Digital Lighting and Photography Basics: The 5 Characteristics of Light

by | Updated: May 8, 2021 | Tips & Techniques | 0 comments

The basic purpose of lighting is to brighten a scene. But there is more to it than that. Lighting could convey a mood, a feeling, a reaction. When done right, proper lighting is a powerful storytelling tool. A slight misstep, on the other hand, could ruin a scene, putting all that hard work to waste! Unless you work in a big studio, there is a good chance that you will do your own lighting.

Working with lights could make your renders hot or cold. The color of the light you chose, the placement of the light source, the transition of light to shadows, etc., all these elements play a critical role in the quality of the visuals.

While lighting could make or break a scene, it shouldn’t be used to fix bad materials. You have to make time adjusting all the scene components so you don’t end up with more delays. That’s why it pays to learn the real-world lighting principles if you want to be a successful 3D animator. In this guide, let’s talk about the 5 characteristics of light and how to apply each of these characteristics properly to improve your work:

The 5 Characteristics of Light

What are the 5 characteristics of light? If you’re working on lighting a 3D scene, you must know these different types of light: 

Direction: Where is the light coming from
Intensity: The brightness of the light source
Color: The color of the chosen light (ex: yellow, white, blue, red, etc.)
Contrast: Transition between highlights to the shadows
Light Quality: The appearance of the shadow edges that the light source cast. Are the shadows soft or hard?

characteristics of light
Photo Credit: gcapture


One of the first things that you have to think about as far as creating a sense of shape and texture in a shot is the direction of the light. Where is the light coming from? It is coming from the front, the side or behind your subject? The direction of the light source affects the width of the shadows and the shadows give a sense of shape and texture.

Creating interesting shadows go hand in hand with creating interesting lighting. If you want to achieve the perfect lighting then you should also think about the shadows that are being cast in a scene. Why? The human eye could see in three dimensions: height, width, and depth. But onscreen, the eyes could only perceive height and width. Adding shadows give definition to the visuals, allowing the eye to see stereoscopically, which give depth to the scene.


How bright are your sources of light? Is it bright or dim? The intensity of the illumination could affect the visuals of the final image. By experimenting with different light intensity, you can create different moods and effects. Depending on the intensity of the light source, it could make the visuals dramatic or it could wash it out completely.

In filmmaking, light intensity could be used to convey a certain mood. For example, a brightly lit scene conveys cheerfulness while a dimmer scene could convey melancholy, mystery, or tension.

If say, you want to create a sunny day then consider using a point light because this light source generates light in all directions. Set the intensity of the point light to 150% or so, so the brightness is even. On the other hand, if you want to light an evening scene, such as a dim streetlight, opt for spotlights. Set the intensity to 60% or so. There is no defined setting for the light intensity, you have to get a feel for a setting so the intensity is just right.

In Maya, the default intensity is 1. You can adjust the light intensity via the Attribute Editor. If the intensity of the light is too high, the light will “blow out” your scene. If the intensity is too low, the visuals will be too dark.


What is the color of the light you need to brighten a scene? Color of light has a profound effect on storytelling. It could convey different moods or messages. Color of light could clarify a motivation, depict the time of the day, even dictate the meaning of a piece. The color of light could be used for creative effects too. Essentially, the color of light provides significant clues to your audience about the scene.

Cool and Warm Colors

Light color could be described as cool or warm. The coolness or warmness of the color refers to the slight tint of the light, not the overall color of the light. For example, an artist would use an orange-tinted light to depict a sunset or a wash of yellow-tinted light to suggest a sunny day.  

Cool colors include green, blue, and violet. These colors could be perceived as calming but they could also come across as cold or depressing. Cool colors are often used to suggest immense wealth (green), trustworthiness (blue), or mystery (violet/purple).

Warm colors, on the other hand, include red, orange, and yellow. These colors are often perceived as comforting but they could represent negative emotions, depending on how warm colors were used. For example, red could represent passion or anger, yellow for cheerfulness or cowardice, and orange for creativity or deceitfulness.

Color Temperature

Color temperature refers to the intensity of the blue or yellow tint that a light source produces. Yellowish light has low color temperatures while bluish light has high color temperatures. The concept of color temperature could be explained best by visualizing a flame; the blue part of the flame is hotter than the yellow flame around it.

 lighting basics


The way that light travels is that it spreads out and when it does, it gets dimmer. Contrast is the ratio between the dark parts and light parts of a scene (the black and the white). This light effect is created when the intensity of the light is greater on one side of the subject than the other. The effect depicts how highlights transition into shadows.

Generally, the bright areas of the scene are the highlights while the dark areas are the shadows. In between the highlights and shadows are the lights, mid-tones, and darks. Contrast is increased by creating more shadows and vice versa. If the details of a shadow are too dark then the image has too much contrast. Moving a light in and out will affect the edges of the shadows.

High contrast images feature a full range of tones, including bright highlights and dark shadows. Low contrast images, on the other hand, feature a smaller range of tones.

Light Quality: Hard and Soft Shadows

The edges of the shadows could be described as either hard or soft. Hard shadows are created when the size of the light source is smaller compared to the size of the subject. On the other hand, soft shadows are created when the light source is bigger than the subject. The distance of the light from the subject is also a factor that affects the softness or hardness of the light. If you double the distance of a light from the subject, the light intensity is decreased by one fourth. When you halve the distance between the light and your subject, the intensity of the light increases four times.

The shadows could be used as a storytelling tool; they could clue viewers in on important aspects of the scenes. For instance, the shadows are often defined and dark on sunny days because the light from the sun is intense. This is called hard lighting. On a cloudy day, the shadows are not as defined and the edges are soft. This happens when layers of clouds diffuse the intense light of the sun. This is called soft lighting.

Working with Lights


Key refers to the distribution of light and shadow in a scene.

High Key Lighting

High-key lighting is a type of low contrast lighting that produces minimal shadows. The setup features a bright illumination and minimal deep or dark shadows. The exposure is slightly flat and consists mostly of mid-tones and highlights.

High key lighting usually depicts an upbeat or positive feeling. This lighting setup is often used in sitcoms, rom-coms, news, and game shows because the lighting setup is flattering or forgiving. It makes light looks good from every angle; the subject could move in virtually any direction and maintain the same look and feel.  

This lighting setup could be done by setting your lights in a standard 3-point lighting position. Set the key lights about 45 degrees above from the subjects. The key light for the subject on the left will work as the fill light for the subject on the right and vice versa. Set an extra rim light so that each subject has its own backlight. The lights should be fairly soft and of the same intensity.

three point lighting
Photo Credit:

Low Key Lighting

Low-key lighting is the exact opposite of high-key lighting. It’s a defined, high contrast kind of lighting that goes from bright to very dark shadows. A low-key scene has bright areas but the illumination is focused to a specific subject to draw attention from the audience. This lighting set up is meant to create a separation between the subject and the surroundings to give the illusion of isolation or vulnerability.

Because a low-key lighting setup defines the subject, it’s often used in scenes with mounting tension. Low-key lighting is often applied in drama, horror stories, and romantic scenes.

Silhouette Lighting

This lighting setup gives definition to the subject by using a single source of light. To heighten the dramatic effect, no spill light is reflected on the subject. Set the light behind the subject then light the background. Leave the subject in shadows to highlight the silhouette.

Dramatic Lighting

An intense scene calls for an emotional type of lighting. For such scenes, remove the diffusion material off the front of the lights. This will increase the hardness of the shadows. Move the key and fill lights further apart, the beams of light should be separated between these light sources. The light that’s reflected on the subject will create a hard shadow line. If properly flagged, the light should convey dark, strong emotions.

How you light a scene will depend on the mood you are trying to portray. One thing to keep in mind when lighting a scene is to lay out your lighting strategy first. That means planning the setup as well as the key color, contrast, and the quality of light.

When done right, lighting could be used to your advantage so go ahead, experiment with different lights to create different effects. Use dim lights, colored lights, bright lights, even negative lights to make your scene look good. Of course, adding your own creative flair will make every scene stand out even more. Don’t worry about the rules too much. Just learn the basics, find out how certain tools work and start exploring different possibilities.

Over to you!

Now you know what the 5 characteristics of light are. 

Next, I’d love to know: 

What’s your #1 question about digital lighting? 

Let me know in the comments below. 


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get your free guide:

Three Expert Insider Secrets for a Successful Demo Reel.



Congrats! You are one step closer to your dream career & life. Check your inbox for the: Three Expert Insider Secrets for a Successful Demo Reel!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This