Character Lighting: How to Choose the Right Light for Your Character (2022)

by | Last updated Apr 26, 2022

Character lighting is a huge part of filmmaking. It’s an essential part of storytelling and highlights specific things, like the time of day and emotions. 

To put it short, it’s something that you should master as an aspiring light artist. 

Want to learn more? Read on!

What is character lighting? 

Lighting affects the viewer’s perception and sets the tone of the film. But, it can be used to enhance the performance of the character and improve the storytelling too. Character lighting is the method of illuminating the character to achieve dramatic looks, set the tone of the scene, and convey emotions to the viewers. 

Character lighting affects the characters physically and emotionally. Traditional lighting provides accurate portrayals of characters in a movie. It adds depth and realism to the characters to elicit the right emotions. 

Character lighting is also used to mirror a character’s intentions, changes in positions, as well as to soften or harden a character’s features to suit the scene. 

The animation and VFX industry is a character-driven business. You have to demonstrate your ability to light a character to get your first job as a light artist. That’s why you need to learn how to light a character if you want to land a job in the industry.

Because character lighting is a critical part of animation, we’ve developed an online course that covers everything about it. Our Character Lighting course walks you through different creative concepts of lighting a character and hones your technical and artistic skills to create compelling characters for your demo reel. 

Let’s move on to how character lighting works. One of the main concepts in character lighting is 3-point lighting. Here’s what it’s all about. 

By Justin McCrea

What is 3-point lighting? 

3-point lighting is the standard form of lighting for visual media such as still photography and video production. It involves using three strategically placed light sources to illuminate the subject and control the light and shadow. These light sources are the key light, fill light, and backlight:


The key light is the primary light source of this lighting setup. Because it is the main light, it has the strongest illumination, making up ¾ of the light on a subject. It has the most influence on the scene. The key light is placed on one side of the camera or subject to illuminate this side while casting a shadow on the other side.

Fill Light

This is the secondary light source of the setup that illuminates the remaining unlit space to highlight the details of the subject. The fill light is set on the opposite side of the key light, filling the shadows that the key light casts with soft light. The fill light is always softer and less bright than the key light. This is achieved by moving the light source further away from the subject or by using some spun. 

Back Light

Also known as the rim light or hair light, the backlight defines the outline of the subject. The light source is set behind the subject and illuminates from the rear. It does not provide direct lighting like key light and fill light. It is used to separate the character from the background by highlighting the outline of the subject and providing a three-dimensional look.

By adjusting the size, distance, intensity, and position of the three light sources in a 3-point lighting setup, you can set the tone of the scene and convey different moods. 

Different lighting techniques 

What’s more, you need to be aware of different lighting techniques to understand how to light a character. Here are some key techniques: 

Bounce lighting

This is a lighting technique in which the illumination from a strong light source is bounced off a bounce board, reflector, or other light-colored surfaces to diffuse the light on a subject. 

Kicker lighting

Kicker lighting is a technique that uses a kicker light to highlight the outline of a subject. A kicker light is an accent light that produces highlights that are brighter than that of a key light. 

High Key Lighting

This lighting technique is meant to reduce the lighting ratio of a shot to set the mood and tone of a scene. Back in the day, filmmakers used high key lighting to deal with high contrast. This lighting technique makes use of white tones from bright lights and minimal use of black and mid-range tones. 

Low Key Lighting

This lighting method creates dark tones and shadows in a scene. It’s often used in thrillers and noir films. Low key lighting applies a hard source to present the scene in shadow. Contrast is adjusted to create dark tones and shadows. 

Hard Lighting

This is a lighting method that creates harsh lines, shadows, silhouettes, and highlights in a scene. Hard lighting is also used to draw attention to specific parts of a frame. Diffusers are used to soften harsh lighting or highlight specific areas in a shot. 

Soft Lighting

This is a type of side lighting that illuminates the subject’s sides with a faint fill to add drama as well as to set the tone of the shot. The contours of the subject are highlighted with a low-key and strong contrast. 

By Manthikore Cerv

Basic lighting concepts

Now you know the most important character lighting techniques. What about lighting concepts? Here you go. 

Soft Light vs Hard Light

The play of soft and hard light enhances the emotional intensity of a shot. Direct light is set directly onto the subject to create harsh, clear lines. Usually, Fluorescent overhead lights or light from a lamp with no covering is used to create the hard lighting. 

Soft light is created using diffused lights. The light is diffused using filters, diffusions, gels, or sheets/curtains, bouncing light off of walls, or through the book lighting technique, to create gradient shadows and direct it onto the character. 

Color Temperature

The color temperature of the lighting will affect the storytelling of the film. It also adds depth or contrast between characters.

Most lights look white to the human eye but these actually come in different colors. For example, the sun produces warm, orange light but looks white to our eyes. The incandescent light is different from an LED light. To describe the light that a light source generates, we use color temperature, which measures in degrees of Kelvin (K) on a scale from 1,000 to 10,000. The warmer the color temperature, the lower the value. Daylight is about 5,600K while typical residential lighting is about 2,000 to 6,500K.

Naturalistic Lighting and Expressionist Lighting

Naturalistic lighting emulates natural light, how light appears and behaves in the real world. On the other hand, expressionist light is distorted lighting to express intense emotions. The color, quality, and even the shape of the light are manipulated in an unrealistic way purely for emotional effect. Changing the color of the lighting is used to represent the changing moods, intentions, and conflicts in a character to influence the viewer’s perception of the shot.

Now you’re aware of the different character lighting techniques and concepts. But how do you use them to light a character? Here’s how. 

How do you light a character? 

The human eye is drawn to the brightest spots or areas of a shot with more contrast. When lighting a character, you need to figure out how to draw the attention of the viewer to the character using light and shadows. 

You’ll also need to figure out how you want to portray the character. It’s a good idea to start with a neutral composition first. In commercials and model photos, the main character exudes calmness, wholesomeness, with a general lack of tension in a shot. Here are some tips to remember when lighting a character:

Collect reference images: Reference images are vital to creating realistic character lighting. You need to collect similar shots to the piece you’re lighting just to make sure that the lighting is as close to real-life as possible.

Study different artistic concepts: You’ll need to be well-versed in different artistic concepts to know which techniques should be applied to support your ideas. 

Light by the angle: To make the character lighting as realistic as possible, base the lighting on the camera angle. Study how light and shadows behave in specific situations to create the best lighting according to the angle.

Use natural lighting: For daylight scenes, use the same natural lighting for the character and the set. This helps keep the light rig simple and tidy. 

No hard shadows on the face: The character’s face should look soft and smooth, adjust the lighting to avoid stark shadows or the character will look artificial.

Avoid flatness: The lighting should always have a shape to make the character look as realistic as possible. Avoid any flat lighting, give the lighting some shape. 

Avoid multiple black areas: multiple shadows that go in different directions make the shot look busy and distracting. The shadows on the character should be realistic but also aesthetically pleasing and tidy. 

No cutting the face in half: A stark lighting that puts one side of the face in light and the other in pitch darkness makes the shot look fake. There should be a seamless gradience of color between light and shadow. 

By Juan Lopez

How do you light a hero character?

Using different lighting techniques to introduce the hero of the shot will depend on what feelings you’d like to incite among the viewers. Would you like to create an air of intrigue, anticipation, or mystery when highlighting the hero in the shot? 

Soft Face/Hard Body

One of the most common lighting techniques used for hero lighting is soft face hard/hard body, a lighting method that softens the hard shadows of the face to create an attractive appearance. Hard shadows are shown all over the torso to define the muscles and emphasize the character’s strength. 

Rim Lighting

Using a rim light, the lighting outlines the hero’s figure, separating the character from the background. 

Charachter lighting video tutorials

Want a few video tutorials? Here are the techniques studios like Pixar use.

How do you light an evil character? 

To depict villains, different lighting techniques are used to emphasize the malevolence of a character in a film. 

Distorted Lighting

Distorting the shadows to obscure the character’s features as a means to cast suspicion, question intentions, or trick the brain into assuming the worst. Darkness also creates suspense and intrigue among viewers. The shadows cast on faces, silhouettes, and the background tap into our deepest, darkest fear… the fear of the unknown. Here are the lighting techniques used to distort the lighting: 

Uplighting: The light source is set from the bottom of the face to cast shadows on a character’s face. 

Skull lighting: setting the lighting on top of the character to cast a “skull” effect shadow on the subject’s face. 

Silhouette lighting: The lighting is set behind the subject to put the character in complete shadow. 

Red Lighting

The color red often represents bloodshed, war, death, carnage, fire, and hell in suspense and horror films. It’s also applied in animated films to represent danger and to add suspense or horror to the scene. When a villain appears in red lighting, the viewers are alerted that things are about to get dicey and fast!

Long Shadows

When the character walks across an empty space – like a deserted field or an empty room – the shadow cast on the background or wall appears longer. The long shadow conveys that the character appears inhuman, almost like a monster. This lighting technique is often applied to create suspense, especially when done against dim or moonlit backgrounds. 

All About Hero Colors and Villain Colors

Color helps convey different emotions and certain colors are associated with heroes and villains. A classic example of hero and villain colors are black and white – black for bad guys, white for good guys. But in certain countries, like Asia and Europe, white is associated with death and mourning. Black may not necessarily represent evil, especially when depicting an anti-hero. 

Most slasher films use lots of makeup and masks to make the villains look, well, villainous. Most times, the eyes of the villain are obscured or concealed to make the character look threatening or to arouse suspicion. 

In animation, lighting techniques are used to distort the faces and conceal the face or body of a character to heighten fear, anticipation, and suspense. Colors are used to represent the intention and character of a subject. 

Red and blue are also used to represent villains and heroes, respectively. The association of red being evil and blue being good might be rooted in the US War of Independence when “evil” British wore red uniforms and the US and French forces wore blue uniforms. 

In comic books, superhero costumes come in primary colors – think blue, red, yellow, and gold. On the other hand, supervillains come in secondary colors like green, purple, orange, etc. Heroes could also wear blue and red while villains wear green and purple. 

Weapons or superpowers like eye beams, energy blasts, laser-blade swords, etc., are often bright blue or green for good. The lighting color itself could represent heroes and villains. But this depends on where the scene is taking place, what’s happening in the shot, and what tone or feelings you’d like to convey. 

Disney is the first studio that comes to mind when it comes to using color to represent heroes and villains It’s easy to distinguish Disney heroes from villains thanks to the colors they represent. 

Hero Colors

Blue is generally used for Disney heroes. It represents confidence, trust, and loyalty. Some of Disney’s most lovable characters are blue, James P. “Sully” Sullivan from Monsters, Inc., Cinderella, Stitch, and Elsa from Frozen. Villains with a touch of blue often represent the little good in them like Hades from Hercules. 

White is used for both Disney heroes and villains, but mostly on the former. It represents purity, innocence, and kindness. Think Duchess from The Aristocats or Pongo from One Hundred and One Dalmatian.

Yellow is used to represent purely good characters. Snow White, Pocahontas, Belle, Woody, and Wall-E showed lots of yellow in their character designs. 

Villain Colors

Red represents danger, rage, or death. Gaston, Jafar, Lady Tremaine, and Captain Hook feature a prominent red color in their design.

Black represents a villainous character with no redeeming qualities, like Scar from The Lion King, Ursula of The Little Mermaid, Shan Yu of Mulan, and Cruella De Vil. 

Purple is often associated with ambition, nobility, and power – think the Evil Queen or Maleficent. 

Green represents jealousy, greed, and illness. Disney is known to use lime green to highlight the malevolence of a character or if dark magic was cast. That said, variations of green were used to design “good” characters like Ariel, Mulan, Merida, Quasimodo, and Peter Pan.

Character lighting examples

Here are just a few examples of what character lighting can look like: 

By Ryan Noftall

By Jenn Soria

By Sellwyn Loh

Over to you!

Character lighting is a vital part of a film’s narrative. It can be used to make a character stand out, highlight the intent or character of a subject, and elicit the right tone and mood in a film. Learning the different character lighting concepts is the best way to come up with unforgettable characters.


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