On movie and photography sets, lighting is an absolutely critical aspect of the available artistic and expressive possibilities. It is a matter of ‘shaping’ light according to an image you have in mind or a commissioned concept. Therefore, when lighting a subject, the first questions you have to ask yourself are: What am I lighting, how am I going to do it, and what equipment do I need?

Let’s start by considering the basic photography set-up, similar to that used for video interviews. Later, we’ll tackle movie-making, which requires a considerably different set-up. It goes without saying that these are standard guidelines, and you should feel free to experiment with them.

Photographic set-up

Let’s imagine lighting a studio photography set or a room intended as a location. Most manuals suggest a three-point lighting set-up, comprising a main ‘key light’, ‘back light’ and ‘fill light’.

photography set lights
3-point lighting set-up:
1. Key light
2. Back light
3. Fill light

Key light

The key light is the main source of light you need to worry about. What do you want to convey? What feelings do you want to express? These are decisive aspects that will significantly affect your final product. Once your goal is set, you need to then decide where the key light should go; to the right, left, or even behind the main subject, the latter creating a striking back-lighting effect on the subject. In any case, the key light should be your strongest light source.

1. Subject lit by a single light source

Fill light

The fill light is generally positioned opposite the key light. If the key light is to the right of the camera, then the fill light goes to the left. Used to take the edge off shadows created on the subject by the key light, this should be a somewhat weaker light source.

light in photo
1. Key light
2. Fill light

Back-lighting

The goal of back-lighting is to visually separate the background from the subject, creating a greater depth of field. The back light is almost always placed up high and behind the subject in order to light and give greater three-dimensionality to the subject’s hair or outline.

back lights photo
1. Key light
2. Fill light
3. Back light
4. The back light separates the subject from the background, and can be used to create a silhouette (5)

Cinematography set-up

The movie lighting set-up is radically different, with three-point lighting no longer as effective, and other factors, such as time, coming into play.

Time

Photographers work, of course, with static images, while cinematographers work with moving images in which the factor of time is absolutely central. Indeed, time becomes an artistic tool for expression, much like in music and poetry. As you may well guess, this aspect substantially influences lighting and equipment choices. During location scouting, for example, a cinematographer will generally do a pre-shoot, in order to determine what the light will be like, how it will affect the overall scene, how it will change throughout the day, and how different light sources will interact. In this regard, one of the first things to consider is sunlight, which naturally varies throughout the day.

Sunlight

Sunlight is critical in movie lighting, and is not only used as a key light in outdoor scenes, but also artificially recreated when lacking. Naturally, in order to faithfully recreate sunlight, you need a considerable amount of artificial lighting, which is why movie backstage photography often appears extremely bright. In terms of lighting strength, there is therefore a clear difference between the needs of the photographer and those of the cinematographer. Sunlight is also frequently used in movie-making as back-lighting, which gives greater control over the final product.

Bouncer and fill light

Due to the importance cinematography attaches to shadows created by the key light, fill lights are almost never used in movie-making, though some photographers moving into cinematography continue to use them. With more light available, a bouncer, or other type of reflective panel, is generally used instead to reflect back light onto the subject’s face.

Photographers work with static images, while cinematographers work with moving images

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