Four Lighting Tips for Film & Video Directors

– Posted in: Cinematography & Lighting

Understanding fundamentals will help you work faster while creating images with style and emotional intent. We’ll share with you four lighting tips in this post.

If you’re an indie director, you’ll most likely be shooting some or all of your own footage. This means you’re responsible for exposure and mood, even if you’re hiring someone to be the “shooter / cinematographer”. Do you understand lighting basics well enough to communicate style and intent with established industry language? This is essential if you want to rise above “pizza & beer” filmmaking. You don’t need to go to film school, but you do need to root yourself in the fundamentals it teaches.

It’s not hard. Put a little effort into grasping these basics and you’ll be on your way.

Before I get into the fundamentals, I’d like to make a very important point. There’s a difference between illumination and modeling with light. Making sure there is enough light on the subject to get a good exposure is illumination. Creating a lighting design or taking advantage of an existing light source to sculpt light is modeling. Modeling helps create mood, basic illumination can kill it.

I’m not talking about three-point lighting.

Three-point lighting is a technique that helps create the illusion of a third-dimension in a two-dimensional image. I mention this because it’s thrown around a lot as the answer to all lighting needs – it’s not. This technique, in addition to others, will help you achieve specific results and is very useful when applied in conjunction with the fundamentals I’ll outline here. For the sake of quickly grasping these fundamentals, please let go of applying three-point lighting or any other formula technique for now. I’ll address specific techniques in later posts. For now, let’s try to keep things simple. Everything lighting starts here.

Three Rules of Lighting

  1. Light travels in straight lines.
  2. A subject receives exponentially less light the further away from the light source it moves.
  3. The larger the light source is relative to the subject, the softer the light will be.

Like many new concepts, these may seem a little foreign at first but with just a little effort, things will begin to click and eventually become common sense.

How You’ll Be Empowered – Big Time

  1. You’ll develop an understanding essential for communicating mood and intent with each image you create.
  2. You’ll develop a vocabulary for communicating style and motivation with your team.
  3. You’ll save a ton of time and frustration by knowing how to quickly evaluate locations based on the scene’s mood and the lighting package you have. It’s not rocket science.
  4. You’ll learn how to pre-visualize light-quality, exposure, and its effects on your subject, environment and mood.

Seeing cinematically begins with developing an eye for light direction, quality, intensity and knowing how to read the shadows. One of the best ways to begin developing your eye is to reverse-engineer images. The images below go through the basics of this process. Remember, if you’re not going to shoot, you don’t need to become a technician. Read this to understand the concepts and to develop a vocabulary.

Basics of Light Quality

Hard Light

Look at the shadows. Notice how hard the lines that define the shadows are. It’s these shadows that create texture and shape. This image has very hard directional lighting. The lighting source would need to be small, relative to the subject. By looking at the shadows, you can see that the light is coming from above. My guess is that it’s one light from directly above. I didn’t shoot this, so I could be wrong. I believe the photographer used small nets and flags called fingers and dots to carve the light and thus accentuating the dimension of his face. The middle shadow on his forehead is what leads me to this educated guess. You can also see a faint white line reflecting in the bottom side of his eyeball. This leads me to believe he directed some light in from beneath, possibly a simple bounce card. These are educated guesses on my part. We don’t need to be right when reverse engineering, the value comes from engaging the process.

Soft Light

Look at the shadows or the absence of shadows and notice how gradual and soft they are. This image has very soft “wrap around” lighting. The lighting source would need to be large, relative to the subject. You can actually see it in her eyes. It’s a large soft box from her left, and I’ll bet it’s less than six feet away from her. Notice how gradual the tone on her face shifts from almost white on the left side of her nose to only a few shades darker on the right side of her cheek – no hard lines. The photographer likely has a white bounce card on the opposite side of the light – her right. This bounces light back into the shadow areas and has the effect of making the shadows even softer and the original light an even bigger source.

Basics of Light Intensity


A high-key lighting design can use hard or soft lighting. In layman’s terms, more than 60% of a high-key image is considered to be bright. There are technical terms that better express what’s happening here, but to keep things simple, let’s just say it’s bright. Notice the background is so overexposed that it’s almost pure white. High-key images have very few dark shadows or dark tones within the frame. This photo is likely lit using a very large soft box off the right side of the frame – left of the kids. Notice the difference in tone from the right side to the left side of the globe. My guess is there is a large window behind the kids and to the left of frame. The emotions and adjectives typically associated with “high-key images” are happy, bright, light and airy.


A low-key lighting design or image can also be achieved with hard or soft lighting. It’s considered low-key when more than 60% of the image has low-mid or dark tones. It might have a few very bright areas within the frame, but the overall tone is dark. Notice even the sky in this photo is not a bright white, it’s underexposed and a toned down blue/gray. This lighting is very soft. Most or all of it is coming from a cloud-filled sky. I believe the sun is behind the clouds, to the left of frame and positioned at about 10 o’clock. I see only one reflection in the top left of her eyeball and her face is almost shadowless. This leads me to believe it’s all natural lighting. The emotions and adjectives typically associated with softly lit, low-key images are sad, dark, heavy and melancholy. Another example of low-key is film noir. In film noir, hard lights create pools of light illuminating fairly small areas of the frame. The other areas are left in dark, usually sharp shadows. The emotions and adjectives usually associated with this style are dangerous, mysterious, edgy, and sharp.

Here’s a video that goes into these fundamentals a little deeper. It’s only 7 minutes long and will further help you design images motivated by emotion and intent.

Three Rules of Lighting for Photography

I’m curious to know if you’ve found this basic introduction and the video helpful. I’m considering sketching a lighting diagram for a series of images. I may grab screen captures from films or I may use stock photography. Please let me know if you think that would be helpful.

Can you think of a scene where a low-key, soft lighting design would work best?

What emotions would you want to convey in this scene?

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