Movie Production equipment, movie cameras and film lights

How to Light a Movie Scene

Have you ever wanted to Light your own movie scene?

If you’re like me you’ve seen many dark horror films, a well-lit romantic comedy, and a gritty and grim war movie. Digital effects are sometimes used to colorize the film during post-production, but what gives each of these types of films its unique look and feel is the knowledge of how to light a scene and the type of lighting used on location.

There are a couple of simple movie lighting techniques you can employ that will get your lighting just right for your video. The first of these is basic three-point lighting, which you can experiment with below.

Three-Point Lighting

Key Light

This is the most focused, directional light used in the three-point setup. It is used to illuminate the strong or dominant side of the subject (determined by which way they are facing, or from the left by default).

The key light creates the largest amount of light of any of the three and is usually set the furthest away from the subject, being directed in a slightly narrower beam than the others if possible. As a result it also tends to create the most obvious shadows.

Fill Light

The fill is used to offset the harshness and the sharp shadows that can be caused by the key light. It is a softer, more indirect light that not only fills out the opposing side of the subject, but lights up the immediate surrounding area.

Using a diffuser or filter on the fill light is a good way to make it spread out and give it some added softness. A thin piece of white vinyl or tissue paper can be placed in front of the light to do so, but be aware that anything you put too close can become very hot over the course of filming! I once had a clear plastic shower curtain start to melt over one of my fill lights while I was shooting a scene. The result was a nasty odor and some toxic smoke, which was not very fun to be around.

Back Light

The back light provides a “rim” or border around your subject to set it off from the background. This is great for shooting close-ups and portraits, and the back light can be placed slightly low on the vertical plane and angled upwards to provide a softer effect.

In situations where the subject is near a wall and you don’t want such a feathery effect, you can actually turn the back light toward the wall and bounce the light off to better illuminate the background.

Bouncing Light

You may find, especially if you are using cheap shop lights or other inexpensive lighting tools, that you don’t have very much control over how to light a scene. The direction, spread, temperature, and sharpness of each light might not seem as if they are adding the proper types of lighting to the set. In these cases it is possible to bounce light off of an object to create a softer glow rather than a stark beam.

Use a piece of foamcore from your local craft store, a car windshield sun reflector, or any other lightly colored reflective object. Turn the light away from your subject and use the reflector to send the light back in that direction. It may take some tweaking time to angle the reflector so that the light bounces off of it correctly and lands on the subject in a more pleasing way.

Get It

In many locations where you’ll be in an enclosed space there may not be enough room to set each light just as you need it. You may also find that altering the height of your light sources changes the feel of your shot; higher key lighting offers an angelic effect, while lower, up-angled lights cause a more rigid, spooky look.

It may take some practice and tweaking to get each situation correct, but you will find that while your location set may seem overly bright to the naked eye, knowing how to light a scene really livens up a scene and provides the necessary light for your camera to function at its best.

An Inexpensive Solution

If you’re working on a budget and don’t have much to spend on lighting equipment, picking up a few basic clamp lamps is just about the easiest and most cost-effective thing you can do. These aren’t professional-grade, but they’ll go a long way toward giving your scenes some extra visual impact.

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