Filming Basics: Types of Lighting

Your lighting is crucial for storytelling in every shot. Different film sets have different lighting setups to serve different purposes such as tone, mood, and atmosphere of the shoot. In filmmaking, it is more than just the basic three-point lighting setup to achieve a cinematic look. Therefore, we’ve created this blog to explain more about the different lighting every beginner should know.

What is cinematic lighting?

Cinematic lighting is subjective as it evokes a certain feeling and style to it. It has a special technique to achieve the look to prevent flat and boring lighting. It adds drama, depth, and ambiance to the whole story. An example below is the before and after of using cinematic lighting – change of color temperature and other light settings.

CINEMATIC LIGHTING Techniques Tips and Tricks - YouTubeImage: Google

With that, we share with you the basic lighting techniques and types of lighting commonly used in filmmaking.

How to Master the Three-Point Lighting Setup and Lighting TechniquesImage: No Film School

1) 3-Point Lighting

3-point lighting is basic yet essential for all beginners to know – a traditional method yet effective to light a subject in a scene from 3 positions. The three types of light are Key light, Fill light, and Backlight.

Taking reference from the picture above, the Key light is the primary yet brightest light source in the setup as it gives the most exposure in the scene. Usually placed off camera to the side and placed 45 degrees to the subject to give depth.

The Fill light on the other hand is placed the same as the key light but on the opposite side. It will help to cancel out the shadows caused by the Key Light. The Fill light is slightly less intense than the key light depending on how the director wants to determine the whole mood of the scene.

Last but not least is the Backlight. Also known, as “hair light” that lights the object from behind to complete the whole light setup. Typically, it gives depth to separate the subject from the background, pointing it towards the subject’s neck.

The placement and intensity of the different lighting can also affect the mood of the whole scene which comes to the next point of lighting technique.

What Is a Key Light? Our Complete Guide To Key Lights • Filmmaking LifestyleImage: Filmmaking Lifestyle

2) Low Key Lighting

Low key lighting usually emphasizes showing shadows, high contrast, and dark shade/tones in the shot. It is usually achieved by using key lights with a small percentage of fill rights that gives a dramatic mood to it. Low-key lighting is commonly used in narrative videos or significant/serious scenes such as thrillers and horror films to give a dark mood. The image below shows the low-key lighting on Michael Myers (villain). It causes discomfort and tension to viewers on the darkness and evil of the villain making the victim helpless and powerless.

Halloween Ends' Trailer: Michael Myers Haunts Jamie Lee Curtis - VarietyImage: Google

3) High Key Lighting

A direct contrast to low-key lighting is high-key lighting. High-key lighting is a lighting style that shows low contrast and shadow with soft lighting. The key light and fill light are lit up equally to achieve this effect – bright enough to cancel off the dark shadows in the frame. Often used in product/beauty commercials as well as comedies to achieve an elegant, positive and cheerful look. This is effective especially to depict trust to the viewers in the actual product shown.

High Key Lighting vs Low Key Lighting for Photography
Image: Adorama

Lowkey vs. Highkey

Low key lighting and high key lighting are rather obvious and easily distinguish from one another. Low-key lighting is black, and dark with low, shadowy tones while high-key lighting is rather white and soft while using warm colors.

4) Soft Lighting

Its name “soft” shows diffused and well-balanced light that did not cast any dark shadows on the subject. The light tends to surround the object with smoother edges making both light and dark even. Soft lighting gives a simple yet eases feeling which is often used in love/romantic films. To achieve soft lighting, diffusers and bounce boards/reflectors are used to get rid of the harsh shadows on the subject.

Cinematography Tip: How to Create Soft Diffused LightImage: Premium Beat

5) Hard Lighting

Hard lighting gives an intense look to the subject due to its emphasis on contour features and texture. This forced the subject to create a harsh shadow/silhouette which helps to draw the viewer’s attention to the details of the scene. Hard lighting is mainly used in action-packed drama to show a more strong/a serious look toward the character.

Lighting 101: A Quick Guide for Lighting FilmImage: Premium Beat

Soft Lighting vs. Hard Lighting

If you want your subject to appear natural and friendly, soft lighting is a good option as it did not cast any dark shadows on the subject. It also helps to hide a few facial details of the subject such as wrinkles and pimples. But if you want a strong and complex subject with a grainy effect, hard lighting would be your option as it offers depth through bold shadows/silhouettes. Both lightings create different visual moods depending on your preference.

Lighting Modifiers Cheat Sheet | A Visual GuideImage: SLR Lounge

6) Bounce Lighting

Photography Lighting Techniques & Equipment | Sony INImage: Sony

Bounce lighting is a basic lighting technique where the light is bounced off a surface that reflects the lighting to another surface. This “bounced light” will have a wider surface area that covers a larger spread than the main light source. Therefore, it had the ability to soften and diffuse the light to get natural yet soft lighting effects to the subject. Usually, this is achievable when using external flash equipment and working in small spaces. The angle of the flash should be considered for the amount of intensity as well as the shadows cast when shooting.

Bounce flash examples - TangentsImage: Neil Van Nickerk

7) Ambient Light

Ambient lighting is typically general lighting that illuminates the whole area. It can determine if the space is bright, cool, dark, and many more which sets the mood of the room as it involves using color, temperature, and also brightness. They are usually comfortable with the eye of unnecessary glaring and harsh shine which light sources include natural light from the sun or pre-existing light around the shooting area.

Video Ambient Lighting in Code Plugins - UE MarketplaceImage: Unreal Engine

An example is an above image, which shows a lighted TV screen – an ambient light that contributes to the overall light in the room. Although the image is dark with shadows, the light illuminates the room with a greenish-blue shade that was portrayed from the TV screen.

8 Steps to Perfect Ambient LightingImage: Houzz

Another example of ambient light includes this image where the sun primarily is the light source as it was illuminated from the big windows. The white lights further enhance the place to be brighter but mainly direct natural light from the sun.


Lighting plays an important role yet is essential to create a successful film – making it more visually compelling and impactful to the audience. It creates the scene to appear natural and organic like how human eyes see in real life and that’s the reason why proper lighting is important. Each lighting serves a different meaning and purpose therefore, it is recommended for all beginners to learn some of the basic lighting techniques used in filmmaking. All the best in your exploration and practice! Stay tuned for our next blog.






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