Cinematography requires more than just pointing the camera at a subject or scene. It requires attention to subject, foreground, background and lighting. The light around the scene or subject affects how the movie is perceived and what feelings it evokes. A scene shot in bright sunlight differs vastly in mood and tone from a subject filmed at night or in low light. Getting the perfect lighting for a scene enables the filmmaker to control how the viewer sees the scene.

Natural Light

shutterstock_144019672Filmmaker Noam Kroll reminds fellow filmmakers and novices that it might seem easier to shoot with natural light because there’s no lighting equipment to deal with; however, he explains that the trade-off is that there is some control lost and more planning required to work with available light. He says using the right camera for either daylight or nighttime filming is important to the film quality. For example, the Balckmagic Cinema Camera is a reliable choice for filming outside during the day while the C300 or the 5D MKIII are reasonable choices for filming at night, states Kroll.

Likewise, the right lenses are required for natural light—daytime shots call for low contrast lenses and nighttime shots require fast lenses. Even with natural light, filmmakers may need to fill in or reflect light to get the right amount of visibility. Mirror boards, flags and other reflectors and blockers do the job. If you want to shoot with natural light inside, shades, blinds or blackout curtains might be necessary to adjust the amount of light and glare coming into the room. In addition, you can avoid dark, obscuring shadows by shooting with the sun behind the actors. And, if you want a night scene, film during dusk or twilight because you still will have enough natural light, the right amount of darkness and shadows to control visibility without electric lights.

Filming at Night

Filming at night poses unique lighting challenges. The filmmaker has to pay more attention to how the viewer sees the scene in a low light situation and has to use more reflected light to illuminate specific subjects. It requires small sources of light to spotlight different areas, not strong overhead lights. Natural sources of reflection such as snow or the wet ground are as important as using white cards and reflectors to manipulate light at night.

Lighting Techniques

You can create dramatic effect, tension, apprehension, impending doom or any other emotion with lighting techniques. Here are just a few examples:

  • Using a soft front light and stronger light from the back will create shadows and light that can convey fear, anticipation and dark moods like anger or depression.
  • Mixing color temperatures, cool blues and greens with hot reds, yellows and oranges will create a technical or edgy feel.
  • Lighting from below with strong lighting can create a threatening, menacing mood.
  • Using soft lighting from below will put the subject in a flattering light.


Backlighting is used extensively in film to get sharp definition. Without backlighting, scenes and subjects are smudged with uncontrolled shadow and light. Although this may be the effect the filmmaker is looking for, it is not ideal for an entire film. On the other hand, with backlighting, subjects are in focus and there is an increased contrast and sharpness even in low light.

Finally, Steven Spielberg reminds filmmakers that more isn’t always better. More lighting doesn’t always create the right effect, but it can provide more control.

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