Lighting for Film & TV – Part 1: The Basics

2 Mar

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We’ve briefly touched on some of the techniques required to become a successful camera operator in the “How to be a Better Camera Operator” series, (part 1, part 2 & part 3). This next series is going to be all about Lighting.

Why lighting? Well first and foremost we get asked about it a lot. We’ve had a lot of requests from people wanting to know more about how to light and it’s one of our most successful courses.

In the posts that follow, we’ll be discussing everything and anything to do with lighting, from the basics right up to more advanced, in depth knowledge. So let’s go!…

Why is Lighting Important?

Lighting, as with nearly every other aspect of Film & TV, is an essential part of the filmmaking process. Light can sculpt and describe a scene or character, it can hide or reveal key areas of your frame, it can enhance suspense and evoke emotion. It is as critical in directing the audiences’ attention or influencing their emotions as camera movement, acting, music and editing. Ignore it at your own loss.

I believe most independent filmmakers (particularly in film) are aiming to create images of cinematic quality, that they can look at and think “Phwoar, that looks like a movie“. It is both unfortunate and foolish that on an independent level, many seem to ignore lighting and instead favor which camera they are using or what lenses they’re shooting on.

I urge anyone with this mindset to stop for a minute and realise that even with a Panavision Panaflex your images are going to look boring and flat if you haven’t lit the scene well. Yes, the camera might give you crystal clear images and the ever-popular shallow depth of field, but that is only half of the story.

Many only realise this after pouring their hard earned cash into the latest and greatest filming equipment, only to discover later down the line that that shiny new camera isn’t going to make their films look any more cinematic. It’s a shame and I’m here to say that anyone can create fantastic looking images if they put as much effort into their lights as they do their cameras.

Interested? Cool. So where do we start?

Here’s a short quote from cinematographer, John Alton’s book “Painting With Light”, which sums up the importance and purpose of lighting:

An outstanding book.

Lighting strives to bring out the following values:

1. Orientation – to enable the audience to see where the story is taking place.
2. Mood or feeling (season of year and time of day)
3. Pictorial beauty, aesthetic pleasure.
4. Depth, perspective, third dimensional illusion.

Got that? Good. Next, if you’re going to get better at lighting, then you’re going to need to know some terminology. No doubt many of you will already be very familiar with the 16 terms laid out below, so forgive me if I’m teaching you to suck eggs, but this course is going to be designed with an absolute beginner in mind.

Knowing what these terms mean will help you greatly in understanding the further posts to follow:

1. Artificial Light
Artificial light is the name given to any form of light that is man-made as opposed to natural daylight. Artificial Light can be anything from table lamps in the home, florescent lighting in hospitals, car headlights and of course film and TV studio lighting. In film and TV, artificial light can be used to supplement existing daylight or create a controlled daylight ‘look’ in an area where no daylight exists (e.g. a studio) it really depends on the situation and the look you are trying to achieve.

Barn doors

2. Barn doors
4 Black aluminum hinged ‘doors’ or flags attached to the lamp head, used to control the spread of light from the light source. They can be adjusted to control the light beam, create shadows and prevent lens flares.

3. Back Light
Back Light separates or ‘Lifts’ a subject off a background. It is positioned facing towards the lens from above and behind the subject (or behind and slightly off set to provide more rim light).

4. Bounced Light
Light source which is reflected or bounced off a light coloured surface. Bounced light off a white surface is very soft and generally used for increasing the overall light level of a large area.

5. Bubble
Industry term given to the name of the actual ‘bulb’ in a lamp head.

The Colour Temperature scale (click for larger version)

6. Color Temperature, Kelvin Scale, K
Measured in degrees Kelvin Colour temperature is the colour or ‘hue’ of a light source. Film and TV lamps  can be balanced to specific colour temperatures by using filters and gels. The colour temperature of daylight is approximately 5,600K whereas tungsten light  3,200K.

7. Daylight
The natural source of light during the day, it can be recreated using HMI lamps or Tungsten lamps with specific filters to convert the colour temperature of tungsten light into daylight.

8. Eye Light
Sometimes also known as a ‘Catch Light’. The Eye Light is a small diffused light near the camera lens axis which is used to give a person’s eyes a little sparkle. Awww… no jokes though, without it people actually seem a little less ‘lively’.

A Fresnel lens, this is from a lighthouse but it obviously has the same effect of amplifying the light.

9. Fresnel Lens
A specific type lens used on certain lamps for focusing and controlling the light source.

10. Gobo
Originally termed a ‘Go Between’, a gobo is a flag with a pattern cut out which is positioned in front of a  lamp to produce creative patterns and lighting effects. (Incidentally I’ve written a quick tutorial on how to make your own gobo).

11. Hard Light
A direct, controllable light source from a lamp with or without a lens. Use to create dramatic highlights and dark shadows – far less flattering than a Soft Light.

12. Highlights
The bright areas of a lit scene that provide structure and form. Highlights can be achieved with both soft and hard lighting, a good example being a highlight positioned to enhance the sheen on a person’s hair.

An HMI bubble.

13. HMI, Metal Halogen
Extremely powerful, high output lamps, they are balanced to daylight (5,600-to-6,000K, ideal for balancing existing daylight). Also used on night shoots with colour correction gels and filters.

14. Incandescent Lamp
A lamp with a Tungsten filament that produces ‘White’ artificial light.

15. Soft Light
The direct opposite to Hard Light, the Soft Light is less intense and more subtle. It is less controllable than Hard Light, but very flattering, ideal for lighting faces.

16. Tungsten-Halogen or Quartz Iodine Lamp
In principal similar to a domestic light bulb in that the light source is created by a Tungsten filament. However that’s where the similarity ends, Tungsten-Halogen lamps are very powerful, and get extremely hot during prolonged use.


So there we go. You’re interested in lighting (great!) and you’ve learnt some new terms (also great!), now it’s time to start learning some techniques, so stick around for my next blog.

If you can’t wait that long, why not do some research of your own? I’d strongly recommend browsing the internet or investing in a book like “Painting with Light” by John Alton. There’s a lot out there to help you on your way.

Please share this if you’ve enjoyed it, it’s the only of knowing that the blog is useful. If you fancy, follow us on facebook and twitter AND if you want free updates and e-books (coming soon) then sign up in the form to the right. Finally, I run Lighting and Camera Operators Courses  so click the link or get in touch, if you’re interested in coming and learning in person!

Just to wet your appetite here’s a quick cool video (courtesy of “Lights by Filmschool“) showing  you how a change in light has a dramatic effect on the scene and subject.

There we have it. Have fun people!


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14 Responses to “Lighting for Film & TV – Part 1: The Basics”

  1. reelization March 11, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    Reblogged this on Reelization and commented:
    A great post on ‘the basics for lighting’!
    Learn the skills.
    Apply to your film.
    Teach others.
    Happy Film Making 🙂

  2. Edward Aduamah February 12, 2016 at 2:30 pm #

    tanxs very much 4 ur invaluable info


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