Lighting in Film Production

Topics: Incandescent light bulb, Light, Lighting Pages: 7 (1881 words) Published: July 31, 2012
Carlos Lawson


Faculty of Media

Introduction to Film Production

Year 1 Semester 1


Filmmaking is all about capturing light. A bright light draws the viewer’s eye. A scene can be lit by available light (the sun, moon or existing light sources) or using powerful and expensive artificial light. The way a scene is lit influences how the audience will react emotionally to your movie.

The angle and direction of light gives your audience clues about where and what time of day the scene is taking place. Painters have long understood that the quality of light in a scene can hide or reveal things and influences the viewer's reaction.

In feature films the lighting is a high priority because how well the movie is lit influences how the audience perceives the production values of the movie and therefore the quality of the movie. Badly lit images can do more to make a film look amateurish than any with the possible exception of bad sound.

In documentary films the light is given much less consideration because it often isn't possible to control the light and audiences are used to documentary movies having a "news footage" look. A feature filmmaker can choose to use documentary lighting to create a sense of realism.


A certain overall quantity of light is necessary to register the picture on film. However, the way in which the scene will be portrayed on the screen depends on the quantity and distribution of light. There are three distinct aspects to be considered:

• Whether the light source is “hard” or “soft”

• The angle of the “throw” relative to the camera position

• The colour of the light

A source can be described as hard or soft, depending on the type of shadows it creates. Light that travels directly from the filament of the bulb to the subject with only a lens in between will usually cause shadows with sharply defined edges. This is referred to as a “point” source. If the light is bounced off some diffusing reflecting surface or softened and spread out by passing through some translucent substance, the shadows will be weaker and less sharp. This is called a “broad” source. The diffusing surface acts as a multitude of small sources, all washing one another’s shadows.

A hard light, coming from a single small source such as the sun or a spotlight, creates a harsh appearance. They also create harsh shadows on the background as well as on the face and features of your actors. The prettiest actress can look homely in hard light.

Soft light, coming from a large area of lighting or many small lights, creates a soft, gentle or romantic look. It generally takes much more power to create the same amount of soft light compared to hard light. Many old films had to use hard lighting because the film was so insensitive to light.


It is possible to distinguish various stylizations, just as in the work of the great masters if painting. The three most pronounced styles used by cinematographers are high-key (such as in the paintings of Turner, Whistler and some of Degas), low-key (such as in the paintings of Rembrandt and Caravaggio) and graduated tonality (such as in the paintings of Ingres).

A high-key scene is the one that appears generally bright with few areas of underexposure. It is best achieved in cooperation with the art director as the sets and costumes should be in light tones. The lighting for a high-key effect will often employ much soft, diffused illuminated with relatively few shadows.

If, on the other hand, only a few areas of the frame are well lit and there are many deep shadows, the effect is low-key. There is a popular fallacy that to achieve a low-key effect one has merely to underexpose. The majority of low-key image is made up of dim or black areas.


➢ The key light is the main source of light for a given character while at a...
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