Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Tip #43: Simple and effective lighting techniques

By Dan Parkes (Director)

Film is all about 'painting with light', so understanding these simple starting tips can really help your film look great.

1. Key light. Your first objective is to establish where your key light is coming from. The key light is the brightest light source. Outdoors this would be the sun. Inside it might be a window, or a 'practical' such as a desk lamp or candle. Once you have established the source of the key light you will then likely have to create it or possibly increase it for effect. In some cases you can completely invent the source of the key light such as when filming on a set. But you have to remember for continuity where it is, especially when shooting reversals or different angles.

2. Ambient or fill light. Once you have your key light sorted the next step is to create ambient light. For example, for an interior of someone standing by a window, the key light would be the sunlight coming in through the window. But you will also need some interior light to illuminate the other side of the person. The trick is to keep this as reduced as possible so that it does not fight with the key light. Often bouncing it off white card or a reflector can ensure it is a more natural fill light.

3. Rim or back light. To help separate a subject from the background a good device is to use rim or back light which can be achieved by placing a light directly behind (but obviously concealed) the subject with the light towards the camera but directed onto the subject. The effect is a line of light around the profile of the person that separates them from the background.

Above: When the key light, ambient/fill light
and back light are combined it can create
what is known as a '3 point light setup' which is
ideal but not always practical for every scene.

4. Colour temperature. You will notice that your lights probably came with blue and orange plastic sheets or 'gels'. This is to change the colour temperature of the lights. Light from the sun is blue (5600K or "daylight") while light from a standard bulb is orange (3200K or "tungsten"). The Arri fresnels we used are tungsten lamps so if we wanted to use them to create sunlight coming through a window for example we would then put the blue plastic gel over them. If you have a light that is daylight-balanced then you may need to use the orange gel to create tungsten for interior lighting.

5. Diffusion. Most lights cast a harsh light or create harsh shadows but if you need to soften it, especially if the light is falling onto someone's face, then you can use diffusion paper that likely came with the lights if you hired them.

6. Practicals. You can use practicals such as wall lights and desk lamps to help light a scene and make it realistic. If you need them to cast more light then check what bulbs they use and their wattage and see if you can safely change them for something brighter.

7. Reflector/bounce can help if you find your are running out of lights or the light is too harsh.

Above: Lighting the restaurant pianist,
with lots of diffusion on the lamps.

8. ND -neutral density sheets are good for reducing light, and not necessarily always from an actual light source. For example, a common problem is that sunlight coming through a window is too bright and becomes blown out, reducing everything else inside into darkness if you try to compensate for it with the camera. A solution is to put an ND on the outside of the window that brings the light level down to balance better with your interior lighting, rather than trying to match the exterior light levels inside.

9. Don't overlight a scene. It is sometimes better to use shadows to your advantage and this often means the placing of one or two simple lights in the right place, rather than trying to light the whole area.

Any other tips and corrections etc feel free to comment below.


  1. Dan,

    Those gels are orange, not yellow. Ever heard the term CTO? It's 'three point lighting', not three way. It's fresnel, not fresnal.

    The advice above is rather like, 'how to boil an egg'. If you want a decent omelette, get in a DP!

  2. " if the light is falling onto someone's face, then you can use diffusion paper "

    NO! Paper will catch fire!

  3. Thanks 'anonymous' for the corrections. I have changed the 'yellow' to 'orange' (the gels I have are so faded they seem more like yellow!) and also the spelling of 'three-point lighting' and 'fresnels.' I appreciate the corrections, keep them coming!

    The blog pitches itself as 'simple starting tips' so if someone is cooking for the first time I think 'boiling an egg' rather than attempting an 'omelette' is obviously preferable. You are of course right -if "you want a decent omelette, get in a DP!" that is logical. But that is not what this blog is about. Its about simple lighting techniques that are used by both beginner DPs and experienced DPs. The blog is not only for DPs but for everyone -an understanding of the importance of what a DP does is essential for good communication and creative on set options.

  4. Diffusion "paper" is an expression I have heard before -take a look at this link: http://www.dvinfo.net/forum/archive/index.php/t-6063.html

    An interesting side tip in that above link...you can also use oven proof cooking paper instead... and if the lighting doesn't turn out then you can bake muffins! Do love all these appropriate cooking references...

  5. Congratulations on producing your show and the blog is a great way to attract attention to the project. Good luck,

  6. Dan,

    This blog is great and as you titled its about simple and effective techniques but so many of us still make that classic mistake of over-lighting in tiny rooms cause want to use the whole power of hired in lights available - which looks effectively good to a client.

    I will be interested to see if you can touch on a subject of electricity as how much can go through one circuit of 240V and what happens when you don't unwind the whole length of the cable roll of a blond or any 2K light... I have seen a few surprised faces on different shoot, when work experience spark commented: oh, power cut, how did that happen?



  7. Thanks Lucas -so true about over-lighting due to wanting to use every light hired/available! I am sure we have all been guitly of that at some point. As no.9 above says, it often just takes one well placed light to do the job.

    Regarding electricity -a very good point. I remember seeing in film school what happens if you put a high powered light on an unwound reel -not just a power cut, but a lovely sticky mess! Also applies to any of those wound extension leads we may use on set -they should all be fully extended before any load is put on them, then gaffer taped down. Electricity is quite a topic in itself, along with the related topic of health and safety!

  8. Hi Dan-
    If you'd like to learn more about lighting, get in touch.

    I'm a patient, supportive teacher, and I love giving back to the community what I was freely given.


  9. Thanks Barry, very kind of you. I am sure I am not the only one who would like to take up the offer, as one of the great aspects of film production is that we are always learning something new.