The Basics Of Movie Lighting Techniques For Indie Filmmakers

When it comes to movie lighting techniques, you should know there are multiple ways to light a scene and there is really no wrong or right way to light a scene… Just as long as the choice you make fits the story.

The first bit of advice is watch a bunch of movies and TV shows and see how the pros do it. Take special note on how the lighting setup creates a certain style and what kind of mood the filmmaker is trying to convey.

This even works for the news. Watch this type of setup and you will find it has flat lighting. In news, they have no shadows because they want to keep everything neutral.

Another thing to look for in terms of movie lighting techniques is how an actor’s eyes are lit. If you look closely, you will find where the key light is. For sit down interviews the key light will normally be around 10 and 2 o’clock in the pupil.

Our friends a B and H photo put together a useful video featuring Chase from Zacuto. It’s called 4 Simple Cinematic Lighting Setups for Filmmakers. And I posted it below for reference:

Movie Lighting Techniques For Indie Filmmakers

The main question when it comes to lighting a scene is, where do I want the shadows? Your story and the kind of emotion you want to convey should inform your lighting design.

What kind of lights to use?

In terms of movie lighting techniques, tungsten is a pretty harsh light when it’s left by itself. Tungsten creates harsh shadows and usually works very well for a noir or a horror film. The one downside about tungsten is that these lights get very hot and if you’re shooting indoors in a small room the temperature will go up.

Another thing is, DSLR cameras don’t really require that much lighting. Depending on your story, you could use LED lights. This is sort of an in between light. LED lights will create shadows, but the shadows won’t be as harsh as using a tungsten light. As a possible benefit, LED lights are usually cool to touch and don’t require much wattage. So for example, if you’re filming in an old house and worried about blowing fuses, LED lights could be a good option.

What if you just want to create a simple, ambient light?

Let’s say you’re on a budget but you need to light an actor’s face with something. The cheapest and best solution would be with China balls. You can add a dimmer and you can really control the amount of throw these lights have.

Some key tools to have in your lighting package:

Gels. CTO 1/4, 1/2 and full. CTB 1/4, 1/2 and full. These will help balance your lights if you’re shooting with a mixture of different types of lighting. Usually tungsten is 3200K and LEDs are around 5600K. So if you want your LED to match your tungsten light, you are going to have to add some CTO in order for it to match.

Diffusion material. Cuts down on the amount of light that is being thrown. A cheap… very cheap way of doing this is using wax paper. If you have a budget, there’s a variety of different diffusion out there. 250 is a good start.

Dimmers. Work the same as diffusion, but this works well if you don’t need to have a 1K light full blast.

Black wrap. This is a foil you can wrap around your light and it controls the amount of spill your light produces. If you want to light a counter top, but you don’t want the light to spill onto the wall, you can just makeshift your own setup by wrapping this around the light. This also works well if you want to create some kind of pattern on the wall and it helps you avoid flat lighting.

That’s the basic rundown of movie lighting techniques and the materials you need to light a scene. Just remember, it always starts from the script. So your lighting offers a way to enhance the story.

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Joseph Ort is an independent filmmaker who has spent the last decade working on his own independent film projects. He is also co-owner of Shadowmind Productions
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