One of the most important (and most time consuming) aspects to filmmaking is lighting. The way lights are used will determine the mood of the film. Therefore, most directors will make lighting their priority. They will often spend a large amount of their overall film production budget getting the lighting right.

Lighting is essential in certain genres of film, as it will create a certain feel. For example, horror movies rely on both lighting and sound to make the audience feel uneasy. A good example of this is the 2013 horror film “Mama”. Here we see the Director of Photography (DP), Antonio Riestra, worked with shadows to create a tense and spooky atmosphere.

Here is a clip from the movie.

A director can use many different types of lights are used to create their desired effect. Below is a list of specific key lighting types:

  • Key light – the main light used, normally the brightest. The key light usually stays in the same place throughout the scene.
  • Fill light – used to fill in any unwanted shadows.
  • Back light – normally used to light up the hair and shoulders.
  • Background light – fill in any shadow in the background.
  • Eye light/catch light – is shone in the person’s eyes to create a reflection of light.
  • Kicker light – an extra light, used wherever needed.

Pieces of black material (flags) are sometimes used to block out or reduce light.

Example of catch lights (Larry Cowan in "A Wee Favour")

Example of catch lights
(Larry Cowan in “A Wee Favour”)

There are many different types of lighting, each creating a different mood. Examples of these are:

  • 3 point lighting – probably the most commonly used. This is created using a key light, fill light and a back light. The key light is shone on one side of the face, the fill light on the other side and the back light behind the person (usually at a diagonal from the key light).
  • Butterfly lighting – the key light is high and in front of the person’s face. This creates a shadow below the nose.
  • Side lighting – the key light comes in from the side. This lights half the face, while the other half is in shadow.
  • Back lighting – the key light is shone directly from behind the person, creating a silhouette effect.
  • Under lighting – the key light is shone from directly underneath the person’s face.
  • Overhead lighting – the key light is shone directly over the person’s head, casting the eyes and chin in shadow.
  • Rembrandt – the key light is on one side of the face and raised high. This creates a triangle of light under one eye.
  • Three quarter lighting – the key light lights up three quarters of the face, with the other quarter in shadow.
An example of 3 point lighting (Paul Livingstone in "Photo Shoot")

An example of 3 point lighting
(Paul Livingstone in “Photo Shoot”)

Lighting is an essential part of making a film. An important lighting tip is to bring your subject out of the background, although the opposite effect may be desired by the director or DP.

Lighting decisions are usually discussed during pre-production meetings with the person responsible for a production’s lighting, i.e. the lights person and the director. On some occasions in a block rehearsal, different lights and lighting techniques are tried out.

Overall, lighting can be used correctly to turn an average movie into a visual masterpiece.