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Basic Film Lighting Techniques

Today on Altering Apex we’re looking at some basic lighting techniques and how you can change the intensity of a scene using just Light.

Read through this whole Blog and you will see how to turn an average looking shot into a professional film scene using some very basic lighting techniques.

Let’s forget about cameras and lenses for a little bit the most essential element that separates amateurs from professionals in the filmmaking world is understanding lighting cinema exaggerates story and lighting with contrast light and shadow cannot exist exclusively they need each other, lighting equipment helps us achieve a consistent repeatable look but by understanding the basic lighting techniques you actually don’t need any lighting equipment at all

The old painting masters of the past would place a subject by a window and use these basic lighting techniques to enhance the outcome of their work.

In this Blog we’re going to talk about

  • lighting the face
  • creating depth and separation with shadow and color
  • adding texture and visual

Lighting the face

A well-lit cinematic shot starts with a well-positioned key light, a key light can be placed in many different positions as long as it shines on the face it’s a key light.

Hard lighting is achieved by using a small light source this adds distinct shadows on the face and is usually understood to be more masculine.

Soft lighting is achieved by using a large light source this is typically more flattering on a subject’s face. A standard key light usually above the subject and about 45 degrees from the camera the position of the camera to the key light is very important this will change the light from a broad light to a short light

Broad lighting is when the light part of the face is closest to the camera and short lighting is when the shadow side of the face is closest to the camera.

Short lighting is usually more desirable in cinema because it creates more contrast and depth to an image the position of your key light is a cinematic tool to convey a dramatic language and its position can drastically change the way a face appears on camera.

Flat lighting is when the light source is as close to the camera lens as possible shining directly on the subject’s face flat lighting results in almost zero shadows and it’s less dramatic than most lighting scenarios.

The next lighting position is beauty or butterfly lighting. This is when the light source is directly above the camera, slightly above eye level of the subject, resulting in a distinctive shadow under the nose. The shape of this shadow is how the name butterfly lighting came to be. It kind of looks like a little butterfly. This type of lighting is very common in beauty shots and beauty commercials. It’s flattering and it shows hair and makeup off very well.

There are some shadows and it does look interesting but it’s mostly still flat. Next is wedge or Rembrandt lighting Rembrandt was a famous Dutch painter and in almost all of his paintings his subjects have a distinctive illuminated wedge on the shadow side of their face. To achieve this effect the key light is placed slightly above eye level of the subject about 60 degrees from the camera. If we move the key light to about 90 degrees we will achieve split lighting.

Split lighting is when one half of the face is in light and the other half of the face is in shadow. This can create a very dramatic look. This lighting is used to accentuate drama and conflict in character. Split lighting can make the face appear more masculine and strong we can also use a key light in extreme ways to create unnatural shadows on a face.

Sometimes a key light is placed directly above a subject. Most famously this technique was used in the godfather to shroud Marlon Brando’s face and mystery lighting from underneath the face can create a spooky effect. This is what this setup looks like with just a key light.

The fill light is the second light on the face this is what it looks like with a fill light added a fill light illuminates the shadow side of the face so it’s not quite so dark what we call a fill light can be an actual light or something like a reflector.

Now let’s talk about high key lighting versus low key lighting.

 With high key lighting the key light and the fill light area bout at the same intensity resulting in very few shadows on the face this is a less dramatic look and it’s used in commercials comedies and sitcoms. More dramatic lighting like this is typically used in dramas and more serious films.

Now let’s talk about the catch light.

It’s very small but very important a catch light gives life to an actor’s face it draws our attention to their eye usually I don’t like to use a fill light and a key light because this results in double catch lights in the eyes which I think are unnatural. It’s all a matter of preference but if I can, I like using one key source and then I’ll bounce the other side.

Creating depth and separation with shadow and color

Next we’re going to talk about the backlight also known as the hair light the rim light or the edge light. The backlight is typically placed on the opposite side of the key behind the subject and is used to accentuate the shoulder and the hair it can mimic sunlight at golden hour when the sun is low on the horizon this creates a glowing effect and is usually very attractive on a subject.

Backlights can also be motivated by a practical source in a scene like a lamp or a window. I love backlights they’re the coolest they add so much quality to an image sometimes when we’re shooting very quickly and we only have time to place one light source it will be a backlight. If you’re in an uninteresting looking location, turn on a backlight it’ll polish that turf right up.

Next let’s talk about creating depth through color to create additional depth between a subject and a background. Sometimes a cinematographer will add a colored light source. I don’t know about you but I have walked into so many boring looking rooms with tan colored walls sometimes what I do is I throw up a blue light and it changes the color of the wall and creates a better image sometimes lighting can be used in the background to add additional contrast around a subject’s face.

Adding texture and visual

The other lighting technique to make the background look a little bit more interesting is adding texture. This accent light has broken up an otherwise solid wall and added more visual interest. It’s also added some leading lines to the subject face to draw attention to the most important thing in the world usually, when we film in new locations we don’t like filming against a wall without a window.

A window allows the viewer to realize that there is still an outside world and this is not an interrogation in this particular setup there was no window so to create the illusion of window light we’ve added this accent light in the background opening up the space and adding additional context to the place that Subject is.

Next are the silent heroes of cinematic lighting which are any natural light sources in a scene. A window, a lamp electronics, these things play a huge role in cinematic lighting. The practical light sources in this space were adding a lot of visual interest in making the shot looks very interesting.

When possible, all lighting should be motivated from a practical light source so the audience can believe that the lighting is real whereas commercial lighting is usually used to make a subject look as attractive as possible, cinematic lighting tries to create a heightened sense of reality more dramatic and expressive than real life but still very believable. Last but not least, don’t be afraid to break the rules. It’s very important to understand the rules so you can break them or at least bend them a little bit.

That’s all about the few hacks of managing the basic lighting techniques, hope you find them interesting.

So next time when you are shooting indoors, keep in mind these basic lighting techniques that can really enhance the outcome of your shoot.

Watch this video for more information on lighting.

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