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Basic guide to lighting November 2014

I'm looking to add a few very basic guides to the website, there are so many that are plain wrong out there that they drive me crazy and I'd like to start people in the right direction. As a guide I'd point you at http://cinematography.net/edited-pages/FOCUSING.HTM where Mako gives the best focus advice I've seen and there are some great additions.

So what advice would you give? Lighting and grip separately please, I'm going to have to compile this!! I'm starting with.

Life never has 3 point lighting, why does every reference book and website advise to use it?

As you progress from small lighting setups to bigger and bigger ones the best advice I ever had was " just do it like you always do, just bigger " this led from me going from a 4' square soft frame with a blonde through it to a 20' Roscosoft with a Dino, same look bigger area!

Oh and, there is no such thing as a hard or a soft source, it's all relative, how big is the source, how far away is it, how diffuse is it?

Cheers Geoff Boyle FBKS EU based cinematographer www.gboyle.co.uk <http://www.gboyle.co.uk/>


> Life never has 3 point lighting, why does every reference book and website > advise to use it?

Besides that fact that books aren't necessarily written by working pros, my guess is that it's because it's a simple formula that's easily teachable to newbies who have to start *somewhere* in learning: - to see and control light - to understand some of the most basic characteristics of lighting instruments, and - to speak the common language of lighting.

Not long ago I taught a variation of it to a young friend who's just getting started as a videographer and had been flailing about with no grasp at all of what it meant to light a scene. It was a revelation to him, and gave him an immediately useful tool.

Sure, 3-point may be artificial, formulaic and archaic, but for the novice it can be a BIG step up from artless, arbitrary lighting. So I don't mind teaching it, as long as the student understands that it's basic and limited.

Dan Drasin Producer/DP Marin County, CA


I generally teach about the Key light, how it works for actor, character, scene, story, space. And then pretty much everything after that it personal taste, architecture or just a load of crap.

Mitch Gross Director of Communications Convergent Design


Dp Steve Burum, ASC taught me these basics.

1.). Set the Key, typically based on "natural" or real sources.

2.). Set Kickers and Hair lights for separation from the background.

3.). Set Fill depending on the mood. More for Comedy; perhaps zero for night.

The size of the light source in relationship to the subject matter determines the quality of the light, ie. hard/soft.

Inverse square law tells you that the further back you can place the light the less fall off you'll have.

Angle of incidence equals angle of reflectance.

What else is there? Where's the coffee, what's for lunch, when do we wrap ... :-)

Mako/Makofoto, S. Pasadena, Ca


I agree with Mitch, teach them about the key light and go from there.

In one very basic class I had a 4 * 4 bounce board and a Redhead, bounce over camera = beauty, hard from side or 3/4 back = drama, now go and play!

Cheers Geoff Boyle FBKS EU based cinematographer www.gboyle.co.uk


> Geoff writes: > >> Life never has 3 point lighting, why does every reference book and website >> advise to use it?

Old habits die hard. It was a staple of studio film making technique for 50+ years - at one time a failure to adhere to it would have probably cost a DP their job. And it undeniably produces a flattering result in the vast majority of cases.

Whilst some faces look better with a frontal key and some look better when keyed from one side over the other the addition of fill lighting (to a level dictated either by mood or glamour) and some form of backlight on the hair (or hat) does present people in a 'best light'. Or at least it certainly did when the film stock was black & white (already a form of visual artifice and abstraction that begins to neutralise any argument about 'naturalism') and had an ASA of 25, requiring focused, columnated light sources to provide enough illumination.

The relevance of 3-point lighting was eroded slowly and incrementally with the introduction of faster and less grainy film stocks, faster lenses and ever more powerful and discreet light sources.

Not to mention the acceptance of colour photography as the norm' rather than an expensive and cumbersome luxury for prestige pictures.

At each of these technical introductions some brave and innovative souls would realise their new potential and gradually broader ('softer') bounced light sources and more 'naturalistic' ways of presenting film photography appeared.

But we go through real life tolerating no end of artificial and quite often plain ugly lighting situations so when our job is to recreate those situations our inclination is to beautify and aestheticise where possible. And not always where strictly appropriate. In lighting an electrically illuminated 'romantic dinner for two' restaurant scene featuring a 'mature' actress one would be quite within ones rights to suggest that the natural confluence of light fixtures in a set or on location could conspire to provide said artiste with classical 3-point lighting.

Though in this day and age it would seem wilfully and foolishly anachronistic to bash an unfiltered 5kw into their face - even if it did wash out every last crow's foot and worry line.

As Dan says, there's a lot to be said for understanding the methodology of 3-point lighting, even if one is never intending to practise it.

Tom Townend, Cinematographer/London.


3 point lighting is only basic and limited if you let it be so. It just needs to be approached the way you like it.

I love it when students tell me that a certain tutor teaches them 3 point lighting and then tells them it's boring and formulaic.

I know full well that he uses it in his work all the time. I could point out examples of 3 point lighting in most of the greatest films ever shot. A hard back light through a window, a subtle bounce key bringing the 'daylight' back on to the actor on one side, and enough ambient from the set to fill the shadows on the other. Key, Fill, Back.

The fun in teaching 3 point lighting is to set it up the 'boring' way and then spend a good deal of time playing with NDs, diffusion, colours and on/off switches.

The art is not in putting the lights in place, it's in controlling and modulating the light once it's there. And then there's the 4th point too...

Nic Lawson Director of Photography, London UK


I have occasional "conflict" about this with directors who can't see and once read a book on lighting.

I use soft light from below quite often as I love the feel--it cleans up a lot of facial imperfections and it's just generally a nice way to fill that recognizes that not all light comes from above or to the side of the camera. There's a fair bit of light that comes from the ground and it's often very flattering.

The original Apple stores had a perfectly diffuse ceiling (fluorescents set well above some sort of milky plastic ceiling, no sources visible) along with a very white, very reflective floor. The effect was dazzling as the light was so even from above and below that everyone looked like they were glowing from within. It was both natural and unnatural at the same time, and it gave the environment a unique look and feel that was pretty awesome.

Unfortunately the white floors collected dirt much like the sticky film you see outside of clean rooms, so that didn't last more than a month or two. --

Art Adams Director of Photography San Francisco Bay Area | CA | USA



> Sure, 3-point may be artificial, formulaic and archaic, but for the novice > it can be a BIG step up from artless, arbitrary lighting. So I don't mind > teaching it, as long as the student understands that it's basic and limited.

That's the problem: a lot of film students come out of school thinking that what they've learned is biblical, and all else is just old fools trying to justify their high salaries.

A while back I volunteered on a cable access show that did some great community outreach, and I thought that my skills might be welcomed as I was a professional willing to donate time to the cause. My lighting contributions were resented at every turn because I did it "differently" than some were taught in school... in fact, the staff guy who oversaw the production for the station was currently in film school and became quite vocal about my crazy "bounce light" ideas. (The rest of the volunteer crew started referring to "The Haunted Set" as I re-aimed some lights, turned many off and introduced some contrast instead of simply turning on every scoop in the grid.) I didn't last long: no point in contributing if no one wants what you're offering, even if that kind of expertise normally costs quite a lot in the real world.

When I went to school I wasn't very aware of lighting at all, and I grabbed on to three-point lighting as a go-to formula that I could use in every situation. As I shot more I slowly learned that it didn't work very well in a lot of situations, and as I assisted more I saw lots of DPs doing things that had nothing to do with three point lighting. (And a couple who never did anything BUT three point lighting.)

Key + fill does work pretty well in a lot of situations, especially in TV. It's fast and it can look pretty good. I remember being amazed at how much of Twin Peaks was shot that way, and I thought it looked really nice for that era.

So, while it's a great learning tool to get students up and going quickly, it's also a formula that many will latch onto and have a hard time letting go of.

Formulas are the enemy of clarity. I envy the cinematographers who are very touchy-feely lighters who can just sense where the lights need to go based on emotion and intuition; I am very much not one of those people, and sometimes I really wish I was. Then again, I have a very good sense when a particular camera or light will fail situationally and cost a lot of money, so there is some compensation.

I still fight against my innate desire to simply pull from my internal stock of several dozen lighting formulas that I've tweaked over the years. Still, I seem to be doing okay.

Everyone puts so much emphasis on the key light, but I wish more emphasis was placed on the fill. I remember years ago having an off-list chat with Dean Semmler during which he said, "Of course the hardest light to place is the fill light..." I wish I'd followed up and asked "Why do you say that?" because I've had to learn the hard way in a decade or more since.

Fill light changes everything, and I often find the one light that I move around a set when I change angles is always the fill light.

Three-point lighting dictates that the fill should be opposite the key and at the same height, and I don't often do the former and never do the latter. --

Art Adams Director of Photography San Francisco Bay Area | CA | USA



Maybe too informal but there it goes :

Give your eyes a good education,learning from the past master painters and photographers., and treat them well ...

Understand your tools deeply, eyes, light , sensors and movement...

Start lighting from the background to the foreground.

Use as less fixtures as possible , and leave some to be turned off without messing the entire setup.

Be ready and able to change all your plan in minutes, directors sometimes change their approach right before start shooting,because they found a better way...

Talking about 3 point, is just a crude attempt to put images into words, but works for teaching...

Fixtures, use what you have, and subvert them if they are not exactly fit to your task...( An open fresnel, a mirror and a piece of cardboard make a follow spot...)

And,last but not least , avoid saying : No ,it's impossible! most of the time. All the best ! --

Henrique Leiner Diretor de Fotografia Rua de Santanna 555 Casa Forte Recife 52060 460 Pernambuco Brasil


> Start lighting from the background to the foreground.

That's an excellent one. Unless you're shooting an abstract space or greenscreen for an interview, you're likely going to be dealing with a dressed space. It may be a set or it may be a practical location, but it will be full of stuff that your camera will be pointed at so you should pay attention.

Some of my best work was done with careful collaboration with a production designer and art director. After all, I can only light and point a camera at what is placed in front of me. In a well-designed set or dressed location, there are opportunities for practical (or practical-appearing) lighting and architectural lighting to properly dimensionalize the space. Often after building this out the way I wish, it's only a matter of dancing a unit or two around to adjust for talent and camera placement.

I've lit many large and complicated spaces like ballrooms, restaurants, huge night exteriors in construction lots, gaming halls, etc. Some were practical locations and some were sets created from whole cloth.

Knowing what the scene is about and what the director wants to achieve, I would design all my lighting of the background space and build it out appropriately.

After that I might often find a China Ball on a C-stand was all that was ever needed for lighting the talent.

Mitch Gross Director of Communications Convergent Design


firstly, great discussion !

I am in complete agreement - 3 point lighting is a good starting point ( perhaps for interviews) what I have learned,after many years gaffing is (of course) that there are no set rules to lighting.

Situational awareness. Yes, the set should light the actors. As to "key light placement" , some of my favorite stuff is "keyed" from almost behind with a card's bounce fill wrapping it a bit around a face. ( however that probably would not fly on a political commercial : )

The beauty of this business is that each set up / job requires a somewhat different approach, which keeps it interesting. The hardest part of lighting for me is staying focused, getting the scene lit is generally easy enough, but with the usual commotion and interruptions I find staying in the "zone" and really seeing where the light falls on a face and reacting to the unexpected but always occurring changes to be the most challenging part of the job.

Josh Spring Gaffer Colrian MA Washington DC


I despised 3-Point lighting the moment my college instructor tried to teach it.

It's simplistic to the point of being useless. Instead, look to the real world for inspiration. Where does light come from? Put it there! Then adjust it enough to work with your camera, distilled for the emotions appropriate to the scene.

Use the tricks that painters used to impart depth on their canvases. Make it real. Substitute "ambience" when you hear "fill". Substitute "motivated light" when you hear "key".

Create depth and separation through layers of light, when you hear "back light".

And when the light helps to convey the feeling of the story while making it possible to record, then you're on the right track.

Always ask "where does the light want to come from", and put it there.

And never let the light overwhelm the tale. It plays a supporting role. Think first about what it should look like before you consider the instrumentation that you'll use.

Don't let your tools dictate the look you achieve. That would be a much better place to begin discussing lighting, rather than some formula, in my opinion.

Bruce Aleksander Lighting Director Seattle Washington


Best way of "teaching" lighting is let people discover why it is there at all.

John Rossetti - London


Life isn�t 3 point, but then life doesn�t always fit the dramatic narrative..

With reference to lighting a person, there are times you need to see their face, even if there would be no lighting there. So you put a light up which gives some kind of shape to the face. We call it the key light. In days gone past it had to be powerful and was usually sharp but now it doesn�t have to be that powerful or that sharp - but its still the key or �master� light.

The rest follows from there. Using 3 points of light to illuminate someone are a good starting point - but its where those three points are in geometric space that count!

Interestingly I was watching a well know big TV series the other week, and whilst it looked lovely - if you actually deconstructed some of the scenes the lighting didn�t actually track and stay constant, otherwise a lot of it would have been played out in darkness.

Michael J Sanders: London Based DP/Cameraman


John Rossetti writes: "Best way of "teaching" lighting is let people discover why it is there at all."

That's a lovely idea John, and I tried that when I first started teaching. It was quite informal and we had a lot of fun doing it, but when I asked them, not long after, what they'd learned, they couldn't tell me anything.

More importantly, when left to shoot an exercise, they couldn't actually do anything either.

My school physics teacher told me that light travels in straight lines until you reach A-level. You have to learn things using simple rules before you can throw them out and move on.

Though it jars with the way we work as DPs, teaching has to be repeatable, assessable and accessible. 3 point lighting is a simple, excellent, elegant way to begin. It's the 'times tables' of learning lighting and, in spite of the denigrators and nay-sayers, no one has come up with something that replaces it.

Nic Lawson Director of Photography, London, UK


Well said Nic - when I was teaching college courses, I always told the students that in school one learns the rules.

In the "real world", one learns how and when to break the rules.

Regards, Chuck Johnson Producer Fort Worth, Texas "3 point lighting is a simple, excellent, elegant way to begin."


> My school physics teacher told me that light travels in straight lines until you reach A-level.

Best quote 2014

Mark Weingartner physics for a while in college until I took too many physics LA based DP/vfx etc



> Best way of "teaching" lighting is let people discover why it is there at > all.

I've had success in workshops by starting with no instruments at all. I'll set up a subject near a natural source such as a window and use that as the key...

Then modify that to light the subject. -shades up or down, open or closed, bounce light off a wall, etc.

I'll then ask the students to see what else is needed to make the image work on camera -Is the background too dominant?

What do you want to feature in the background?

How can we make that happen?

That way we get to the appropriateness of the light to the subject matter and go from there...Then we'll bring in the instruments..

Michael Moser DCDP michael@mosermedia.com


> I've had success in workshops by starting with no instruments at all. > > Good thought.

We've had some success with a similar approach lately. Today's cameras are so light sensitive that we now set up the camera and monitor first and carefully access what we see.

Not long ago we shot an interview with a man in his office. He sat next to his window and the panes in the window created interesting lines we liked. Plus, the outside view was good and he was talking about making the city a better place to live so we thought seeing the city outside fit the subject matter. We bounced some outside back toward him because the shadows on the side of his face not toward the window were a bit too dark and we didn't want a film noir look as we weren't going for drama. Then we use a couple of fixtures with blue gel to finish the look. In the end it looked great, natural and since we weren't fighting the window light, set-up and tear down were quick which made our interview subject more comfortable (and maybe allowed him to give a better interview).

I'm hoping to get some more LED daylight temp fixtures so I can do this even more as I seem to be running into a lot of windows in shoots I'm involved in.

Dave Stanton DP, Encore Multimedia Longview, Texas www.encoremultimedia.com



I agree that the current cameras allow us more freedom to experiment with 'found light,' but please don't misunderstand me...

I definitely wasn't advocating shooting without control, just using an approach to teaching which first emphasizes the way light works, then adding more control with instruments and grippage.

And I agree that three point lighting is a good place to start, once you 'See' that light is malleable. I'm sure we've all encountered this situation...

On a very tense shoot with a Congressman, I wasn't allowed access or the time to set up lights...Under pressure I sat him between a window and a reflector and I was able to deliver a good image for the interview.

When I was teaching photography, we sent the students out in their first exercise without film in the camera...I think that was an old Minor White trick.

Michael Moser DCDP


Hi Nic,. I started off with this idea when I used to tutor Sparks and Gaffers at Michael Samuelson Lighting when we were at Pinewood Studios.

In those days I had every light known to man at my disposal. ( from a Stik-up kit to a 192kw Wendy Light ) I started in the Small Process Stage opposite our lighting store, completely blacked out NO LIGHT at all.

I had set up a Live Camera pointing at a European Eagle Owl (our logo) perched on a chair, behind her were 10 6'x8' 60% grey boards each one offset by 3ft going off into the distance.

In everyone walked and we started with a blank canvas, it was very practical.

After 2 days of seeing what did what and why, we went on the some of the 15 Stages at Pinewood to see how it was done "for real" with some super explanations from some Great Cinematographers. They did not forget !!!!

John Rossetti - London


"When I was teaching photography, we sent the students out in their first exercise without film in the camera..."

That is so mean! Did they ever trust you again?

I do like the Stephen Barum approach mentioned earlier. At film school we studied Hitchcock and Welles (and Stephen Barum!), watched and read voraciously, and tried to plan our shots like they did. Storraro was a god.

Then one day I was lighting something when a student operator who'd had some TV experience (oh we envied him) was in for a day and asked, "What's the master shot here?" The director and I looked at each other baffled, and were horrified when he explained. Did people really shoot things that way?

Since then it's been a useful tool, but to me it's like 3-point lighting - a bit lazy and certainly boring. But hey, there's been many a great drama shot using precisely these approaches, so what do I know..?

I've noticed a killer to student creativity is the TV Studio. There they have limited instruments, and 3 point lighting is king. When I've been asked to teach at a college with one and produced a large poly board (borrowed from the photography dept) and a blonde (which is virtually useless in a TV studio) the reaction is at first bafflement, and then it's a joy to see the penny drop. Some really get it. Some though want to stick with what's safe, and I guess that's what they're still doing...

But the tools are changing. Cameras these days - wow! And what you can do in post. All that stuff I worked hard to learn that is now useless. Still keen to learn though! Love CML. ;-)

Karel Bata Director London


One of the best bits of advice I can give to any creative crew person in any department is to think like a director and when talking to the director to ask them to talk to you like an actor.

All of the work is toward common goals and it is all at the behest of the direct it's vision. Think about motivation, scene verbs, action verbs, etc. Once you have a grasp of the Why it will guide you toward the How.

If you don't have this down then all the tech in the universe will be worthless.

Mitch Gross Director of Communications Convergent Design


This conversation about basic lighting reminds me of my own very early shooting career, which was rooted firmly in the verite' tradition.

That meant developing a nose for that elusive camera position that captured the essence of a situation while (hopefully) making the most magical use of available light (chiaroscuro, if you please! -- those were the black & white days).

The great photojournalists and street photographers were an endless source of inspiration to me. Partly as a result, my documentary lighting tends, whenever possible, to be an augmentation of available light that strives for a natural look (window light with fill, tweaking practicals, choice of location where possible, etc.).

My entire traveling docco lighting kit fits in a rollaboard carry-on suitcase. That doesn't mean I won't light more formally and artificially when necessary, but jeez -- anyone can do that! ;-) One of my early mainstays was a Lowel kit, with six tape-up lamp-socket plates (the ones for which Gaffer Tape was invented) and photoflood bulbs with clip-on barndoors. With those, three stands, some gels, toughspun and a handful of C47s I could (and did) light damn near anything from talking heads to hotel ballrooms.

When photofloods were replaced by quartz units I was hoping someone would produce a quartz fixture in the shape of a photoflood with integral diffusion, so I could continue to "practice my art" -- but alas, it was not to be. I still have four of those Lowel plate setups, and am tempted to try some of the new household LED floods that just might fit those barndoors. The CRI be damned! :-)

Dan Drasin Producer/DP Marin County, CA


Over the years I have distilled my lighting approach to simply think like a light. If I were a light, what would I do? The basis of "Think Like A Light" comes from my feature documentary background.

My world is all about motivated light and using what the location gives me. There are three steps in the Think Like A Light approach.

1. Observe and feel the space is the first step.

2. Analyze how the light creates the feeling is the second.

3. Sort out how to replicate the feel with movie lights and lighting control is the third.

I start every basic lighting discussion or seminar with my Think Like A Light approach. By engaging and challenging the participants to observe and feel the room they are sitting in really helps to get them to focus on the real purpose of what we do as cinematographers - create the setting in which the director's story can be told. The quality of light, direction, intensity, color, ambient level, key, fill, and shadow are all topics of discussion when folks start to observe and feel the space. How the light is affected when it hits the various surfaces in the room introduces the concept of lighting control.

This first step of observation and feel is a great launching pad to then introduce the reasons and uses of hard or soft light, key or fill, ambient or shadow, and how we control and modify light. Unlike photographers who create a single image, cinematographers occupy the world of the moving image which means we have to deal mainly with lighting spaces, not subjects. How the actors move and play in that space often times is influenced by how cinematographers light the space in which the story is told.

For this reason it is critical for cinematographers accept the importance of their craft and to elevate it beyond the basics of three point lighting.

For me the first step in teaching someone how to light is to first teach that person how to feel and analyze light. Once a person understands light, teaching them how to light becomes an intuitive and inspired experience. My two cents...

Curt Apduhan Cinematographer Southern California


When I was a student my cinematography mentor gave me this assignment over 12 weeks: Once a week shoot a white ball, white cube and a white cylinder on a white seamless backdrop on slide film. The composition stays the same, the three objects are arranged in depth so all can be seen.

Start with 1 light and try to define all three shapes. Then use the light to create 2 different moods. Then 1 light and a bounce card. Then 2 lights, then 2 lights and a bounce, etc.

While this seemed so tedious to me while a student it has taught me a lot about lighting direction, simplicity and lighting for three-dimensionality.

Florian Stadler, DP, LA www.florianstadler.com www.buntefarben.com


I am really enjoying reading the various ideas people are contributing to this. We work so many different ways - as a gaffer and then a vfx supervisor I was struck by how differently people arrived at their various lighting schemes.

In my case I started in theatrical lighting, and as I was digesting the "standard" texts on theatrical and dance lighting, I took a course with Dennis Parichy relatively early in his illustrious career. In his class, Dennis had two exercises that we had to perform - diametrically opposed in terms of naturalism but totally aligned in honing our skill in SEEING light.

Here are the two exercises:

1. Get a small pocket notebook. Over the course of a couple of weeks, choose ten real-life situations. For each of those situations, write down your observations of Where the light is coming from Whether the light is hard or soft Color of the light Some sense of ratios between different light sources "Quality" of the light - try to describe it How the scene makes you feel. This could be, for instance, a person sitting in a bus stop shelter at night - the light from the advertisement on the side, the edge light from the neon from the liquor store behind, the headlights intermittantly washing over from low down, etc etc Dennis's point was that a necessary condition for producing a naturalistic look on stage was understanding the components that made up that look. the emotional impact observation helps focus when and why you might want to emulate certain lighting schemes... a bit of green in the backlight (one of my go-to manipulative moves in certain points in some stage dramas I designed) a bunch of light bouncing up from the floor or tables etc.

2. This second exercise was a progression intended to shake people of the habit of starting off with too many possibilities. Over the course of a few weeks we each got to light a scene with one person in it - 1. Pick a scene from a play First scene: One light no gel no dimmer - where does it go? Second scene: one light one gel, no dimmer Third scene two lights two gels no dimmer Fourth scene two lights, two gels two dimmers

These exercises were for theatrical lighting designers but they will definitely inform cinematographers' and lighting directors' work also

Mark Weingartner la based dp/vfx etc