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How to Light a Scene in Filmmaking

Learn how to light a scene in filmmaking.
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Lighting is a fundamental part of filmmaking and visual storytelling. You can just put your camera in place, set up an angle, and start rolling. However, without proper lighting, the images you capture won’t be as impactful or aesthetic as they could be, and your film will fall short of its potential more often than not. Art is subjective and every creator has a vision, so here we will go over how to do a basic lighting setup for your scenes and a couple of extra tips.

How to Light a Scene in Filmmaking

Basic Lighting 101: Three-point Lighting

Amateur filmmakers probably have heard about three-point lighting, but what does this concept mean exactly? Well, just as its name suggests, it is a lighting setup that consists of three types of light: a key light, a back light, and a fill light.

The key light of a scene is the main source of light for your characters or objects. It is usually the most intense of your lights, but it all depends on what you are going for. Your key light should be placed facing the subject of your frame to let us have a good look at their features.

Next up is the back light, which, you guessed it, is placed somewhere behind your subject. The idea of the back light is pretty self-evident: you need a secondary source of light to illuminate the outline of your characters. Doing this will separate them from the background and will give your scene much more depth.

Finally, the fill light deals with an issue that stems directly from setting up a two-light scene. Depending on the set you are working on and the position of your lights relative to the characters, some areas may end up being poorly lit in comparison to your main subject. A fill light serves to make things more evenly illuminated and soften hard contrast and shadows in the frame.

Know the Basics First, Play with the Lights Second

Of course, the three-point lighting scheme is not something that is written in stone. Again, it is an industry standard and a basic method to get well-lit scenes. What happens when your intentions are others, though? Well, then there are a couple of things you can try.

Knowing the fundamentals behind three-point lighting already gives you several ideas of how to achieve different effects using the same principles in a different way. For instance, your key light is just your main source of light, but it doesn’t necessarily have to illuminate the face of your character. It can be at any angle as long as it makes sense in your scene.

Setting up your key light behind your character is a great way to obtain a perfect silhouette and also to create some perspective. You have seen this many times in movies where a performer is about to enter the stage, or when someone is looking at the sun rising.

When you only have limited space to shoot your scene, you can’t get in with a three-point scheme. In this case, you can bounce light off of surfaces like walls, the floor, or the ceiling to get an overall more illuminated space.

Using different types of lights and color temperatures is also crucial for visual storytelling. Knowing what lights to work with can save you the hassle of using three or more lights, and using other tools like diffusers, screens, and color gels, can save you money and add production value to your project.

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