Red Rock Entertainment: Five secrets to great lighting

6 minutes



It is light that allows us to see and differentiate colours. Light in the film industry lets the viewers see the idea lying behind the film. The quality and type of light chosen creates the proper angle that deepens the emotions and sharpens the feelings during the viewing. Learn how light works and how to use it to your advantage.

Lighting is the indispensable part of cinematography, and yet it still can’t be described to its fullest. This area of the filmmaking industry has infinite arrangements of set-ups. Regardless if you make an effort to set the light or just use whatever is on your plate, it’s still light that does have an effect on your film.

Before you rush into learning the basic techniques of film lightning, producers from Red Rock Entertainment (a British film investment company) remind that there is no right way to employ lighting design in film. Every single scene can be lit in a variety of different ways by different cinematographers; every alternative would have its own mood and impact on the viewers. So below you will learn about five basic lightning techniques as well as additional tricks that can help you create the right setting for your film.

Key light
A key light is the main light of the scene, frequently it’s the strongest direct light source of the whole scene. Lightning experts would primarily set up this light before anything else.

In terms of using key light for your film, you have to remember that key light and camera should never be placed together because you would simply get overexposure in the frame. Besides that, the light would be flat and featureless.

Fill light
Key light tends to create shadows on the actors’ faces that destroy the scenes, especially if the scene is about a kiss or some tender moment. For this reason, fill light is used; its main purpose is to illuminate the shadows created by the key light. In most cases, fill light is less powerful than the key light and they are placed on the opposite sides.

As fill light is used to remove shadows, it should be soft and as close to the camera as possible. Should you lack another lightning source, you can simply use a reflector to create a fill light (this is the technique mostly used in photo studios for food commercials).

Fill light is essential for all kinds of films, but especially for light comedies like Borat (2006) by Sacha Baron Cohen or films filled with close-up dialogues like The Comedian’s Guide to Survival (2016) by the Red Rock Entertainment team.

A backlight is the one that lights up an actor or an object from behind. For most films the lightning source will be placed higher than the object, however, for horrors and thrillers backlight is placed directly behind the actor for a counter light effect. For instance, Let the Right One In (2008) by the Metropolitan Filmexport is filled with backlight scenes.

If you need to make a silhouette for the film, remember that both key and fill light should be removed to reach the effect. In case your goal of using backlight is not a horror film but a romantic comedy or a beautiful sunset scene, then remember about the sun; you can use it as your backlight for a perfect shot.

The three types of light, namely key, fill, and backlight make up a three-point lighting setup. This is the most basic lightning strategy used on most film sets in the world. Watch this tutorial, to learn more about this lightning scheme.

Sidelight comes parallel to the actor and it’s ideal for dramatic scenes and chiaroscuro lighting. The latter lightning is common for the film noir period of the film.

Sidelight is used for revealing texture in the frame. Once you decide to use sidelight in your film, ensure that you use a very low ratio of sidelight and fill; Red Rock Entertainment team explains that the ratio for sidelight should be 1:8 which means that sidelight should be eight times stronger than the fill light.

Practical light
Practical light comes from the scene itself, namely from the props used in the frame. The examples of the practical light are lamps, fires, candles, phones, etc. Martin Scorsese in his Goodfellas (1990) employed practical light at its most to increase illumination of each scene.

Directors planning to use the practical light a lot are advised to get a lightning expert with a dimmer on set to ensure that the bulbs have the required level of light diffusion. However, keep in mind that not always can practical light (such as a candle or just one-bulb lamp for a theatre setting) be enough for a scene and that additional light sources can be required. Learn about the employment of practical light in your scenes from a tutorial.

Besides the traditional techniques in film lightning, there are also its aspects that are crucial for filmmakers. The following part of the article is dedicated to the difference between low and high key, soft and hard lightning techniques.

Soft vs. hard light
Soft light in the frame can be created by means of the light source size and not its placement. To get the effect of soft light a large light source is required; besides the size, the light should be diffused with either a light fixture or a diffusion sheet. In this case, the light will be soft with almost no or very mild shadows. To see what soft light means, check the new film by Red Rock Entertainment The Laureate (2019) or the well-known Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) in the moments of the hobbits’ homeland as well as elves habitat.

Hard light, on the contrary, adds harsh and sharp shadows to the picture. In most cases, hard light is unwanted, yet received from the midday sun or a small lighting source. There will be no example of hard light here because it is the kind of light you should be avoiding in your filmmaking.

High vs. low-key
High key lighting technique is frequently used together with soft light with lots of fill light to receive a bright and shadowless picture. It’s a classic lighting technique that dates back to the classic Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s. Today it’s mostly used for sitcoms, cosmetic commercials, and music videos. In modern films it’s less common, yet the best example of it comes from Mr. Nobody (2009) and the white room frames. High key light is produced from frontal lighting to overexposure, and so hide, particular parts of the picture.

Low key lighting offers dark images with more shadows than light. It’s accompanied by the lack of fill light. Low key is common for negative characters or dark thought of the characters in a film.  Low key light makes films more dramatic and is a frequent companion of a hard light source.

Now you’re armed with the theory of film light techniques, yet it’s practice that makes you a professional in this field. Take several light sources, a diffuser, a couple of usual lamps and a camera to understand how these light types look in the frame and how you can use each of them to your advantage.

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