5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know (2022)


hooting projects on a budget can mean limitations on your gear. So how can you maintain a “cinematic” look without a cube truck full of lighting equipment? In today’s post, we’ll examine what exactly it means to have a cinematic look. Then we’ll break down several lighting techniques that are achievable on any budget. Although cinematic lighting is predicated on creative interpretation, these principles of film lighting can form the basis of your creative choices. To show this, we’ve taken several examples of how the best DPs (directors of photography) create specific cinematic effects with thoughtful lighting setups of their own. Prepare to be inspired!

5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know (1)

Watch: Roger Deakins Cinematography Techniques

5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know (2)

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  1. Types of Cinematic Lighting
  2. Basic 3-point Lighting
  3. Soft Film Lighting
  4. Hard Film Lighting
  5. Motivated Lighting
  6. Natural Film Lighting
  7. The Best Lighting Books


1. Cinematic types of lighting in film

Every cinematographer is an artist who makes creative decisions on how to guide the viewer’s eye within the frame using lighting equipment.

5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know (3)

DP Janusz Kaminski and his lighting equipment • Bridge of Spies

Their applications are broad, but their creative interpretation is what makes their lighting cinematic (or not). They include:

  • Which props and scene elements should be emphasized
  • Whose perspective we’re seeing the scene through, and how much light they should be able to see
  • How characters differ from one another in a frame
  • Which emotions are being expressed through harshness of light, or its color

Each of these decisions are then realized technically by planning and executing lighting setups to create the desired effect. But the cinematographer must dream up what these effects will be before setting up any lighting equipment.

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Film Lighting Techniques

2. Basic lighting: 3-point lighting setup

The most basic lighting in film is the three-point lighting setup. Lighting from three directions shapes your subject and sets them apart from their background.

To achieve this, your film lighting equipment needs to face your subject from three directions: front, back and side (generally).

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Film lighting basics: Amelie (2001), using the three-point lighting setup


The key light is the light that registers most prominently in your frame. So, when you look at the image of Amelie above, you’ll see that the screen-right portion of her face is brightest. That’s the key light.


Quite simply, fill lights fill in the shadows of your frame. You’ll notice that the screen-left portion of Amelie’s face is in shadow, but with her features still plainly visible. That is a fill light at work.


The back light gives an edge light to the rear portion of your subject. Often, the backlight shoots down from a higher angle. You can see that Amelie has a light contour along her shoulders and the nape of her neck.

(Video) 8 Steps to Cinematic Lighting | Tomorrow's Filmmakers

You’ll generally want to flank your camera with your key and fill lights, spaced about 60 degrees on an axis from your camera.

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Basic lighting techniques: Back, Key, and Fill lighting arranged around a camera


3. Soft film lighting

When talking about how a scene should feel emotionally, one thing that is referenced by cinematographers frequently is how hard or soft the lighting should be.

The hardness or softness of light concerns how large a light source is, and how it affects shadows on your subject.

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Soft film lighting in a day exterior in Restless


This is an effect created by heightening the key light and using fill lights generously. This keeps the lighting bright and balanced in your frame, creating almost no shadow. This balances the lighting from object to object in your frame — which is known as your lighting ratio.

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High key film lighting in The Hobbit


You can soften a light source with diffusion materials like gels or Chinese lanterns to reduce shadows. This is great for shooting close-ups.


4. Hard film lighting

Conversely, smaller light sources, including bright sunlight, will heighten the shadows on your subject. Conservatively, this should be avoided. But it can also create dramatic effects, as was popularized in the classic Film Noirs, which featured suspicious and volatile characters.

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Hard lighting creates harsh shadows inBlade Runner's film lighting


In this effect, the back light hits the side of your subject’s face. It can create an angelic rim of light, while a very soft fill light keeps the face gently illuminated.

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An angel-to-be receives an angelic kicker light in Northfork


Low key lighting refers to minimizing, or eliminating, the fill light your shot so that it is intentionally shadowy. This can create dramatic, suspicious, or even scary effects.

5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know (13)

Among the types of lighting in film, low key lighting is great for mystery


5. Motivated lighting

When cinematographers light a set, they always ask themselves where, within the scene, the light comes from.

They might, for example, choose to take the practical lights that are already in a location and elevate their effect. This is motivated lighting.


Motivated Lighting • Subscribe on YouTube

Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins is known for the motivated lighting choices. Consider this shot from his work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:

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Motivated lighting in The Assassination of Jesse James

As you can see, the lighting in this scene is motivated by the lanterns carried by the actors. When motivated lighting is done right, the audience is unaware of the artifice at work.

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Lanterns create motivated light sources that sell the lighting choices


Often times, using existing lamps and light sockets around the set can be used to light a scene. This is referred to as practical lighting, and is particularly useful when you need to reveal wide portions of the set, or move around it in longer takes.

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A practical overhead bulb lights the subjects

This was the case in the diner scene in Moonlight. In an interview for TIFF Originals, DP James Laxton spoke about how he used practical set lightingto keep his location visible in wide frames.

Moonlight • Film Lighting Techniques

In essence, he swapped out the bulbs in the existing light sources around the diner to make them stronger. Since the scene reveals wide portions of their location, he relied on the practical sources, with some of LED light mattes brought in as well for additional soft, balanced light.

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Practical lighting techniques at work in Moonlight

Here's Roger Deakins discussing his approach to practical lighting, and why "unmotivated" light always takes him out of the movie.

Deakins Talks Practicals • Subscribe on YouTube


6. Natural film lighting

Natural film lighting refers to using and modifying the light that is already available to you at your location.

Before you shoot, you can take your camera to the location to see how well the natural light holds up. You can decide from there how what additional lights you might need, or how you might adjust the light. For example, you can use bounce boards for reflecting the light, or black flags for blocking it out.

In this video, Deakins discusses how he first learned to pay attention to how natural light behaved — during fishing trips as a kid. Deakins is also a proponent of simplicity when it comes to lighting.

(Video) 5 Easy Cinematic Lighting Techniques with 1 Light | Tutorial

Roger Deakins Cinematography • Subscribe on YouTube

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki maximized natural film lighting on Alejandro Inarritu’sThe Revenant. His interview with GoldDerby is a wonderful primer on finding and controlling available light in outdoor shooting locations.

5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know (18)

The Revenant created beautiful imagery with natural film lighting

For example, he speaks about using Magic Hour, or the soft light created by the sun at the end of the day, for specific moments. And, further, he talks about how the selection of locations, and how they appear at different times of the day, created appropriate moods for the shoot.


7. The set lighting technician's handbook and other good reads

Trade books can get you more comfortable with cinematography tools, common problem solving practices, and a deeper sense of how to make your vision actionable.

Here are a few that can be your lifesaver during pre-production and production:


This guide puts you in the trenches of assembling lighting gear, with industry-standard techniques and hints to keep you sane during production.


This book takes you through the theory of creating visual imagery and how to apply them in modern production settings.


A straightforward, affordable, and easy-to-understand guide to lighting and cinematography. It is a slim volume, but extremely thorough.


Kino Flo is an industry standard light manufacturer who host this free film lighting techniques PDF on their website. Naturally, it is to be used in conjunction with their own equipment. But it takes you through many universal lighting tips for broadcast, documentaries and more.

Free downloadable bonus

FREE Download

Ultimate Guide to Exposure

The Exposure Triangle is something every photographer and cinematographer needs to master.Download our FREE e-book to get in-depth explanations and tutorials on topics like aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and how to balance these settings to nail perfect exposure every time.

5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know (19)

Up Next

Lighting tips you didn't learn in school

Like all aesthetic principles, lighting choices have highly individualistic interpretations, based on the DP or director. These techniques are purely meant to maximize cues that can create evocative imagery. For further reading, read about out how cinematography techniques, beyond lighting, that can enhance your storytelling. And, as always, be sure to let us know in the comments which techniques have worked well for your own shoots, and any we may have missed!

Up Next: Cinematography Techniques →
(Video) 5 Lighting Concepts Every Cinematographer Needs To Know


5 Cinematic Lighting Techniques Every Filmmaker Should Know? ›

Lighting techniques are invaluable for filmmakers at every level. For a director, they can help you communicate with your cinematographer.
13 Film Lighting Techniques
  • Natural Lighting. ...
  • Low Key Lighting. ...
  • Practical Light. ...
  • Hard Lighting. ...
  • Soft Light. ...
  • Bounce Lighting. ...
  • Side Lighting or Chiaroscuro Lighting.
May 13, 2019

What are the 5 components of cinematography? ›

Each concept must be carefully considered when producing, shooting and editing a project to ensure the highest quality outcome.
  • Camera Angles. The camera angle is vital to a stories narrative and the camera positioning helps to drive the story forward. ...
  • Continuity. ...
  • Cutting. ...
  • Close-ups. ...
  • Composition.
May 26, 2017

How many lighting techniques are there in film? ›

There are 12 basic types of lighting used in filmmaking: 1. Key lighting is the main—and strongest—light source in a scene or on the actor.

What is cinematic lighting? ›

8 Steps to Cinematic Lighting | Tomorrow's Filmmakers - YouTube

What are the 5 C's in film? ›

The 5 Cs are Camera angles, Continuity, Cutting, Close-ups, and Composition. Let's go over them. Camera Angles. We can never forget that the camera is the viewer's eyes.

What are different cinematic techniques? ›

Extreme long shotBird's eye shotLong shotMedium shotClose up shotExtreme close up shotDutch angle shotOver-the-shoulder shotTilt shotPanning shotZoom shotCrane shotTracking shotPoint-of-view shot.

What are the 3 types of lights used in video production? ›

Three-point lighting is a traditional method for illuminating a subject in a scene with light sources from three distinct positions. The three types of lights are key light, fill light, and backlight.

How do you learn lighting cinematography? ›

Roger Deakins on "Learning to Light" — Cinematography Techniques Ep. 1

What lights should I get for filmmaking? ›

Tungsten lights

Tungsten lighting kits for film and video production have been a tried-and-true, industry-standard lighting choice for years. They're similar to the incandescent filament bulbs common in interior lighting, so they are a great choice for interior lighting setups.

What is high key lighting in film? ›

A key light is the main source of light in a video or photo. High-key lighting results in brightly lit subjects with more fill light and softer shadows. Fill lights are used to increase the amount of ambient light in a scene and reduce the contrast.

Why is lighting important in cinematography? ›

Lighting Communicates Mood and Atmosphere

Light brings many characteristics to your set and helps to set the scene, showing the difference between an airy park or a dirty alley. Lighting is also heavily utilized in building your characters, and can easily communicate the difference between hero and villain.

What is cross key lighting? ›

BkCr. Back Cross. Back Cross lighting is a technique where two key lights are used and are placed behind the actors where their stands are just out of view of the camera, or rigged from overhead. Each individual light acts a keylight for one actor and also as a backlight for the other actor.

What is lighting technique? ›

Natural film lighting techniques are defined by utilizing the light that is already available at whatever location you choose. Most times, you head out on a location scout before you shoot and have that information. You also should think about the time of day you're at those locations.

How do you practice lighting techniques? ›

How To Improve Your Lighting Skills: Exploring Photography with Mark ...

What is lighting method? ›

Lighting methods are classified according to lighting focus, or direction, and fixture arrangement. The light fixture, or luminaire, serves several functions. It must hold the bulb, protect the bulb, protect users from electric shock, and direct and diffuse the light.

What are the 3 basic elements of cinematography? ›

So there you have it: exposure, lighting and camera placement and movement.

What are four aspects of cinematography? ›

Cinematographers who incorporate key elements of exposure, composition, camera movement, and color into their projects have the greatest likelihood of success with the motion picture projects that they create.

What does cinematography consist of? ›

cinematography, the art and technology of motion-picture photography. It involves such techniques as the general composition of a scene; the lighting of the set or location; the choice of cameras, lenses, filters, and film stock; the camera angle and movements; and the integration of any special effects.

What are the principles of cinematography? ›

In this paper the four main principles of cinematography is investigated: camera angles, framings, point of view, and camera movement. Since the birth of the motion camera in the 1880s, a great deal has been established on what is considered right and wrong camera work in the business.


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