A fantastic storyline, a highly capable crew, an amazing cast, and well-developed set design are all central to creating a fantastic film. But your film has to have that visual appeal, as well, if you want your viewers to have a memorable experience. In this article, we cover the common types of lighting in filmmaking and how to use them effectively.

This requires you to have sound knowledge of cinematography, meaning you should use the most suitable film shots and lighting methods to convey your story as effortlessly as possible in each scene.

Lighting helps in creating natural looking and stylized scenes that seem almost real life, since digital films and sensors don’t respond as well as your eyes would to light. As a result, film sets tend to look excessively packaged or lit with a variety of lighting sources.

If you are looking to venture into cinematography, film directing, script writing or any other creative role, you need to know the types of lighting in filmmaking.

Let’s begin with one of the most important lights: the key light.

types of lighting in filmmaking

Key Light

Key light is the main source of light for a film set. It is the most direct and intense source of light for your typical scene. It is the first light source to be set up and cinematographers use it to cast light on the actor or subject.

Avoid positioning your key light too close to your camera. Otherwise, your lighting will feel featureless and extremely flat. If your key light is placed at the back or side of your actor, it will cause the scene to look dramatic and your image will look dark.

Fill light

Key lights create shadows at some point. A fill light, therefore, is used to illuminate these shadows. The fill light is positioned at the opposite end of your key light and is often not as bright as the key.

Since the fill light helps to eliminate shadows caused by the key light, ensure yours is indistinctive and does not cause its own shadows or characteristics. Place your fill light a little closer to the camera if you want it to create fewer shadows.

A fill light can be created from reflectors if there are no other light sources available immediately. Light falls on the reflector and then it’s bounced onto your subject.

types of lighting in filmmaking

Backlight

Next up, we’ll cover the backlight. I’m sure you’ve heard some horror stories in the industry about terribly positioned backlights.

A backlight gets its name primarily from its function. It is usually placed behind the subject, but a little higher.

Its function is to separate the object of interest from a poorly lit background. It also helps to enhance an object’s shape and depth. You can use a backlight to enhance your object’s features and prevent it from appearing as though it is 2D.

If the sun is your backlight, use foam board or reflector to rebound natural light at a slightly lower intensity back to your object or subject.

Sidelight

As you may have guessed, the sidelight is a light that hits the subject from one side. The side light is used to create chiaroscuro or dramatic mood. You can create chiaroscuro using high contrast and low key. This was a common technique used by filmmakers during the film noir era of filmmaking.

To achieve a dramatic feel with your sidelight, cast it without its fill or use a lower fill ratio, say, 1 to 8. A sidelight is the best choice when you wish to reveal texture.

Practical light

This type of light is used within the actual scene. It appears onscreen. Practical lights range from a TV set, a household lamp to police lights and candles. A common practice in filmmaking is to have practical lights with a dimmer mechanism.

Unfortunately, it is not likely that you will have an electrician on standby. Therefore, the alternative is to use diffusion gel around your bulbs. Unless you are using something like a Carl Zeiss Planar, a candle is not enough to cast light onto your scene.

Bounce light

Bounce light, or just ‘bounce,’ is reflected light. There are tools such as foam or silk boards that can help you bounce light. You can also have bounce light from the ceiling or wall around the scene. The options are endless.

So to achieve a softer light, use foam board. They have a matte surface to help you create a soft reflected light. Bounce, from a reflector surface, is often versatile. It is possible to create fill, key, and backlight to illuminate subjects in a scene.

types of lighting in filmmaking

Soft light

Soft light does not refer to a direction, although it is a type of lighting in filmmaking. Cinematographers use soft light for situational or aesthetic reasons.

Soft light helps to eliminate a harsh shadow, replicate refined lighting from the surrounding areas, and create a dramatic effect. Or all of these effects at the same time.

In essence, soft light is used to define the size of your light source and not its placement. A diffusion panel or a light fixture usually generates soft light. Thus, the light from a soft source creates a soft shadow or none at all.

Hard light

If you’re looking to have harsh or sharp shadows, used hard light. The best, and most natural, source of hard light is the midday sun. Or you could use a tiny light source such as a high wattage desktop lamp.

In most types of cinematography, hard light is not desirable. However, it is the best source to use when you want to draw attention to a scene or subject. You can also use hard light to highlight contours and create a vivid silhouette.

High Key

High key produces shadow-less and bright effects when used in conjunction with the fill light. This type of lighting was popular in the 30s and 40s for musicals and comedies. Nowadays, this lighting is common in commercials, music videos, and sitcoms.

While it has its place in the filmmaking industry, it can cause overexposure in some sections of the image.

The high key light is best produced using frontal techniques and the light quality has a low ratio, which means all your light sources will be of equal intensity.

Low key

The low key light is the opposite of high key and images often look dark with significantly less light and a lot of shadows.

With low key, you end up with little fill light. The focus in using ‘low key’ is the shadow and how it can achieve mystery, drama, and suspense. Rather than on the light itself, which is why it is great for thrillers and horror movies.

Motivated light

This type of light is used to represent natural light, like the sun’s light, moonlight or street lamps during the night. It is mostly used to enhance practical light, especially when the cinematographer wants to adapt coverage or intensity of practical light using a third light source.

For a naturally looking motivated light, use a filter for window shadows or apply colored gel on your bulb for a bright, warm yellow effect like that from the sun.

You can also use colored gel to come up with a faint bluish, cool light effect such as that emitted from the moon.

Ambient light

Artificial light is the best way to achieve well-lit scenes that look almost similar to what you would see in real life. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of ambient light available at the shooting scene. The dogme film movement did exactly that, after all.

When filming during the daytime, try the outdoors and take advantage of the sun or moon’s natural light. Late evening and early morning are the best times to shoot outside if you want to catch some soft light.

However, the intensity of light will not be constant, so be sure to plan for sun placement and the weather in general.

Types of Lighting in Filmmaking – Wrap Up

There are many different types of lighting in filmmaking depending on what you want to achieve. The beauty of filmmaking is knowing which type to use to achieve the desired effect.

We curated the list above to help you know the types of light available for your filmmaking project, so all you need is a great cast and a clever script to wow your audience.

We hope you’ve found this article on the common types of lighting in filmmaking helpful. What’s your favorite lighting setup? Let us know in the comments just below here.