How Important is Correct Lighting in Film Production?

Studio and lighting

Great cinematography is made of multiple elements, and one of the most important is lighting.

Lighting for production is something you’ve got to get right, and an understanding of the principles of it is key for any videographer or filmmaker.

But what role does lighting play, and what should the correct lighting look like?

How Lighting Sets the Scene

Dramatic lighting dictates mood and atmosphere, and the way you light a scene sends out important messages to your audience.

It aids your story and applies to a wide range of subjects and styles. It doesn’t matter whether you’re filming fact or fiction, a short or a full-length feature, for business or entertainment – lighting should be central to your shoot.

What would happen if you shot simply with available light? You wouldn’t be adding any mood or ambience. You would be giving the viewer no signals about what they should be feeling.

You can evoke an upbeat mood with bright lighting and plenty of colour or create a sense of drama and tension using shadows and dark images. Think of the scenes in Citizen Kane and other classics of black and white cinema, where the absence of colour and strong lighting techniques convey both implicit and explicit messages.

Lighting techniques are based on human psychological responses to light. How you position light in a shot can define a character.

However, there are also fundamental technical reasons why your lighting for film production needs to be correct.

Practical Lighting Requirements

The human eye will pick up the smallest of details and make adjustments to give sense to an image.

However, cameras cannot. They don’t respond to light in the same way the human eye does. Therefore, additional lighting provides extra definition.

What you want to achieve with lighting is a definition comparable to what the human eye can pick up.

This means setting up your lighting perfectly, to convey flawless images to your audience.

You should look first at various aspects of your shoot, including:

  • Location
  • Ambient light
  • Changing conditions
  • Shadows
  • Natural light.

All these can play their part in affecting the overall quality.

Know the Space You’re Filming In

Artificial lighting is an essential tool in filmmaking, but only if you use it correctly. To do this, you have to apply it in the right way to the space you’re filming.

To plan this, you need to answer these questions:

  • Are you filming indoors or outdoors?
  • If indoors, is the room large or small?
  • Will the subject on camera be moving?
  • How many people will be in shot?

If you’re filming indoors, you’ll want to make sure you have adequate power to supply to your lights and enough light spread so there are no undesirable dark spots, especially if people on camera are going to be walking into them.

When your subject moves, you don’t want the lighting to change suddenly and become inadequate.

If you’re outdoors, try to maximise your use of natural light by using reflectors, bounce boards or larger lights.

Main Types of Lighting

Three main types of lighting are essential to film production:

  • Key Lighting
  • Fill Lighting
  • Back lighting.

Key lighting is the main light source for your shoot. It should bathe your subjects and the scene in light. It acts as the equivalent of direct sunlight when filming in natural light.

Depending on where you’re shooting, you may require multiple key lights. The style of your cinematography will influence how you focus these lights. For example, hard or soft key lighting will affect the type of shadows on your subject.

You can also accessories and modifiers to your key lights to create different moods and effects.

Fill lighting fills in the dark areas that your key lighting can’t reach. This lighting is weaker so that it isn’t competing with your key lighting. It’s important to get the key-to-fill light ratio correct on your shoot.

You can add realism to a scene with fill lighting, as it eliminates, or reduces unnatural shadows and removes some of the harshness of your artificial lighting. You may be able to achieve some fill lighting effects using a reflector, or even white card, rather than with additional lighting.

The final fundamental component for correct lighting is back lighting. This should lift your subjects from the background, adding more realism to your scene.

Back lighting falls on a subject from behind, adding shape and depth, and reducing any two-dimensional effects.

The idea here is that the viewer should feel immersed in the scene, rather than just simply viewing the images unfold.

Should You Consider Hiring Your Lighting?

As we’ve said, filming conditions can vary considerably, from being outdoors to indoors, and in the different sizes of spaces you’re using.

Consequently, your lighting requirements are likely to vary from shoot to shoot. If you want to maximise your versatility as a videographer or filmmaker, then a sensible option is to look at hiring your lighting.

This can give you greater flexibility, without you having to invest heavily upfront in different kinds of lighting equipment.

For more details about lighting hire for film and video, call us on 0845 460 9988, or email