Practical Lighting

What is Practical Lighting? [Complete Guide]

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You’ve probably heard various terms to describe lighting in film. Practical, motivated, and ambient, to name a few. However, each plays an important role in building a believable world within the camera frame.

The first step starts with practical lights, also known as practicals. In this article, we’re going to cover what practical lighting is, why it’s used, where you’ve seen it, and how to do it yourself.

Learning these essentials puts you on the fast track to become a better cinematographer. Sharpening your attention to detail will change the way you see a scene.

What is Practical Lighting?

Simply put, a practical is a light source appearing anywhere in the frame of your shot. It can be a key light for your subject while also being a part of your set. For example:

  • Flashlight
  • Chandelier
  • Fireplace
  • Stage lights
  • Neon Signs
  • String lights
  • Dance club floor lights

Practicals can also guide the story, add visual appeal, or add depth between the foreground and background. 

Why Use Practical Lighting?

In short, to create a sense of realism. A scene is more realistic when a light source has a reason to be there. The main goal is to draw the viewer in without realizing it. In turn, they see themselves as the character participating in the story.

Main Reasons To Use Practical Lighting in Film

  • Justify key light source (AKA motivated lighting)
  • Provide a sense of realism to the audience
  • Support the mood of the scene
  • Create visual appeal in the frame
  • Guide a narrative in the story
  • Create depth between foreground and background
  • Illuminate the texture of an environment
  • To contrast the color temperature

On a side note, try to avoid lighting anything in your scene that looks artificial. This can spark unwanted questioning of the story.

Other Types of Practical Light

Other lighting terms that go hand in hand include motivated and ambient. It’s helpful to understand the differences before diving in.

Motivated LightingAmbient Light
Motivated lighting is used to enhance a practical light. For example, when practical lighting does not have enough output to light the subject, a motivated light is brought in. They provide a polished look and are often off-screen.Ambient light is any light that wasn’t brought to set. It can also be remembered as natural or available light.

Practical Lighting Examples

To understand practical lighting further, take some time to review a few of your favorite films. Freeze frame scenes and pick out the practicals.

This exercise helps you identify the natural path of light. In addition, collecting references can help guide your creative decisions until you establish a look of your own. Here are a few quick examples.

Buried (2010)

In the 2010 movie Buried Ryan Reynolds was lit for the entire scene with a just lighter and a phone. It shows how you can create a sense of tension and claustrophobia using effective practical lighting.

Drive (2011)

In the opening scene of Drive, practicals can be seen almost everywhere. First, you see a table lamp highlighting a complex driving plan. Next, you see the scorpion jacket glowing from the floor lamp.

This gives the viewer insight into the nature of the main character. Visual details are embedded in this movie. It’s definitely worth a deeper look.

A Star is Born (2018)

Another example with frequent uses of practicals is A Star is Born. Stage lighting appears clearly in the frame in many scenes. Another practical used includes camera flashes from the paparazzi.

The Social Network (2010)

Here’s an example from the Social Network’s club scene. Notice the practical lit from the bottom side of the table between the two characters. Its color strobes are naturally appropriate for the environment.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick is well known for using practical lighting in film. In this Eye’s Wide Shut Trailer, notice that the majority of scenes are covered with them.

Neon Demon (2016)

In the art-house film Neon Demon, you can see how practicals are used to create depth in the casting Scene. Tube LED lights were used in many ways in the frame throughout the film.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

One director worth mentioning is Rodger Deakins. He’s a big advocate for practicals. As seen in Blade Runner 2049, most scenes are flooded with cityscapes, street neons, headlights, explosions, and vivid holograms. The colorful arrays are plentiful and immersive.

How to Use Practical Lighting in Film

There are endless ways to use practical lights, but you need to get started somewhere.

First off, ask yourself a few simple questions. Is the light naturally positioned? Where is it directing attention and what is it trying to tell the viewer?

Secondly, using low key vs. high key allows for the opportunity to light up the shadows.

Next, find practicals appropriate for the scene. For instance, you wouldn’t use neons for an elegant dinner setting.

Important to note, the eyes usually go to the brightest part of the frame. You want practicals to support the story but not overwhelm the scene. Avoid competing or clashing light sources.

Finally, when motivating light, always remember to match the color temperature and quality of the light, whether it’s hard or soft.

Practical Lighting Step-by-Step Guide

Want to build a cinematic look using practical lighting in your own films? follow the 6 simple steps below.

  1. Establish the narrative look and feel of the story
  2. Visit the set and review what you have to work with
  3. Utilize or eliminate ambient light (lights you did not bring to set)
  4. Source practicals and test in the scene
  5. Decide if you need motivating light to supplement the practicals
  6. Test blocking to make sure your practicals provide enough coverage

Additionally, using string lights as practicals in the background is an effective tool. With a narrow depth of field, create a stunning bokeh effect. This is a cheap and easy way to elevate production value.

A budget-friendly way to highlight a wall-mounted fixture or a cabinet underbelly is to gaffer tape a phone with its flashlight on.

In the end, practical lights are used to create motivated light. Taking this step can upgrade the scene to a polished cinematic look.

Want to learn a few more tips? Here’s a quick video from cinematographer Brady Bessette.

Essential Practical Lighting Equipment

Here is some basic kit to get you started and light up your scene.

  • Aputure Accent B7c bulbs
  • Mini LEDS
  • Tube LEDS
  • Tungsten & white bulbs
  • Opaque or translucent lampshades
  • Expendables, ie. Parchment paper, muslins, CTO gels

Please note, cheaper practicals can have a very strong color cast. In addition, they can be higher intensity from a fixed output. In turn, overexposing areas of the shot.

However, there’s a great solution to this issue, they’re called Apputure Accent B7c bulbs. The E26/27 lamp socket screw connector makes it compatible with a wide variety of household lamp fixtures.

They are dimmable, RGB, and battery-powered. All of which can be adjusted from behind the camera monitor. Nowadays, it’s something every filmmaker should have in their kit.

Wrapping Up

In short, there are countless ways to use practicals, but we advise keeping it very simple to start.

Use practicals as key lights, to spark visual interest, and to provide depth and separation. Right away, your scenes will be more believable and dynamic.

In addition, watch your favorite films and replicate their styles until you discover your own. The more you practice with practicals, the faster you’ll become a skilled effective cinematographer.

Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus is a freelance director, cinematographer, and video editor based in Brooklyn. He has a diverse background in film production working with companies like ABC, CBS, Jeep, Harley Davidson, and Levi's. His passion is storytelling. Follow him on Linkedin.
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