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4 Key Cinematic Lighting Techniques You Need To Know

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

Lighting is key. Pun totally intended. Don't worry, the rest of this won't be that cheesy. I do think, however, that lighting is serious business, and knowing lighting concepts is far more important than having the latest and greatest of lighting equipment. Gear is great, don't get me wrong, but it can never substitute the principles of lighting.
In this post, I want to focus on 4 principles that are sure to elevate all of your lighting experiences. They are: quantity, direction, quality and color.
Let's dive in.

When you prepare to light your scene, you need to know exactly how each light is adding to your framing. You must see purpose to each light you use in your scene. Amateur filmmakers might spill light all over their scene. They may look at their camera and say, "it looks well lit to me." There is a difference, however, in being well lit, and being over lit. Turning on a bunch of lights is not how you get professional-looking images. In order to create the best images possible, you must be able to control every light source in your scene.

First things first, make it dark. If you want to clearly see the impact of each light, then you need to black out windows and other light sources. Any light leaking into the frame may impact your image on a number of levels, from color mixing to overexposure. Eliminating all light sources except for the one that you’re working on will give you the most control over the effect of that light on your subject.
Second, always use a stand-in. If you are trying to light a subject, you obviously need to see how the light falls on them. Use someone who is a close match to height, skin tone and hair style if possible.
Now that your set is sufficiently dark and your stand-in is in place, you can begin lighting your set by selecting your key light. The first question you should ask is, how much light do we need?

Quantity of light - it matters

The quantity of light refers to how much light your source creates. Typically the output of the light source is the first decision made when selecting a light. Choosing the quantity of light depends on many factors. How far is the light from the subject? What is the mood of the scene? What's the complexion of your subject? Answering these questions ahead of time will really help you determine how much light you need. Other factors include the type of camera you're using. Is it a full sensor, a cropped sensor, one that is sensitive even in low light, or one that requires more for the sensor to be happy? You need to know all these things going in as that makes a difference in choosing lighting. Another is the size of the space you're in. The depth of that room/ space can make a difference in how much light you even can use. Remember, each light source needs to have purpose, and there's hardly every a situation where throwing light all over a room a desired thing.
Key Light: This is the primary light used to illuminate your scene or subject. For this light, I like to use a light that's equivalent to a 1K fresnel. You need power from this light as you will be adding a great deal of diffusion and later direction to it. If your preference is a LED panel, use one that has at least 1000 LED diodes.

Fill Light: This is the secondary light used to illuminate the shadows created by your key light. If I'm using a fresnel, I'm wanting to choose something around the 600 watt rating. If I'm using a LED panel, I Amy use the same size as my mey, simply dialed back by about half, or even more.

Back Light (Hair Light): This is also a secondary light to your key light, and its primary purpose is to add an additional perspective by illuminating and isolating the subject from the background in your frame. A 300 watt fresnel, or a smaller LED panel will work great here. In the past, smaller lights would be used as the back light, but this often created a more straight beam of light on that back of heads or shoulders of your subject. These days, the preferred style is to keep the light larger, and highly diffused to give a very soft fall off across the shoulders and head.

Once you have selected the quantity of light you will use, its time to select the angle at which the light hits your subject.


The direction of your light on your subject is very important. Let's talk about your key light. It's the primary light for you to consider on your subject. If you put it directly in front of your subject, you'll end up with a "well lit subject." That's not what you want, however. You want shadows, and the ability to shape the light around your subject's face. Try putting your key light about 45 degrees off the side of your frame where the subject will be looking. Look at their eyes and ensure both eyes are being light well.
Your fill light should be on the other side of your key light filling in some of the shadows created by your fill light. Your back light/hair light should be behind your subject, but on the opposite side of your key. This will give you a well balanced, yet very cinematic style to your lighting design. See diagram below.


What is quality of light?

When we talk about light quality, we are really talking about the kinds of shadows that a light source creates. Hard lighting in film, also referred to as specular light, is made of parallel rays of light. The hard light creates harsh falloff from areas of light to dark.
A good, natural example of hard light is the mid-day sun. The sun creates specular light with distinct shadows. Hard light in film can create high contrast, punchy images. Because hard light can be directed and shaped more easily, it is also commonly used for backlighting in film.

Soft lighting in film, on the other hand, falls off in a slow gradation from lighter areas to darker ones. Soft light fills a surface or subject more evenly than hard light. Soft light in film is often used to fill, or to create flattering images of the talent’s face. This is certainly the goal when filming a scene or an interview with a female.
If you're really trying to get your scene to fell so much more cinematic, more professional and have a distinction between typical corporate books and something more Prestine, softening your lights on purpose, and then blocking or flagging the effects of the light to only be on your subject will make a huge difference for you.
The example below shows a very soft key light with a. very soft fall off on his face. Notice the hair light. that too is very soft, though subdued.

Color in film lighting

The final adjustment to make to your lighting setup should be color adjustment. With some of the best RGB LED lights you will be able to go through the quantity, direction, and quality steps without needing to wait for color adjustment. But with lights that require color gels or other modifiers, it is good practice to have your light source selected and situated before adding the gels or modifications.
When we talk about color light there are really two conversations to be had: temperature balance and creative color. Color temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of a light as read by the camera’s sensor. Your camera's sensor becomes a factor in deciding color on set as each camera's color matrix will interpret true white slightly different. Thus mixing cameras can often times be problematic for your colorist.
When it comes to color temperature, I sometimes will max and match while on set, even in an interview setting. if I'm using a daylight temperature key light and fill light, I may add a LED bi-color panel as my back/hair light and dial in more towards a 3600K temperature. This is especially effective on individuals with lighter hair. It helps warm up that part of them, as daylight temperature can sometimes push everything towards the cooler side.
In that same scenario, I may add an even warmer light to my background, especially if the walls have a lighter color, such as grays or whites.
Now if this were something significantly more creative, such as a music video, color becomes white the focus in those scenes. Always pay attention to the completion of your subject either way, however. Too much saturated colors can give off a too extreme look that even the camera sensor can't handle.


Every scenario may be different, but this eprinciples will give you the ability to make decisions on the fly as to how many lights you use (Sometimes less is more. reducing light is as important as adding it), what size the soft box you use needs to be, and how effective can a little color be to your overall design. Remember, you're an artist... not just a P.A. setting up lights. Embrace that role, and the more you do it, the clearer these principles will become for you.

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