Watch more Filmmaking 101 videos:
Novice filmmakers tend to focus on the script and filming, but proper lighting lends a professional quality that can’t be beat.
Step 1: Work with what’s there
Before you start hauling lights around, take note of where you’re filming and see if it’s possible to work with what’s already there.
Always set up the camera and block the scene before you start lighting—otherwise you’ll waste a lot of time if you discover you have to move the shot and then redo all the lights.
Step 2: Attach filters and barn doors
Before flipping on the lights, attach scrims, “barn door” flaps, and diffusion gels (with clothespins) as needed. These will help you control the quality and quantity of the light.
Be careful with barn doors—they can get extremely hot very quickly! Wear protective gloves, if necessary.
Step 3: Position the lights
Position the lights in the room. For a good multipurpose setup, use three lights in a classic arrangement know as ‘three point lighting.’
Step 4: Set up key light
Put one light in front of and slightly above your subject at a 45-degree angle. This is the key light.
Step 5: Add a back light
Add a second light behind and above the subject. This is the backlight, and it helps separate the subject from the background.
Step 6: Add fill light
Add the third light on the opposite side of the key light. This is the fill light. The light from this source should be indirect or diffuse, so consider reflecting it, or shining it off a wall or at the ceiling.
If you’re shooting on the fly and don’t have time to set up three-point lighting, turn on every non-fluorescent light in a room, bounce light onto the actors, and add a light or two.
Step 7: Avoid extremes
While lighting can vary wildly, it’s generally a good idea to avoid extremes—too much light and everything looks bleached; not enough light and things look grainy and colorless.
Step 8: Experiment and practice
Proper lighting is hard work and takes a lot of practice. Experiment on your own, and when its time to shoot you’ll be well prepared.
Did You Know?
Citizen Kane is renowned for its unconventional, expressionistic lighting—many critics consider it stylistically to be a film noir.