Cinematic lighting techniques
Cinematic lighting techniques

Cinematic Lighting Techniques

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Lighting is the key difference between camera operators and cinematographers – learn to light, and you’re stepping into a new playing field, but it can be hard to know where to begin. We all spend time researching the newest camera and lenses, but rarely lights and methods on how best to use them.

It’s too dark, what to do

You’re a sony a7sii user, you can shoot at ISO 20,000 and not even worry about it, but then you shoot in S-LOG 3 at night  and the footage looks grainier than vintage DV tapes.

Improved ISO in mirrorless cameras has been a huge blessing for indie filmmakers over the last five years, but the reality is that on many top level films the ISO is rarely moved from the native ISO, 800 in the case of of many Arri, RED, Canon and Black Magic cameras. Raising the ISO can help you out, but there are ways to use lights to help you maintain the correct exposure as the sun drops.

The first method is to bounce a light directly into the ceiling. Bounce lights are great as they soften the harsh light that might come from Fresnel lights.

If you’re working on the cheap you can rent old red heads and the like for a very reasonable price as they are slowly being edged out of the industry by LED power, and whilst they are heavy, hot and their bulbs are renowned for blowing, they can be a very effective addition to your kit without breaking the bank.

Perhaps your light source is ok but part of the room is too dark, two other options you have is to use a silver or gold side reflector to redirect the light, or even use a mirror and effectively get two lights for the price of one. Any reflective surface can help increase exposure, but be wary as they can also spill light into unwanted areas – white walls are the bane of cinematographers.

Your light is too harsh

If you only have hard lights and you want to create a soft light effect, then you need to find ways of diffusing it. There’s a huge array of methods and tools for modifying lights, some of the most common terminology includes – bookmarks, bounce, softbox, grids (also known as honeycombs, egg crates), space lights, gels, snoots, cookies (cucoloris), flags (cutters), scrims and silks.

You can pick up softboxes and diffusers for a very reasonable price and they are well worth buying for the benefits they provide. Any type of material that can spread the light source before it reaches your subject will create softer light, even just some translucent cloth such as some silk curtains you can pick up from a hardware store will help.

However, the more you soften the light, the further it will spread, which is why flags and grids are so useful. Softboxes and diffusers allow you to spread the light source more evenly so it wraps around your actors face, whilst flags and grids effectively stop the light spilling onto the walls and backgrounds.

Westcott fast flags are nice to use and easy to transport, but they aren’t the cheapest at around £175-£250 (depending on retailer) so you can always use a black duvet cover taped to a stand or frame and it will achieve the same effect as a black cutter, just not quite as elegantly.

Flags come in different strengths of materials, but the solid black is a great place to start. Sometimes though even with diffusion the light will still be too harsh, so the next approach is to create a bounce or bookmark effect.

Rather than facing your light directly at your actor, if you aim your light at a piece of white card or wall, then it will bounce off and enter the space from a different angle with a reduced strength. This is a common effect when working with powerful lights in small scenes, or old lights that don’t have the ability to attach softboxes due to heat and accessory issues (such as redheads). If bouncing is still too much, then gaffers will create a bookmark, a technique where you add a diffuser like muslin in front of the bounce area, creating a book-like shape.

Creating daylight indoors

One of the most common mistakes people make is to try and replicate sunlight by placing a light inside the room…the sun isn’t sat on the couch. The placement of your light source in relation to your subject will completely change the shape of the shadows – sunlight is a hard light set at a distance, and it only gets into your house through windows.

Placing your light outside will create a much more natural look and often make that cinematic contrast far easier to achieve. You’ll need a hard light such as a red head, or if you own an aputure 120d and 300d then you can even buy a Fresnel adapter, an amazing bit of kit that gives you the versatility of a soft and hard light.

Combining the ceiling bounce and outdoor window methods, you can find a nice exposure with a natural looking light source and a cinematic quality. Just because the phrase ‘three point lighting’ is drilled into you at University doesn’t mean it’s the right approach for every occasion.

Of course there is the option of just using natural light coming through the window, and if you are happy to battle the inconsistency that clouds will cause then this is your cheapest option – simply use reflectors and black cloth to shape the light, adding negative fill to give you that cinematic contrast on the face all indie filmmakers love.

Creating evening dinner scenes

One of the other most useful set ups to master is the top down light, which can work great for evening dinner scenes, interrogation scenes, library study scenes, the list goes on! But why do filmmakers spend so much time and money replicating light fixtures that are already in the house, surely you could just turn on the room light and be done with it? Well you could, but it would probably look awful.

Cinematography is all about controlling the lighting, something that is hard to do using light fixtures that are already in your room as they are designed primarily to spill as much light into as many corners as possible.

To achieve a realistic look that has cinematic qualities, you want to remember two key rules – light the far side of the face, and diffusion diffusion diffusion. Lighting the camera side of the face is a rookie error we have all made, and yes it can be done well and look effective, but actually it is far easier to create a cinematic image by lighting the far side and leaving the camera side in shade. So how do you do this with a top down shot?

Place the light just behind the actors rather than directly above. If you are going for interrogation or something more stylised then you may wish to place it directly above or even slightly in front so it does spill more face on, but this image below is a great example of the impact light placement can make.

Breaking Bad – AMC

What makes these scenes so great is how the tables are illuminated whilst the backgrounds are dark. The way to achieve this is to flag off the light source, often done by placing some black cloth around the light, often referred to as skirting or snooting). Jem balls have roll down sides of black material to achieve this for you, and other tools such as aputure’s space light come with a very lightweight piece of black material for you to clip onto the softbox.

Other than interrogation scenes, a top down light is nearly always diffused, either using softboxes, muslin or basically anything you may have in your possession that will help soften the light.

Of course with all these things they involve a certain amount of hands or stands to hold them in place, but all can be found relatively cheaply if you’re happy to hunt. The one thing not to cheap out on is the stand for the overhead light as you will need a knuckle and boom arm to get the light in the right position, and almost certainly sandbags to weigh the stand down. Having a light fall down and ruin your scene or injure an actor is the last thing you want.


When all else fails you, when the bank account is empty and the lights are maxed out, using practical lights can save the day. Practical lights are lamps that you see in the shot, often used to light up a background and create depth or to place right next to your character on a desk to give that one small pool of light.

Pick up some cheap light bulbs of varying power in both bayonet and thread mounts, and you have the same level of control you’ve had elsewhere. Most lightbulbs come tungsten or daylight balanced, but if you are after a very specific look you can always add gels to any light to help balance the colour – there’s nothing worse than light sources all of slightly different shades of white and yellow (just be careful not to melt them onto the bulbs)!

Last words on cinematic lighting

When handling light, the key thing is not to rush. Lighting can be fragile, but also dangerous to both you and the evironment, and as such you should treat them with respect – use sandbags to make the stand sturdier, don’t place hot lights next to flammable materials and make sure your cable management is on point. You’re likely to be working in someone else’s space so make sure you are considering the floor before you drag your heavy light across their new floor, there’s no shame in asking someone to help you move a light.

On a recent shoot I had a light blow because I turned it on at the wall whilst the power on the unit was already on, so follow the path from the plug to your light when switching things on. For more lighting techniques follow Aputure and Cooke Optics on Youtube, both excellent channels offering lighting tutorials.

Aram Atkinson
Aram Atkinson
Aram is an award-winning writer, director and DOP. He specialises in commercials and high concept dramas.

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