Education: Shedding Light on The Subject, Basic Film Lighting
Lighting, Lighting, Lighting!
It is the most fundamental property behind photography, video production, and film. Good directors have have well lit productions, great directors accentuate on film between a nice soft light for a romantic-comedy or a tough harsh light for a gritty zombie apocalypse. Lighting is easy to learn but can be difficult to master. In this series of articles, we are going to share resources that break down lighting from the basic to the advance. In this article, we will go over some of the more basic aspects of having “good” light as well as the importance of lighting, standard definitions, and techniques that will help you begin your journey to becoming a master of film lighting.
Essential Terms and Techniques to Know
First stop on our journey we need to cover some standard video production lighting terms and techniques that are important to know. In later articles, we will link back to this list for a reference guide. Be sure to head over to friends at Film Riot and thank them for helping us break this down. Now let’s get to the fun part!
Key Light- This is going to be your main source of light on set. The key light is usually going to be the brightest light you will use. Its job is to bring focus to the subject of the shot.
High Key Lighting- High key lighting is when you want your key light to be as bright as possible. White tones will dominate your shot. No or little black will be visible in your shot.
Low Key Lighting- This is the exact opposite of high key lighting. The low key light is used when you want to cast shadows on your scene. It is also good to use if you’re going to add contrast to your subject.
Backlight- A backlight is a light you place behind your subject. Usually, it will be higher than your subject. The point of a backlight is to make your subject stand out and make the scene feel more real.
Fill light- You will want to use a fill light when you want to cancel out the shadows that were created by your key light.
Two Point Lighting Setup- This is when you are using a key light and fill light in your shot.
Three-Point Lighting Setup- Yep, you guessed it. Three-Point lighting setup is when you use a key light, backlight, and fill light in your shot.
Broadside- Broadside is when your key light is hitting your subject on the broadside of his/her face. Most of your subjects face will be lit.
Short side- This is going to be the opposite of broadside. Most of your subjects face will be covered in shadow.
Side Light- This one is pretty obvious. Light is hitting the side of your subject’s body or face.
Why is Lighting Important in Film?
Now that we have gotten a decent footing with standard definitions, we can focus on why video production lighting is so important. We could go on and on about how light is the most essential part of a film, but today lets focus on three key reasons. (see what we did there?) Firstly, light gives you more control over your image. Natural light is extremely unpredictable, and you never know how it is going to play out. Adding a key light and a few other lights allow you to take control of your image and make sure the story you want to tell is understood by the viewer. Think about the mood of your scene and how you want it lit BEFORE you shoot. Having mastered lighting techniques will allow you to save time and money during shooting. With proper lighting techniques light can let you artificially set the time of day. The Guild, a now famous web series, had a low budget for the first season, so they were unable to afford long shoots. During production, they would use lighting to turn night into day artificially.
Secondly, lighting can set the tone for your entire film. If you will excuse my film school geek out, I would like to talk about the genre of noir and its complete mastery of the use of light to achieve tone. Noir is the best example of how great lighting can set the tone in a production. If you are not familiar with the genre of noir, then let me take you down memory lane. Noir is a film genre that was popularized in the 1940s that used low key lighting for the entire film. Film Noir used low key light and this lighting was able to set the tone better than any dialogue ever could. Low key lighting creates a feeling of dread, darkness, and mystery. I can see Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon sitting behind his detective desk smoking a cigar. The use of low key lighting and side light framing his face in perfect contrast, showing the audience this was a man who didn’t play by the rules. Who could forget Mary Astor framed in broadside light, showing the world her classic Hollywood beauty.
Finally, good lighting can save your editor’s life. Now, what do we mean by this? One of the jobs of an editor and maybe other members of the post-production team is to perform what is called color correction and color grading. In a later article, I will go into more detail about this process, but for now, I will give you the basics. Color correction is when you make sure that the footage is consistent and matches what the human eye sees as white and black as well as matches other scenes in your production. Color grading is when the editor or colorist implements the tone of the movie by altering how the image appears. If you take more effort and time to perfect lighting during production, it will allow your editor and post team to spend less time on these processes and focus on more important things.
Basic Lighting Equipment
I know what you are thinking, Wow, Parker! All this sounds awesome, but I don’t know anything about lighting equipment. I hear you, and I am here to help. Again, in a later article, we will go into more detail on all the different variants of lighting equipment you can get. Spoiler alert there are way too many different kinds of lights. However, for now, I am going to give you a few basic lights, both amateurs and professionals use alike.
A light that is really changing the industry in cost and quality are LEDs. This light fixture is useful to use if you want a bright clean light that can cast a heavy shadow of the subject. A downside of this fixture is you need to color balance it or cover it with gels. Gels are great when going for an artistic look, but color balancing a LED to look like natural light can be tricky. I would recommend using the This Neewer Dimmable 3 Pack. Its portable enough to carry around and sturdy enough to “learn” with.
The second standard light is the Fresnel light fixture. This light fixture uses a series of concentric circles that allow the filmmaker to switch between a floodlight to a spotlight quickly. Also, it has a thinner lens which enables the light to be spread out more evenly. I would recommend using the Aputure LS-mini20 3-Light Kit. It also uses LED lights but is a “pro-sumer” lighting kit.
If you are on a budget budget, you could use practical light fixtures. Practical light fixtures are any source of light you have laying around the house. A downside to using these fixtures is they were not designed to work well with cameras so you may have difficulty controlling your light. I would recommend going to your local Ikea because they have a vast selection of lights.
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Well, we did it. We go through the definitions, learned why lighting is awesome and learned about lighting equipment we can go out and buy tomorrow. Over the next several weeks, we will be diving more deeply into the complex nature of the use of video production lighting. Next week we will be covering CRI and TLCI lighting as well as color temperature and what that means. Let us know in the comments any lighting resources you have come across that helped on you master lighting for video production.