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Types of Lighting in Film: Definitive Guide

by | Last updated Feb 15, 2024

What are the different types of lighting used in film? 

In this guide, we’ll cover:

What is lighting in film?
Types of lighting in film
What are the 3 main lights used in cinematography?

Ready to get started? Let’s dive in!

 

What is lighting in film? 

Simply put, cinematic lighting is the lighting that we see on the screen in both animated and live-action films.

But lighting does more than just illuminate a scene and make it visible to viewers. The truth is that it’s just as important as the script itself to tell a story.

Filmmakers use lighting to give the film its feeling and style. For example, it can be used to:

  • Set the mood
  • Emphasize story elements, such as time and place
  • Reveal or obscure details about characters
  • Enhance cinematography and aesthetics

Cinematic lighting always falls into one of two categories – natural and artificial

Natural lighting is created using the natural environment, like the sun or moon, whereas artificial light is man-made.

You can learn about the characteristics of light in this guide.

In this video, we talk about an example movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, and lighting in that film: 

There are several lighting techniques that can be used to bring a film to life, which we’ll cover in the coming sections.

Key lighting

Key lighting acts as the main source of light in a scene. It’s used to draw attention to and illuminate a subject’s face, body, and actions. 

In other words, it’s what makes a character stand out in a scene.  

Because it focuses on the scene’s main character, key lighting is the strongest. This is always the case, regardless of how complicated the setup is. 

Typically, lighting artists place the key light near the subject in a vertical position, slightly above the eye line, at a 30-degree angle.

But there are no wrong placements. Playing with the height, angle, and position will create a different effect. 

For instance, placing it behind the subject will darken the mood, whereas putting it lower will distort features. 

The only place to avoid using key lighting is right next to the camera, which will make it feel flat.

Fill lighting

Fill lighting is used to fill in any shadows that the key light creates and lends itself to a more evenly lit scene. 

Because it’s used to counteract key lighting, it’s weaker than the key light itself and, in most cases, positioned directly opposite it.

Some of the most common fill boxes found on film sets include:

  • Softboxes, which spread light more evenly
  • Reflectors, which fill in shadows by reflecting light back onto a subject
  • Flags, which can block light from certain scene areas
  • Scrims, which are diffused and used for subtle fill light

Just like key lighting, fill lighting is versatile. It can be used to emphasize the texture of a scene, create depth, and even reduce the appearance of wrinkles and blemishes.

Using a small amount will subtly soften the shadows and help preserve contrast, while a larger amount will make the scene more evenly lit.

Backlighting

Backlighting is when a filmmaker positions the primary light source behind the subject to create a silhouette or focus on its edges. It can be used on a person or an object.

Oftentimes, a backlight is positioned from above to invoke drama, such as mystery, beauty, and isolation. It can also be angled from below to create power or authority.

There are two main types of backlighting: rim lighting and silhouette backlighting.

Rim lighting creates a thin outline of light around the edges of a subject for depth and dimension while helping the object stand out from a dark background. This thin ring of light is referred to as a “hair light” or “halo light.”

Silhouette backlighting darkens the subject completely against a bright background. 

The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption are both great examples of how backlighting can be used to create a sense of darkness and despair.

Side lighting

When side lighting is used, a main light source is positioned parallel to the subject. While it’s typically used on its own, it can also be used with a faint fill.

Using side lighting enhances the contrast of the subject and its surroundings while adding dimension, depth, and texture to the scene.

It can also be used for:

  • Dimension and depth
  • Mood and atmosphere
  • Emphasis on specific areas, shapes, and forms

There are two types of side lighting.

The first is short side lighting, which is when the light is placed on the side of the subject across from the camera. This creates deeper shadows and a more dramatic effect.

The other is broad side lighting. For broad side, the light is on the same side of the subject as the camera and is used to illuminate and soften the subject.

Motivated lighting

Filmmakers use motivated lighting to replicate a natural light source in a scene. That natural light is often sunlight or moonlight, but it can also be lighting from something like a lamppost.

Using motivated lighting enhances a film’s realism and visual coherence. It also enhances storytelling, as it can subtly convey information about the setting and plot.

Most importantly, it can be manipulated to make the audience feel certain emotions, including comfort, security, and unease.

The advantage of motivated lighting is that, unlike the actual natural light source, motivated lighting will always be at the proper position, brightness, and strength needed.

Although it seems relatively simple, motivated lighting consists of several elements, including filters for window shadows and colored gels for incoming light.

Ambient lighting

Ambient lighting is the lighting that already exists within a scene, both directly and indirectly, before any artificial lighting is added. This type of lighting is used to draw attention to a subject without having to worry about the lighting style or quality. 

Ambient lighting is universal and known for being soft, subtle, and consistent. It’s what helps establish the mood, atmosphere, and style of a film. 

There are two types of ambient lighting: natural and artificial lighting.

Natural lighting is the kind of light that comes from the environment, including sunlight and moonlight. It’s best for creating an air of authenticity, especially for films that take place outdoors.

Artificial lighting, meanwhile, is any kind of light that isn’t natural and is used to supplement the natural light that already exists. Artificial lighting includes set lights as well as smaller lights like lamps and candles.

High-key lighting

Because it uses a high ratio of key light to fill light, high-key lighting creates very few shadows while emphasizing highlights. This makes for scenes that feel bright, airy, and evenly lit. 

In this type of light, characters seem approachable and trustworthy. It infuses films with a more optimistic mood that feels joyful, innocent, and hopeful. 

That’s why it’s most commonly used in light-hearted films. Comedy, family films, and musicals are typically shot in this style, though it’s also used in sitcoms, commercials, and music videos.

Some of the most famous examples of high-key lighting include Paddington 2, Singing in the Rain, and The Wizard of Oz.

But films shot with high-key lighting don’t always fall into these genres – it’s also been used for sci-fi and horror films. Midsommar (2019) is an excellent example of this.

This video shows you how to use high-key lighting:

Low-key lighting

The opposite of high-key lighting, low-key lighting uses a high ratio of shadow to light to create a darker atmosphere. There is little to no white used.

In other words, the shadows are the main focus of the scene.

To create that kind of dark and mysterious atmosphere, filmmakers use a strong key light and minimal fill light to create harsh shadows and focus on a subject’s contours. 

Often, characters are placed in a pool of light and surrounded by complete darkness.

It’s a great option for thrillers, horror films, and other suspenseful genres. Some examples of low-key lighting include The Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, and The Dark Knight.

Watch this video for the difference of high-key and low-key lighting: 

Natural lighting

Also referred to as available light, natural lighting is the illumination that exists in a scene before any artificial lights are turned on.  

Because it’s both direct and indirect light, natural lighting can be used to establish a film’s mood, atmosphere, and visual style. 

Natural lighting has a few key characteristics.

It’s one of the most dynamic types of light, as it changes throughout the day. For instance, light at dawn is warm and soft, whereas midday light is typically harsh. 

This also makes it one of the most reliable ways to convey the overall setting of a scene, including what time of day it takes place.

Natural light is also, well, natural, which allows it to help a scene mimic real-world conditions. 

It’s great for all genres, including drama, romance, and documentaries, as it can be softened or hardened as necessary.

Practical lighting

Practical lighting is when a filmmaker illuminates a scene using a source of light that’s actually visible in the scene. 

Those light sources, called “practicals,” can vary, including everything from candles and lamps to TV and computer screens. Even car headlights and sirens can be used as practicals!

For example, the candles in the Harry Potter films, the lights in Don’t Look Up’s riot scene, and the headlights in Drive.

In film, practical lighting has both practical and creative uses. 

Not only does it provide depth and separation in a scene, but it also drives the narrative and makes the set look more realistic. 

And it does it all while actually illuminating the scene. 

Oftentimes, filmmakers use practical and motivated lighting in tandem to make the audience believe the practical is responsible for all of the illumination. 

Hard lighting

Also known as high-contrast lighting, hard lighting is typically unwanted because of the way it creates harsh shadows. Oftentimes, it can distract from the narrative or obscure essential details.

But using it can pay off. For example, it’s easy to use and only requires direct sunlight or a single powerful light source. It’s also great for putting the focus on the main subject and creating a silhouette.

There are a few things to know about it:

  • It requires an intense key light, whether from a spotlight or sun.
  • It calls for minimal fill light and instead creates a strong contrast between light and dark spots in the scene.
  • It creates harsh shadows that can add a dramatic effect.
  • It can emphasize texture and surface details or objects or people.

Soft lighting

Soft lighting is, unsurprisingly, the opposite of hard lighting. It’s also used more often in film than hard lighting because of its flattering nature and positive tone.

While hard lighting creates harsh shadows, soft lighting uses diffused light to create even and flattering illumination for every element of the scene. 

It’s typically used to reduce shadows, replicate outside light, and create a warm, inviting atmosphere. It also makes the characters seem more sympathetic. 

That’s why it’s often found in light-hearted films, such as romantic comedies, rather than those with action, tension, drama, or horror.  

To create it, filmmakers use a low ratio of key light and fill light and often use softboxes, silk screens, or natural light filtered through clouds or foliage.

Bounce lighting

Bounce lighting is called bounce lighting for a reason: because it bounces light from one source toward a subject using another surface.  

When you bounce it using a reflector or light-colored wall or ceiling, you create a more extensive and evenly spread area of light. But other things can be used as bouncers, including: 

  • Bounce cards
  • Clothing
  • Fabric
  • Tabletops
  • Foam boards

The bounce method creates softer light for reduced shadows, enhanced appearances, and more ambient light. It also makes it possible to be more flexible with your lighting placement. 

Moreover, it can be used in several different settings, both indoors and outdoors, making it one of the most versatile lighting techniques. It’s also one of the most straightforward and affordable, as it doesn’t require many materials to do it successfully.

We’ve covered the different types of lighting used in film, but which ones are used the most? 

Keep reading to find out!

What are the 3 main lights used in cinematography?

There are three main types of lighting used in film to create a balanced and visually appealing scene: 

    • Key light, which acts as the primary light source and establishes the overall brightness and direction of the light used in a scene.
    • Fill light, the secondary light source placed on the opposite side of the subject and used to fill the scene while softening shadows created by the key light.
  • Backlight, which is positioned behind a subject to add depth and dimension to a scene.

While all three light sources can vary in terms of angle, intensity, and even color, the main uses for each always remain the same.

Here’s a video that explains how they’re used: 

When used together, they can create a variety of lighting effects and change the mood, atmosphere, and even visual appearance of a film.

And if you want more, here are my best lighting secrets, together with Mike, another professional 3D lighting artist. We talk more about shaping mood, directing the viewer’s eye, and more: 

Next steps

So, there you have it! Everything you need to know about the several different types of lighting in film.

If you’re ready to get started in 3D lighting and want to learn how to light a film scene, check out our Lighting For Animation Course Bundle

In it, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the art of lighting. We’ll even show you how to build a portfolio and land your first lighting artist job in less than a year.

We also have several other lighting courses available for purchase. Be sure to check those out here.

Read more:

3D Lighting Technique Tips

The Different Types of Lighting in 3D Animation

How to Light a 3D Scene

 

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

Jasmine Katatikarn Headshot

About Jasmine Katatikarn

Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more here.

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