows an actor who is lit with hard light. (Credit iStock)

The best way to understand how to light a shot is with what we call ‘three-point lighting’. This means lighting your subject with three lights:

  • A key light (main light source).
  • A fill light (placed on the opposite side of the camera to the key, but in front of the subject).
  • A backlight (light behind the subject).

The key light gives your subject the initial light to illuminate them, the fill light will fill in the shadows being cast by the key light, and the backlight will give your subject a faint glow, helping to separate them from the background.

Once you have set up your initial three-point light, you can modify them to create many different lighting effects.

Height of your light

Two halogen spotlights in a studio.
Two halogen spotlights in a studio. (Credit iStock)

Your lights need to be high and angled down onto your subject – we are used to seeing light from above, for example, lighting in your home/office or the from the sun.

If you would like to create a more eerie look, you can lower your key light to have it illuminating your subject from below. This seems off-putting to the audience as it’s something the human brain doesn’t often see.

Hard and Soft light

Most lighting tends to be a hard light, but you can soften them up in a few different ways.

The easiest way to soften a light is to put a diffusion gel over the light, which will soften up the light source and give the shadows a slight fade on their edge. The higher the diffusion grade, the softer the light will become. A good example of soft light would be in romantic films; the soft light can make subjects look more attractive.

Hard lights are a more direct light source; this would tend to be more from tungsten and HMI bulbs than LED lights.

A hard light can make the subject seem menacing and threatening and be used to add tension to your scene. The shadows cast by a hard light source have an abrupt cut off on the edge of a shadow. You might see this in drama films when the director wants the audience to feel tension.

Comparison view of a person with hard light and soft light. (Credit iStock)

Light Intensity/High and Low-key contract

By brightening and dimming a light’s intensity, you can change the mood of the scene. If the light doesn’t have a dimmer, you can achieve this by moving the light closer or further away from the subject, although it will change the size and angle of the shadows.

Changing the intensity of lights creates different looks called high and low-key contrast. This is the difference between the lit part of your subject and the shadows.

A high-key contrast has little difference in light level between the bright side and the darker side of your subject. Another way of saying this is the shadow is faint. A low-key contract has a bigger difference between the bright side and dark side of your subject, meaning the shadows are darker and more visible.

You may want to use low-key contrast lighting to create tension. For example, In horror films someone may have shadows over half their face as they hide from a killer, or in an interrogation scene a subject would be brightly lit but the background is dark.

If you would like to learn more about lighting and the film making process then you can enrol onto the Digital Learning Film School course on Blackboard. Alternative you can watch our DL Top Tips videos to learn further film tips.

What is three-point lighting?

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