All aspects of Lighting


I was watching a recent episode of Project Greenlight, and a big
deal was made over the time the DP took to light some relatively small
rooms. I can't remember exactly how long it took, but expectations were
rather high that lighting an interior on a relatively low budge production
would not be so intensive. Is lighting a scene typically the most time
consuming aspect of cinematography, and what time saving practices would you
implement, so the Director actually has time to work with his actors?

- Jsimmons

A Director once said to me: "I'll give you the time to light the scene well,
even though it is taking away my time with the actors."  So you are right:
time taken lighting is time taken from the Director.  However, like all
things in filmmaking, a good Cinematographer will adapt himself to the
situation at hand.  For State and Maine shot in 29 days I would not have
given myself the same time to light as in, say, Shipping News, shot in 65
days.  Also in the first film, the lighting is  not as important as in the
second, so I would keep this in mind. The best way to save time lighting is
to have a pre-light crew do as much of the work as possible before you get
there.  Not possible of course on ultra low-budget, but in every other
circumstance it's a big timesaver which makes it a money saver also.

I'm a 20-year-old film student at Temple University. I just want
to know the best way to light a suspense/horror scene that is taking place
in a short, narrow hallway and a small bathroom ( measures about 8x8). I
have two DP lights and one OMNI light and I am very concerned with getting
the mood right.

Suspense and horror is traditionally lit from below with single shadows
running up walls etc behind the actor.  Keep the contrast high (little or no
fill) and find out which of your lights makes a nice clean shadow.  A "bar"
bulb won't do this so you need a lamp with a "point" source to make a clean
edged shadow.  Get the light as far away as possible, and it if still
doesn't give a decent shadow, try making a small hole for it to shine
through, or removing the reflector and/or condensor.  Good luck! Don't
forget you can hang bare light bulbs in shot which always looks stark -
especially when they swing about after the actor bumps into them!  If you
can, do a little test with your lens/stock combination to figure out what
the maximum wattage is before it starts flaring the lens.

I watch some films and it looks like every shot in a scene
outdoors is back lit even if the actors are directly facing one another.
Doesn't this defy the logic of realism? Would you shoot one actor's close-up
in the morning sun and the turn around and get the other actor's close-up in
the afternoon or are you actually relying on studio lights and diffusion to
block the sun?

Thanks, Rob

This is an old chesnut as they say (where does that phrase come from??).
Some DP's like to turn the actors, or re-light them, so that they are always
"back-lit".. This, as you point out, is not realistic, though it may be
logical if it's a romantic comedy.  The decision is usually made on the
"realism versus romance" scale (that's not official...): I would use the one
technique (ie realism) in a dramatic film (such as The Hi-Lo Country) and
the other (back-lit) in a romantic comedy (such as One Fine Day).  If you
enjoy watching movies, it's best not to get too obsessed about this, as you
will soon find you are watching for this and nothing else!  My inclination
is to start off with the natural, but modify it for the genre, if necessary.

I recently came across your "ask a cinematographer" column at the imdb, and
as I hope to be a director someday, something you said caught my eye. I

"Many a time I have arrived on a location in the morning and thought: it
should look just like it does now."

My question is, very simply, why can't it look that way without added
lighting? Isn't there a camera and/or a stock out there that can make
natural light look like the way we see it?

Thanks for your time, Basil Revelas

There's two problems here: one is photographic, the other practical.

The human eye is a truly wonderful instrument, that has taken many millions
of years to develop, in contrast to photography that is not even two
centuries old.  For the purpose of brevity, let us consider the differences
of just three aspects of sight: Resolution, Sensitivity and Contrast.

1. Resolution.  Lenses are getting close to achieving comparison with the human
eye.  Binoculars, for instance, enable us to see what the eye cannot.  So
what we see with our eyes is broadly comparable to what the camera sees, as
far as resolution is concerned.  This is because the lens is the easy bit!

2. Sensitivity.  This is the ASA of the eye - the "film speed".  Here we
start to notice a big difference.  The eye has a tremendous range of
sensitivity (from 1 ASA to 20000 ASA if you like), and, more importantly,
can use all these speeds at once. So when you look from at a black man lying
on a heap of coal to the snow outside the window, your eye/brain will
perform a miracle of iris adjustment, as well as "sensitivity" adjustment
that will render detail in both the man and the snow.  This process happens
in the iris, in the rods and cones (in the retina) and in the brain.  As
much as one fifth of the human brain is taken up with processing visual
data, so that gives you an idea of just how complicated that process is.

3. Contrast.  This is part of the above, and in the eye is continuously
variable, whereas in film it is fixed (with a nod to telecine transfers!).
So film has a "scale" (like a piano), so you have to fit the light and dark
into that scale, otherwise you won't see the man lying on the coal, and the
snow outside the window.  So when I turn up in the morning and think it
should "look just like it does now", I have to re-interpret the tonal scale
into something that fits film (or video), so that when it is rendered into a
picture, it looks something like what I saw through my eye.

The other "practical" problem, is that real light changes all the time so if you are
shooting a scene for a day or two, you need to be able to maintain the light
for each shot to match.  So what nature provides is for demonstration
purposes only.. we have to do the rest.

I am new to your column and must say it's very inspiring to see that
professional cinematographers have the same problems that we low budget
filmmakers have! And now on to my question:

How do you suggest to light a scene (for video) with high contrast (about
1:2, 1:4) with only a couple of lamps, like six of them? (redheads 650/800W
and sometimes a Arri spot 300W). The scene shoud also have enough exposure
and different colors, red and blue, to create depth...

And I also wonder why american cinematographers don't hold the camera like
here in Sweden. Sven Nyqvist, Sweden's most notorius cinematographer, didn't
like "ordering" people to do a pan and stuff like that. I mean, in the US
(and Hollywood...) you have assistant assistants that assist the

Hope you understand my question and that I didn't bring any spelling
misstakes with me, though I am a swede :-)

Peter Dahlgren

Hi Peter,
About the lighting question : with limited lights make the scheme
simple: choose backgrounds carefully, try and use practicals (for night int)
and daylight (mirrors? Reflectors?) if it’s day. Complimentary colours will
increase apparent depth. I don’t really know what you mean about “holding
the camera”: I think you mean: why don’t US Cinematographers operate the
camera? The reason for this is mostly historical.  The very large size of
the cameras when “talkies” first came in meant that a whole team of people
was required to move it about.  Then the “operator” job became a union grade
and wouldn’t go away when the cameras became smaller and lighter.  It’s
still a Union requirement in the US to employ an Operator, and a number of
cinematographers (me included!) have had grief when operating and lighting a
film in  the US.

Mr Stapleton,
Can you tell me something about this new way of lighting everything on stage with halogens? Flooding every square inch with quartz lights in bundled cans? I've been working on several recent projects with Janus Kaminski, and the amount of wattage is incredible! Is this a new type of film stock issue? Or is it the digital high definition arena?


Hmm.. very strange. Best bet here is to ask Janus what he is up to.  Every DP lights in their own way so it sounds like he’s trying something out.  It won’t be anything to do with stocks or high def.. lighting is it’s own thing independent of the image gathering medium.

 I am currently working on a student film at Penn State.  About
50% of what we are shooting is outdoors at night, and with limited resources
(mainly in the way of places to draw power). I was wondering if you could
offer any advice on how to get the most out of what I have to work with
while keeping it as simple and efficient as possible.  We have a decent
selection of lights from 200W peppers to 2K softlights at our disposal.  The
shots are mainly going to be a mix of static and dynamic movement from the
actors but not necessarily the camera.

Thanks Casey McHugh

Hi Casey, Here’s a few tips.
1. A couple of wide shots can be shot “dusk (ordawn) for night”.  This uses the fading post-sundown light as a fill light
in the shadow.  Remember this light is very blue (relative to tungsten film) so you may or may not want this.  You can get rid of it by using daylight stock (but then your 2ks etc will look very orange unless you filter them),
by using an 85 or by just adding 1/4 blue to your tungsten lights. When the daylight has disappeared, you can match the close up’s by bouncing an HMI light (or a blue gelled 2k) off a white reflector.
2. Kodak make an 800 ASA stock - use it, and your lights will spread further: but remember not to
overwhelm the natural light from people’s windows etc by making your lights too bright, or too “white”.
3. A T1.4 lens is a whole stop faster than a T2 lens, though not as sharp (usually).
4. Distant lights from camera can be plugged in to people’s homes, or run from a small garden generator.
5. Use existing poles - street lights etc - to secure your lights above frame.
Good luck!

I am shooting a short on HI-8 for my application to NYU. What are some techniques to light my subjects?
--Jack, NJ

Hi Jack,
I am assuming that you don’t have much in the way of Big Gun lighting units, so I’ll make my comments based on this.
1. If you’re shooting outside, make careful note of where the sun might be on any given location day, and where it goes during the day.  If you’re in Manhatten, then tall buildings make big shadows - especially in winter - so work out where they are going.  There’s plently of software programs that do this, but a compass will tell you a lot.
Decide whether you want a back-lit (softer, kinder), cross- lit (3 dimensional, contrasty) or Front Lit  (saturated, brilliant). This will determine the  “Look” and plan accordingly.  A couple of bounce boards for faces (maybe one white, one off-white), is all you really need lighting wise.
2. Indoor Day: try and find rooms with really good natural light and think about the sun and windows and what will happen during the day.  If you have access to window gels, you might be able to get detail outside that way, otherwise you have to put a lit of HMI type light (daylight balanced) into the room.  Generally Hi-8 can’t deal with much contrast, but you might decide you like the “blown-out” window look, and use a soft filter some kind on the lens to make it creep around the window edges (an oft use commercial look).  If it’s sunny you can do a lot with 4x4 mirrors throwing the sun through the windows.
3. Indoor Night: Practical lights can more of less light a scene for you, with just a small number of low power film lights, or just spotlights you can hide around the set.
4. Outdoor Night.  Just choose somewhere that more or less lights itself, so you need only a little foreground light for your actors.  The beauty of choosing a location on video is that you just take a walk with your camera, shoot it, then go home and look at it on a monitor!

Good luck with your application!

You mentioned in your previous column that it has been known to take
several days to light a shot. What's the longest you've ever taken to
light a shot and did the end result justify the time?


The opening sequence of Absolute Beginners (Temple 1985) is an early example of a long tracking steadicam shot that went on and off a crane.  (It actually is mentioned in the dialogue of Altman’s The Player).  In effect the shot took three weeks to light, although that three weeks was also devoted to lighting the whole set which was a section of Soho streets, built on the very large H stage in Shepperton Studios.  It’s a rather wonderful shot in a film spoiled by it’s casting.
There is a shot in Hero (Frears 1992) which took a very long time to light and after we saw it (it took most of a day to shoot), I said to Stephen I thought I could make it look better.  The fact that we re-shot it (and it did look much better) is a testament to the kind of trust that goes on in a long term collaboration.
Re-shooting is always an expensive option, so it pays to take the time in the first place to get it right.  Many starting-out cinematographers are afraid to take the time, but if you don’t, your work will never compete with those who do.

I'm currently shooting a student film on 16mm. In one particular indoor
scene, the primary light source is supposed to be coming from a flashing
neon street sign from across the street. I was wondering what would be
the easiest way to achieve this look of a bright flashing light coming
through an apartment window.


Kino-Flo make special tubes that can be switched on and off without flicker.  You could wrap a colour gel round one of these, or more than one, and then put it behind a curtain or shear to make a “neon”.  With it you could synch up another light in the room with the same colour that goes in time to the one outside.  Remember that if you want a colour to register on a see-through curtain, don’t make it too bright otherwise it will wash the colour out.  That is why you use another light inside to “mimic” the one outside.  If you place the light low it will make the apartment seem high up and vice-versa.

I am preparing to shoot a short film (10 minutes) and wondering what advice
a seasoned Cin might have. Takes place at the mouth of a filthy alley in
S.F. It’s B&W shot on miniDV @ night, comic book feel. I want the alley to
be even darker than the street, dolly shots to reveal what characters
miss.  My goal is to get ideas on how to keep the alley looking scary, the
main antag looking very evil. As if the camera was a person hiding watching
all this happen in each shot. Thank you very much for your time and I
apologize if I rambled too long. -Alex

Single source lighting sounds like a good idea for you, and keep it contrasty.  Keep the light low and throw long shadows of your characters on the walls and pavement.  A small bulb will give a sharper shadow than a large one, and the further away the light is the sharper the shadow will be.  Silhouette also works will in this situation.  Take a look at some early b&w films like Touch of Evil for other ideas.
On the camera side, handheld usually works well here (more like a person than a tripod shot).  Remember that people can “enter” their own POV’s, and for some shots you might want to move from the character to the POV of the character.

March 1 2003
I'm a student currently involved in the pre-production of a film that would involve a single camera in the middle of a room that would only be allowed to pan for most of the shots.  Do you have any advice on how to light such a room such that I might be able to pan 360 degrees without inconsistent shadows cropping up everywhere?

You haven’t mentioned what kind of mood this  is, but let’s assume it is night.  If it was day then you would be lighting through the window and putting some bounce light in the ceiling out of the top of shot ? and making sure the colour is correct.  For night, concentrate on the practical lights in the set.  If there aren’t any you might consider putting one or two in.  The things to consider are:

  • What kind of shade does the light have ? colour and luminosity.
  • Can you hide another bulb behind or in the shade.
  • Can you place the lamps where the actors will be lit by them?
If you put the practical and it’s “hidden” bulb in separate in-line dimmers that will give you more control over them.  Another trick is to gel the inside of the shade that is towards the camera, so the colour does not “burn out”, but you can have the rest of light at a higher level.
In the ceiling you could rig some small lights (like peppers) which can light certain parts of the room where you need it ? using the practicals as a guide: or just where you need the actors to be lit.  Bear in mind that a direct light will cast  a shadow which you may or may not want depending on the mood.  If you don’t, then a “chinese lantern” may be the way to go (a simple paper shade with a bulb inside) or “bounce” a light off a white card in the ceiling.
Lastly, if you feel the light is too “toppy”, you can put a small light on the camera itself, with some diffusion in front of it, and again put this on a dimmer.  This can be a “fill’ so that eye shadows are not too deep ? though this form of lighting is coming back into fashion I notice!

I don't know if you've seen them but GE has a new line of lights called reveal.  They have a bluish tint when the light is off but when on the light seems really white.  I was absolutely amazed at the difference between these and other lights in my house that were really yellow in comparison.  This was the first time it occurred to me how important lights must be.  Do you know if these lights would be appropriate for filming?  I know you are going to tell me to just test them but there are so many lights that are available that it seems counterproductive if it has already been shown that there is a list of lights that are totally unacceptable.  Also do you have any suggestions for other cheap lighting alternatives or a book that may discuss this?

Books can’t keep up with the changes in lighting fixtures so forget about them in relation to what you are talking about.  I don’t know these particular units, but there is a lot of development with LED lighting at the moment, though mostly only at very low levels.  12v lighting is generally much “whiter” than tungsten.  When approaching any “new” kind of light the things to watch out for are:

  • Is the light “continuous”? Ie normal Tungsten bulbs (the “yellow” kind) are continuous.  If a bulb has a “ballast”, which may or may not be attached to the bulb, then the chances  are that it is not “continous”.
  • In this case, such as flourescent light, “eco’ lighting and street lighting, film may or may not have a problem with it.  These problems are:
  • The light may flicker because the 24fps shutter sees differing amounts of the light each time it takes it’s 1/48th sec “slice’ of light.
  • The colour of the light may look very different on film to how your eye sees it.  This is because the “motion blur” aspect of your eye smooths out what in real life is a series of flashes, like the projection of a movie.
  • The movie lights known as HMI (daylight colour) used to have this problem before they made the ballasts “flicker free”.
In principal, if the bulb is just a bulb with no other electronics, then then chances are it will not flicker and will look the same colour on film that it looks to the eye.  If any “box” is attached to the light then it is probably “discontinous” and may or may not be a problem on film.  With DV just take a look ? this may also be helpful in trying to figure out what colour a discontinous light source will come out on film, if you put a “reference” light next to it.    The only “unacceptable” light is one that flickers in a way that is unnatural and distracting.  All other lights are just lights and as such, waiting for you to try them out.

I've scraped some cash together and am currently in pre-production on a no budget feature. I've already decided that I'm not shooting on DV, seeing as how I want to be a FILMMAKER, and not a kid with a camcorder.  Only problem is, I live in a very secluded area so there are zero DP's available.  Someone has recommended that I just shoot with a high-speed stock like 800 ASA, then point and shoot with no lighting at all.  What'd you think?  Can you give me any tips on lighting a no budget with...well, no budget?

Lightbulbs are cheap and some of them are quite bright ? especially with 800ASA film.  Use practical lights on tables, desks etc and choose the shades carefully so a decent amount of light comes out from the shade.  You can make up some bare bulb sockets and tape them to the back of the shade to add light where the hidden bulb won’t be seen.  When Gordon Willis lit The Godfather he apparently had a suitcase full of lightbulbs that he would hang here and there on the set!
By the way, you don’t have to be a Kid with a Camcorder, you could be a Genius with a Camcorder...

This may sound daft. How would you light a scene that involves the camera moving a full 360 degrees? Second part: How would you light a scene in a flo-mo style 360*?
If you could shed some light on this I would be grateful.

Having dimmer control is important if it is a night scene.  This is so that you can dim the light a little as it becomes frontal: front light (key light) tends to be unimpressive when seen from the opposite direction, so if you imagine a 360 degree scene then as you go around all the smaller lights you may have in the ceiling should in an ideal world be individually controllable on a dimmer board.  The “dimmer man” has a small monitor so that he can see the shot, and adjusts the lights as you go around to pre-set levels.  These levels are set by  eye so that the transitions are not noticeable.  With Kino-flo’s (is that flo-mo style??) the light is much softer so dimming should not be necessary.  Generally Kino’s will be suited to dayight scenes.

I want to shoot a scene in a darkroom, which obviously is only lit by red safelights. I really wany to emphasize a saturated contrast between red and black. A very recent example is Rodrigo Prieta's scene in the club in the 25th hour. What kind of lights, gels, etc. do you recommend? thanks a lot.


I am glad you have noticed Rodrigo’s work as I really loved what he did in Frieda as well as 25th Hour.  The “red light” problem is an old one, and is caused by the fact that the red layer of the film is the “third” layer and the least sharp.  So if you light with only red gels the image tends to look soft and only get worse when transferred.  One way round this is to not use too saturated a red filter in the first place, and then time the extra red in afterwards.  Another way in a darkroom set is to use yellow also (some safelights are deep yellow for b/w developing) which will make for a better colour contrast.  You can also use 2 different kinds of red quite legitimately, when the red light bounces off any coloured surface it will change colour anyhow.

I am a graduating film student (cinematography) here in San Francisco. I will be shooting a commercial next weekend, interior "party scene". I love art directing, and have decided to place 14 different colors and sizes of "china balls" all over the ceiling of the sound stage. it is not a huge room. Will it be okay for me to just use the balls as practicals and fill and sometimes key? not all the lights will lit. I have a few lights on standby (2 x 300w Moles) as key for the leads. Will be shooting 500asa , 35mm, but will just transferred and released to video. I am worried about this brave move that I am doing in putting this much balls int he interior. What do you think about this lighting set up? and what shooting stop do you usually find yourself using? Thanks!

I guess this answer will be too late for your shoot so I hope it went well. My comment would be that if you want the colour of a lit “ball” to be saturated then you can’t make it too bright.  If it is, say, red, then you can make it brighter than, say, blue, without it “de-saturating”.  Ideally you would test this as it is a hard judgement to make by eye, and would depend on many factors including the stock and the lenses.  Naturally a dimmer light which may render a better colour in the light itself if it is in shot, will not cast as much light, so you may need to take this same colour and put it on a separate “movie light” which is out of shot and then will cast the colour on the actors.
In the “disco’ sequence in Buffalo Soldiers which some of you may have seen recently, I used a special “sliding diffuser” during the disco dancing to give the idea of dancing on ecstasy.  This diffuser was clear at one end and quite dense at the other.  It’s about 2 feet long and was slid back and forth across the lens as I shot the sequence with a hand held camera.
The amount of colour and flare in the disco lights when varied as the shot progressed.
It is important with dance lighting not to take much notice of the meter in terms of exposure range as you will want to go long way off the boundaries of the film scale to make it realistic. Set up the lighting so it looks good by eye and then choose a “mid scale” exposure for the faces.  Film has a way of dealing with extreme flare and overexposure that is very beautiful.  Check out Chicago as an example of this.

What is the most inexpensive way to achieve good lighting for a night scene outside?

Make use of dusk for night.  This will result in a dark sky tone which adds a lot of atmosphere to a night shoot.  Of course if the sky is not in the shot then don’t bother... on the other hand, maybe you can use all that free blue fill light that happens during dawn and dusk for not very long.  If your night shoot is in the countryside, then it is even more important to think of Dusk for Night as an option - lighting large expanses of countryside is very expensive!  If you are in the City, then go with the Director and Designer at night to look for locations.. Choose somewhere that is already lit by the good citizens of the area.. This usually is not the leafy suburbs but more likely the grot downtown  - Taxi Driver land.

Choose your lenses carefully.  Get a set of Super Speeds so you can use T1.4 and 500ASA stock.  If you are using Digi try the various settings until it looks as good as you can make it.

Lighting wise, it’s amazing what a small key light on the actor can achieve in a downtown area.. Keep it moving and don’t overwhelm the natural light.  Think about the color - chances are you don’t want a “white” (3200K) light, but match it to the surroundings.  Next time you see a newscast think about why the journalist looks “lit”.  This is what you want to avoid for drama lighting.

I am shooting a scene in which the two characters are outdoors at night around a camp fire. What is the best way to light this, so it looks like the only light is coming from the campfire, with the flickering of the flames and such? ??--Daniel

A "flicker box" is almost a must although many key grips like to wave their special home-made flicker-stick in front of the lights to simulate the fire. There?s 3 things to watch. Is your light the right colour? If your light the right intensity? Does it flicker just like the fire? Once you've put some boulders and things around the fire you can hide your small lights behind then adjust each one individually, make sure the actors don't "collide" with one of your lights and that's about it. Good luck.


I had the good fortune to be Director of Photography on a 16mm short while I was at film school. At the school the only lights available ran from 300 to 1000 watts. As a result we'd usually be keeping the lights as close to the subjects as possible to get the levels we were looking for and manipulate them for the desired effect. How would it be done on a show with a larger lighting package? Would you be more inclined to put a big light behind the window and shoot through the curtains (creating a little world of light)? Or would you still be taking a light on the inside and put some kind of diffusion on it (making it work for the specific shot and making sure it matches with the rest)? Or would you be doing a bit of both? As a side note to this question, is this part of achieving the fabled 'Hollywood movie' look? Or would looking into more time in timing and 35mm be closer? ??--Norman

Wish someone would tell me what the "Hollywood movie" look is! "A bit of both" is probably the best answer to your question - certainly lighting is the "key" to any look you are after in a film. Timing and 35mm are part of it too, but controlling what is in front of the camera is the major part of the work. The "look" of a film comes through many factors, not the least of which are art direction and costume: daylight is lighting too and needs to be thought about and controlled just like any other kind of light. Interesting lighting always comes about through conscious choices, made carefully and in conjunction with all the other things going on with the movie. In terms of specific set-ups, think about there the sources of the light would be if you want something to look "natural". If there is a window and it's daytime it's obviously going to come from there, so any lighting you might do should look and feel as though it is coming from the window?.

I've scraped some cash together and am currently in pre-production on a no budget feature. I've already decided that I'm not shooting on DV, seeing as how I want to be a FILMMAKER, and not a kid with a camcorder. Only problem is, I live in a very secluded area so there are zero DP's available. Someone has recommended that I just shoot with a high-speed stock like 800 ASA, then point and shoot with no lighting at all. What'd you think? Can you give me any tips on lighting a no budget with...well, no budget???--Jason

Lightbulbs are cheap and some of them are quite bright ? especially with 800ASA film. Use practical lights on tables, desks, etc. and choose the shades carefully so a decent amount of light comes out from the shade. You can make up some bare bulb sockets and tape them to the back of the shade to add light where the hidden bulb won?t be seen. When Gordon Willis lit The Godfather he apparently had a suitcase full of lightbulbs that he would hang here and there on the set! By the way, you don?t have to be a Kid with a Camcorder, you could be a Genius with a Camcorder...

When lighting a traditional night time interior on a stock with pretty good latitude, what is your favorite contrast ratio between the highlights and shadows? For example, let's say that moonlight spilling in through an open window is the main light source.??--Nat

The honest answer is that I don't know! Some DP's are very technical and light in the way you describe: I tend to light by eye and measure the exposure almost as an afterthought.
But knowing the stock is the key as (for instance) in The Shipping News the ratio would be maybe 3:1 because of the bleach by-pass print, whereas in a "normal" movie it might be 7:1. The most important process for me is in testing where I decide on the lens/stock/printstock combination and then tune the lighting to that combination. For instance, right now I am using the new Kodak 500 ASA 5218 which has an extreme latitude so windows can go 3 stops overexposed and you still see detail. This stock allows lighting to be "by eye" in a way that say the Vision 200 stock would not. On the downside, if the lighting is too flat the image looks "muddy".

When lighting a set and artistes, how do you decide what intensity of light each lamp should be adjusted to? I read many years ago that foot-candles are the basis. But for a close-up, for example, how on earth do you arrive at just what intensity of light should be emitted from each lamp? And also, would you use more than a couple of lights for a close-up? ?-Maurice

Some cinematographers are quite technical in their lighting and use concepts like 3:1 fill ratio etc. This means that the key light (the strongest light that hits the front of the subject) is 3 times as strong as the "fill" light which is the light that fills in the shadows. In the "old days" when cinematographers had to use lights directly because of the high levels of illumination required, both the key and fill lights would be directed at the actor without bouncing them. The Key would usually be somewhere like 45 degrees one side of the camera or the other, and the fill might be very near the lens axis. A classic portrait would have 3 basic lights: the Key, the Fill and the Back light (used to separate the subject from the background in b/w photography). This basis idea still makes sense today, although much less use of direct lights is involved for many reasons: the stock and lenses are much sharper and less forgiving so the light has to be much softer. The use of backlights is mostly unnecessary as color makes the separation for you. What I have said above is about the relationship between the lights. The overall intensity of the light is just a function of understanding how much light you need for any given scene. This is a product of the ASA of the film stock (its sensitivity) and the speed of the lens: T2, T2.8 etc. The amount of light used to be measured in foot candles, but this has tended to die out as many cinematographers now use other methods. It's a bit like pounds or tons or inches and metres: just different ways of doing the same thing. In the end the best thing to do is just light it until you like the look of it. The rest of it is easy to learn.


What tips can you offer regarding filming 16mm on a white background, while retaining a good depth of contrast? The location in question has white walls (or close enough to white for the purpose of film), some of which support colourful paintings or will have dark wooden pillars in the foreground.
Are there any filters that you recommend? Is it advisable to use specific lights and lighting composition to reduce reflection off the white background? Is it possible to reduce the background "whiteness" that impairs contrast by using a coloured backlight, such as a soft orange???-Oscar

The big question here is whether you want the walls to be white. In a gallery you might think that is a good idea, but in a moody late-night situation in a living room it might not be so hot. Yes, you can colour a white wall any colour you like using filters on the lights, but remember that if it hits an actor, or a painting it will go that colour too. In principle, if you light a colour with it?s own colour you will increase its colour saturation. I used to use this a lot in music videos and in the musical Absolute Beginners and also Earth Girls are Easy. Green plants in a room will look much richer if you light them with green light.

Whiteness does not "impair contrast", it just sets the upper level of where you can go with the contrast. It's worth remembering that once white is white, it doesn't matter any more how bright it is, until it starts flaring. Sometimes an operator will worry about some highlight that is very hot in the viewfinder, but film takes care of these things very nicely - especially with the miracle coatings on modern lenses.

Filters can control contrast to some extent, like fog and diffusion filters, but they aren't so much a lighting tool as a lens tool: of course they are intimately related. Always think about the walls that are off camera; if they are white they will create their own "bounce" and fill light: if they are dark they will not and you might want to add some white if you need less contrast, or black out a white wall if you need more contrast. For this reason I use both white and black tracking boards, so I can select the ones I want for a specific lighting situation.

I would like to know what it's your procedure when facing a night exterior: what do you use to (if you do) justify the sources? What gear and angles do you prefer? What gels are your favorites for moonlight and no-light? How do you match the exposure between close up's and open shots.?
I've found myself lately solving all these situations with the same old style moonlight with high soft sources, with CTB's or Moonlights, some fog... and I'm getting a bit bored with using always the same scheme. I'll be shooting a short soon and I'll be in the middle of a deep forest, no moonlight, no houses near, no light at all to justify sources, so, I'm a bit clueless with how to achieve good results.??-Jose

The man-in-a-coffin is always a problem and completely undoes the whole notion of source lighting. I have never had to shoot someone in a closed coffin but if I did I think I would approach it as a non-source very dark overall ambient light. This would be achieved by creating a soft overall light (which might involve some cheating by taking bits off the coffin), underexposing it and printing it dark, and probably cool in tone or blueish depending on the context. I did a big forest job for A Midsummer Night's Dream but that was comedy/fantasy so it was appropriate to light it with magical light, which was chiefly in the form of direct light punching in beams through the trees.

The trouble with a forest if you opt for no moonlight is that trees and particularly leaves have a tendency to go very dark. It is a situation in which your eye can really fool you into thinking it is much brighter than it is. Trust the spotmeter in this situation: if it says "E" then increase the light level! Balloons can be very handy in the forest as long as there is enough space in the canopy. You have to be really careful in accepting forest locations otherwise you can get into big trouble with the lighting. A road nearby is almost essential for a crane to provide beams (with fog if that is what you want) and if you are not after the beamy look, then you need enough space to float balloons out of the top of frame without them overlighting whatever they are closest to.

I think your boredom may stem from the idea of the blueish back ¾ light on a crane which is employed so often. I hardly ever use this in cities as I think it looks so unrealistic. I go for sources such as street lights, buildings etc. When you are in the desert or the country then you can always go for a dark soft look (used very effectively in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). An effective way of doing this is to light soft put "print" hard either through a DI process or through bleach by-pass.

Colour choices are very personal: adding some green is sometimes effective, going very blue tends to be more of a TV look so I would opt for "grey" but it's very much a matter of context. The convention for very dark is that you need something bright, even very small, to make the dark look dark. This is true in some ways as the screen often looks "milky" if there is absolutely nothing on it that is above midtone. But this is just a starting point: the main thing is to do what interests you and get a result that you and the Director like.


My question regards lighting. I understand that three point lighting is very common, but was at first very sceptical about the backlight. After some tests, I found that it really did make the actor "pop" out from the rest of the image. However, I still don't know how to place the backlight anywhere but directly behind the actor so that it he obstructs the camera's view of the light. Obviously, this cannot work in every scene because of movement, position, whatever. Where should the backlight be placed? Is there an alternative to hanging it over the actor, because I cannot think of practical way to do this on my modest budgets.??-Daniel

A backlight that the actor shields from the lens is a common technique is music videos or anytime that you want a very "showbiz" effect. A backlight above the actor, or directly behind, may or may not convey a "Hollywood" lighting style, depending on it's intensity, directness and colour.

In principle, a backlight that is not "natural" (like a day interior in a window-lit room) will make the image more "stagey". What you say is true, the actor will "pop out" from the background, but then an actor (who is Caucasian) will naturally pop out from a wall that is slightly blue or green, or a very different colour from the actors face and clothing. So, in colour, the separation of an actor from the BG is achieved both through colour, lighting and choice of lens. This separation is a choice to be made about the style of the film you are shooting. If you look at some movies you like, see if the Cinematographer has used much backlight. You will see it a lot more in TV than features: this might be because it's an easy way of making things look glamorous, or it might be because more TV Cinematographers like it.

Night lighting is a different thing as there is plenty of backlight in a city that is natural, so you might not be consistent in when you use backlight. How you light a film is completely up to you. 3 point lighting is common because I guess it is one way to get an OK image. Personally I don't think it is a useful idea or a good way to approach lighting: one thing is for sure: your work will not stand out if you do what it says in the manual! Much better to play around with lights until you like what you see: if it looks good to your eye it will look better on film!

Decide where the main source is going to come from and build everything around that. What else you need apart from the main source depends very much on the environment and the contrast range of the image gathering medium, be it film or Digi. You can make very soft lighting look very contrasty and quite contrasty lighting look quite soft, depending on what you do with the negative or the Digi settings.

Lighting is part of a process that includes all the other elements, so it's good to think of them all together.

I'm a DOP for a short film in pre-production which will be shot on 16mm. The film is set in one room where six people are having a candlelight dinner. My problem is lighting everybody without creating lots of multiple shadows. Is there anyway of lighting the set to make sure each character has a back, fill and key, or if not, what is the best way to make the group look well lit? Also would candlelights on the table be a sufficient fill, as I have never filmed on 16mm and don't know its latitude with exposure.

Are there any good films you know with well lit dinner scenes I could look at for ideas?

You'd better learn the latitude of the film before you start shooting with candlelight or you might be in for a bad day! Do some tests with the film stock you intend to use and work out how many stops you can under and overexpose before you loose detail. If you are short of stock, you can just do a few frames and then put them in slides and use a slide projector to see what happened with the tones. I always did this when I started in 16mm to get used to what the stocks were doing without spending much money on stock and processing.

Fanny and Alexander has some wonderful candlelight, as indeed does Kubrick's famous Barry Lyndon - rumoured to have been actually shot with candlelight and special lenses he commissioned for the film. In essence there are two approaches with candlelight: source light as though it comes from a particular candle and then soft overall warm light as though it comes from many candles. The main thing to get right is the colour and direction. Forget about "back, fill and key" as this is very bad way to think about lighting. Just start with the references in the room and light it naturally, using those references and increasing the intensity to obtain exposure whilst maintaining the contrast.

Candles cast very little light (hence the scale "1 ft. candle" etc), so you will need a lot of them, or have your actors close to them, if you intend to use them as lighting.

I'm trying to experiment and build my own lights from scratch to suit my various needs. So far I have a few good ones. What were some lights that you created? Do you have any ideas for ways to built soft and/or practical lights that will work well on a location set?

Along with various gaffers, we have created and built many lights over the years to fulfill various needs. Frieder Hocheim, who started KinoFlo, actually did his last job as a gaffer with me on Earth Girls are Easy, where we used various fluorescents as "prototypes" for the very successful company that he founded just after that. He had developed them on Barfly which was shot by Robby Mueller just before Earth Girls.

On most shoots we wind up making lights for various applications. As I write this, we have just finished shooting water sequences for the forthcoming The Waterhorse. For this we made a large water barge with a big generator on it and 2 x 12'x12' frames with par cans and HMI's on it that we floated about for various shots. When the wind came up it had a habit of acting like a large sailing barge and tended to take off down the loch at times! For Casanova we had 5 x 18K's on a large truss that was hauled up 2 floors from the Grand Canal on cranes floating on large barges. This worked very well until a large boat came past and then the "sun" in the interior would suddenly move about and we'd have to wait until they settled down.

Par cans (as used in the rock and roll industry) are a cheap and powerful way to make all sorts of lights from the very soft to the very hard. So there's really no single answer to your question: each shoot demands its own special tricks and good gaffers and key grips always lend their many years of experience to building one-off lights.

I've been working on a documentary about substance abuse and most of the interviews are "anonymous" in silhouette. I'm shooting on DV and on location with mostly practical/natural light. It's tricky to film someone and not show his or her face and make it look good. Do you have any tips on shooting in silhouette or other techniques on filming "anonymous" subjects?

Most of my subjects go a bit mad if you can't see them but here goes anyway?!
The "anonymous" technique has certainly started to move in many other directions apart from silhouettes and each of them has something to recommend them depending on the context. My least favorite is when the editor blurs the face out, although I know this is the only way when the film shot is clandestine. I saw the material turned negative on one occasion but then the bad guys could use pretty simple techniques to turn this around and see what they want to see - so I wouldn't recommend that technique.

From an ethical point of view it seems to be essential that you do indeed shoot the material so that there can be no identification afterwards no matter what "processing" might take place. Personally I wouldn't listen to a "fix-it-later" attitude in a situation where a subject has only consented to an interview based on the fact that you won't see their face. I like the over-shoulder and back-shot technique to add to the silhouette idea: I saw an interview recently in a very harrowing film about the gross situation that is Burma today, which consisted of pointing the camera at the persons shirt and occasionally seeing a bit of mouth - enough I thought for a keen general to make an identification so I didn't think much of that. When lives are at stake it seems paramount to make sure there is zero chance of identification - I would also be keen to use an actors voice as voice recognition is becoming a cheap piece of software.

"Looking good" is a relative term in these situations - looking dramatic, nasty, scary is all good: looking pretty I wouldn't have thought has a lot of value.

I read recently in the "American Cinematographer" that one of the challenges for the filmmakers while making Memoirs of a Geisha, were the difference in the type of sunlight in Kyoto ("And how do you render the flat light of Kyoto on a sunny backlot in California?"). Could you shed some "light" on this challenge? How is Kyoto's light "flat"? How does one judge what type of light is at a particular location?

There are stories of LA producers flying in European cinematographers and then wondering why their work doesn't look as good!

Sunlight is the beginning and end of lighting: all knowledge of light stems from the study of sunlight. Even city light (a recent phenomenon) behaves like sunlight in the sense that it is all light. Light always comes from a "source": the sun and them maybe a mixture of other sources (firelight, bulbs, torches etc.)

To start at the source, the light then has:

1. Size,
2. Intensity and
3. Colour.

1. The size is relative to where the light is falling: the sun appears quite small in the sky but is actually very large. A torch held 2 ft from a surface is large in relation to the surface but actually quite small. As the size of a light becomes relatively smaller in relation to where it is falling it gets "sharper". You can find this out quite easily by moving a bare light bulb away from an object in an otherwise dark room. As you move away from the object its shadow will become sharper.
2. Intensity. The intensity of a light has an absolute and a relative quantity that can be measured with an exposure meter.
3. Colour. The light source has a colour (3200K is "tungsten")

After the source comes the medium that the light is in: this is where it starts to relate to your question. The sun shines down on Earth and then, depending which part of the planet you happen to be in, the Sun renders very different results in terms of the quality and feel of the light. This is partly because it shines at many different angles from very high to very low and because the source changes colour depending on the kind of atmosphere it is shining through. Then, to confuse things even further, it arrives and then reflects off whatever you are standing near and creates a colour of shadow; this colour is not just the colour of the reflective surface but also the colour of the sky (blue/cloudy/ semi-cloudy etc). So when they say that the light in Kyoto is flat then they probably mean filtered through cloud and haze. California has plenty of haze but also has a very high and fierce sun with a lot of blue sky which is quite different.

Sunpath and similar programs will tell you the height of the sun in any given location/time and together with weather charts of the time of year you are going there, it is possible to get a general idea of the kind of sunlight you are in for on any given shoot.

I always notice a certain "twinkle" in the eye of performing artists in numerous films. (Oceans Eleven, George Clooney & the gang/indoor/day). Is that lighting or make-up? If lighting, how does one create the effect without spilling over on a softly lit mid-close?

"Eye light", "catch light", etc - it's had quite a number of names of the years. The accepted wisdom used to be that ALL close-ups had an "Obie light" or similar just above the lens to make a twinkle in the eye. It was regarded as bad practice to not have this light: so much so that when Gordon Willis broke the convention in The Godfather and The Godfather II, he not only created two of the most photographically influential movies of all time, but was rewarded with exactly no nominations from anyone. This generally seems to have been his punishment for creating dark moody top light that was not approved of by the then members of the ASC and the Academy.

The trick that you have to employ to have a "twinkle" without it becoming a key light which might look very flat, is to use a small hard light near the lens that is not as strong as the key light which might be softer and might be more off axis. There are various lights made by Panavision and Arriflex to achieve this and they are able to be dimmed and some have shutters so that you can dim the light without making it warmer. Some cameramen (like those who shot Lord of the Rings) use Kinoflo "wands" that are handheld near the camera as it moves about. Incidentally, George Clooney has very dark, deep-set eyes, so the cinematographer has to make an effort to get some light in there for a comedy -- otherwise the mood of the piece might turn out like The Godfather!

A cheap version is to put a small light (or bicycle light!) right above the lens and then adjust it's intensity with a dimmer or some gel..


Being a documentary cameraman, I don't have the privilege of having full gear & enough time to set-up a shot, which will look great on screen. I have to count everything mostly the time and situation where you can't direct the person in front of camera. In one of my shoots, I was shooting a children's school in a remote village with no electricity. To show the sunlight is the only option they have, I took a shot where only light was coming from the window and to compensate the interior, I opened my aperture a bit, which made my window a bit over- exposed. Now the production person/on location director is not happy with me. I tried to explain her but that went in vain. Suggest me for the future.

Tricky situation! Sounds like you are in India where I would imagine the light can be quite intense. Here are your choices when it comes to bright windows and dark interiors.

1. Don't put them in the same shot! If you do, either use a static shot and expose once for the interior (say an interview) and then once more for the exterior - but only if the person is not against the window. It would then be quite straightforward to matt the exterior shot onto the interview - if they can do this in post. Of course if you move the camera or zoom it becomes a lot more complicated.

2. Carry some Gel like ND9 or alternatively some black net, which can reduce the exposure of the window. You can use mirrors to reflect the sun strongly onto white boards, which could help you to fill the level of the interior to help with the balance.

It sounds like your only mistake was not to explain at the time what the problem was. It is always better to keep a director in the loop about photographic problems rather than have them be surprised later on. Cameras are just tools that can only cope with a certain light range: make sure you explain that to anyone who you are working for when they ask you to shoot a shot that it beyond the range of the camera involved. If you are coming into a room where you know there is going to be an Interview, work out for yourself where the natural light works the best and then suggest the position to the Director. If he or she insists on a place that makes no sense light-wise, then just point out clearly what they will get and make it their decision!

I come from shooting 16mm, but now I am shooting Mini DV. A lot of times, I shoot scenes involving people of different skin complexions (white and black) really close together. What is the best way to light this and be flattering to both persons?

Obviously, (and I know you know this) you try to get more light on the black person than the white person. The trouble is, they move about and swap positions. This is where you reach for your dimmer controls. In the barn of The Cider House Rules there were a number of night scenes where Charlize Theron and Toby Maguire kept trading places with Delroy Lindo. He is very tall and very dark. Charlize is tall and bright, Toby is short and er.. not so bright. (I'm referring to his skin, not his brain). Once you've plotted the scene with the director, you need to make sure that the appropriate amount of light falls on each actor in each position. As Charlize leaves a spot and is replaced by Delroy, the light level can be brought up to its new mark in the moment of empty space.

"What about color?", you might ask. Don't worry about it. If the light is too low then put a wire in it, or a gel, and bring it back up in level to make it cooler (bluer). Small changes like the ones I am talking about will be fine for color, as the skin tones that are walking into the light are very different anyway.

Remember that lighting is not always about being flattering: it's about creating the right atmoshpere for the story.

How much say does the cinematographer have in the lighting that's used during a shoot?

The most important job that a Cinematographer has is the lighting, and it's completely his or her decision. If a Director doesn't like the lighting, they hired the wrong person. If a Director wants to do the lighting, suggest he or she uses the gaffer directly, so that you can go home.

I'm at film school now, and a lot of lecturers are of the opinion that there is a tendency in Hollywood feature films to overlight scenes, and to overdo camera techniques, just for the hell of it. Would you agree with this?

Yes I would. "Toys for Boys" is definitely a growing trend in the camera department, and as most directors and cinematographers are male, there's a lot of money, time and effort going into the most next most kinetic movie, with a hefty dose of CGI to add to the mix. Editors and computerized editing also have a part in this. I went to the Bourne Supremacy last night as I admired the first two and this one was "more of the same" but nevertheless very entertaining and superbly crafted. So I wouldn't criticize the techniques of this film as the lighting is very minimal and the hand-held camera serves the story in an entirely appropriate way. However there were five or so "trailers" for forthcoming movies and the audience laughed and scoffed at the sheer ridiculousness of each ensuing trailer where the level of bass and sheer "cuttiness" of the images just left one longing for the feature to start! Where the script is weak and the director useless, you will often find a frantic effort to overcome the mediocre story with visual effects, flashy camera and lighting but this will never make a good film from a poor script. Like a solid building, it's all about the foundation.

I shoot most of my films on a Canon ZR500, which is a very low budget camera. However, if I light my INT scenes with three 1000 watt workplace yellow lights (the kind you would find in Wal-Mart for less than $50.00) I get a very desirable image. But herein lies the problem, the lights need to obviously be plugged in and I'm not about to go out and drop over $1500.00 on a noisy generator. Have you heard of any other low budget lighting techniques?

I am probably not the person to ask! However, I can offer the following thoughts.
Carrying a variety of brighter light-bulbs: existing practicals can be boosted to help light level. Look at the shades and use those that allow the light to escape in a suitable colour. Bicycle lights have become surprisingly bright and long lasting. These are small and convenient and can be used to pick up a small area or bounced off card.
Lastly, your question seems to imply a 3 Kilowatt limit to most households and your need for a genny. You could also consider trading a couple of the 1000K lights for 6 x 300W lights. These would give you a lot more control, increase the areas you can light and still keep you off a generator. Modern cameras can deal with quite low light level, so use more units to make better control at a lower exposure level. This will also help with the seeing through windows as outside night lighting will still make some impact.

Dear Mr. Stapleton,
I have a question concerning the character of lighting in Hollywood films made in the 1940s, especially film-noir. A couple weeks back you said that back then film stocks were so slow that hard light was the only option. If so, why didn't they at least use soft lighting or bounce lighting for their fill lights since fill-lighting does not require as much wattage as key lighting? It would certainly make their fill lighting more seamless. I live in Poland and also recently had the privilege of working for Krzysztof Pakulski as a camera assistant. He told me that in the Polish film industry they had similar problems in the 1970s! According to him they only had hard lights and lighting anything soft was royal pain in the neck. I understand they didn't have kinoflo, but is bouncing a light off a white wall, ceiling or piece of Styrofoam that difficult? When was bounce lighting invented and why so late?

When was bounce lighting invented and when was "soft light" first used?

From Wikipedia: David Watkin is an influential British cinematographer who was among the first directors of photography to experiment heavily with the usage of bounce light as a soft light source. He has worked with such noted directors as Richard Lester, Peter Brook, Tony Richardson, Mike Nichols, Ken Russell, Franco Zeffirelli, Sidney Lumet, and Sydney Pollack.

I am sure David was not the first as, like all things in Cinematography, someone, somewhere has used each and every technique, probably without anyone noticing. However, that period in the 60's and 70's saw a move away from direct Fresnell lighting for a variety of reasons. One would be that film speeds increased making less light a possibility. Bounce lighting is very wasteful and needs a lot of light.

In the case of the film of Marat/Sade (1967), problems of a tight shooting schedule and restricted set space were innovatively resolved through the usage of one single lighting set-up for the entirety of the film - a translucent wall lit by twenty-six 10 kW lamps as the sole source of light. This is a bit extreme by todays standards, but the current use of 12K and 18K PAR lamps no doubt outgens the 26 10K's.

Another reason is that direct light suits B/W more than colour.. Colours create their own separation and lighting can be much softer and still give a lot of dimension to the image. Also, as lenses have got sharper and with the increasing use of HD, softer light is more and more "de rigeur".

There will always be changes in lighting fashions as each generation of Cinematographers and Directors strive to be "different". When I started in 1980, I hated soft light and dismissed it as "boring" because it was everywhere, so everything I lit everything between 1980 and 1985 was with direct light, usually with a variety of colours on the lights! Nowadays I am a bit more balanced in my approach, using what is appropriate to the particular movie.

I am 15, and am interested in being a filmmaker someday. A friend and I are hoping to make a film noir spoof this summer, and I'm not sure what to do about lighting. Are there any techniques for getting this unique visual style?
Will I need to purchase any special equipment?
Thanks, I really enjoy reading your column.

Might be an idea to make your images black and white.. Always helps the mood and gets away from that "DV" look! Use low and wide camera angles as well as top shots: try not to just have "normal" shots but always think about how the shot will cut with more power and expression. Your normal DV camera should be fine, although you could think about getting a w/a lens adapter. For lighting try and avoid flat daylight as this is the least "noir-like" lighting. Front and back-lit sunlight is fine and carry come black cloths about to reduce the fill-light and increase the contrast. For lighting night and interiors remember that ordinary practical lights placed in the right place can create good effects. But for those hard shadows you will need a reasonably strong light with a single source to get the sharp shadow. Even a 500W bulb can achieve this if it is a reasonable distance. If the shadow is too soft, cut a smaller hole in something like baking foil (not paper!) and this will sharpen he shadow although with some loss of light. Low light with strong shadows and no fill is the basic idea of noir lighting. If you hang a single unshaded bulb in the middle of a room that always gets that low-down-mean-bluesy feeling! Have Fun!

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