Cinematography Tips: How to Use Additive and Reductive Lighting

Knowing how to take light away is just as important as knowing how to add it. Here’s how to use additive and reductive lighting in your setups to control your look — and your budget.

Lighting technology has changed by leaps and bounds over the last few years. In concert with the emergence of affordable digital cinema cameras and stunning low-light capability, lighting (particularly of the LED variety) has also gotten brighter, cheaper, and more accessible.

These new trends in lighting and camera technology have ushered in an entirely new world of cinematography and filmmaking. Certain looks and techniques that were once only possible with a giant 18K HMI blasting through the window are now possible with powerful LED lights like the Aputure 300D, or any of the various flexible LED panels.

The days of renting that 2,000-watt tungsten Fresnel — hoping for a super bright output only to then gel it to daylight balance and lose about 3/4ths of the brightness, while using the entire available circuit — are over.

Now, you could theoretically put about six Aputure 300Ds on one standard 20amp circuit and get nearly 300,000 lux at .5m. That’s bright. Real bright. Not to mention, if you were to purchase all six, it’d cost you around $6,500, compared to an HMI with somewhat similar output at the $10,000-$12,000 range. Also, many of these lights are bi-color (can switch between tungsten and daylight), and have dimmability from zero to 100 percent. Things are pretty sweet these days.

So, now that we have the light output we need, let’s learn how to control it. To do that, we’re going to use some additive and reductive lighting techniques.

Balancing Window Lighting (Reductive)

Reductive lighting techniques are about finding ways to take light away — or bring the level of it down — to make a more pleasing image.

In the video above, filmmaker Rubidium Wu demonstrates techniques for balancing window light. Windows are one of the age-old problems in low-budget filmmaking. Unless you’re shooting right smack dab in the middle of magic hour, your exposure level between your indoor location and outdoor (beyond the windows) will be vastly different. This can result in completely blown-out windows during the day, or completely dead, black windows at night.

The lower budget solution (rather than blasting 18-20K HMI’s off of some ultrabounce 12xs and shooting it through the windows) is to find ways to reduce the amount of light passing through the windows. This is known as reductive lighting.

Cinematography Tips: How to Use Additive and Reductive Lighting - Reductive Lighting

There are multiple ways to do this, but one of the easiest and most popular is to use a Neutral Density Gel Roll. Just take some ND gel and throw it up on a C-stand, or tape it to the window in question. In the exact same way that an ND filter works on your camera, a ND gel is like putting a giant pair of sunglasses in front of a window. This allows you to lower the perceived amount of light outside while shooting inside.

If you don’t want to spend the money on an ND gel roll (usually around $100), you can buy some window screen material from a hardware store and use that, as well. Just make sure you pull it extremely tight. You’ll have the best results when you can leave the window well out of focus.

Cinematography Tips: How to Use Additive and Reductive Lighting - Diffusion

Another creative way to use reductive lighting, in these situations, is to add some frost or diffusion (something thicker like grid cloth or 250 diffusion) to the windows themselves, purposefully giving the windows a more blown-out, stylized look.

Balancing Harsh Sunlight (Additive)

In the above video, cinematographer Matthew Rosen demonstrates the meaning and techniques behind both additive and reductive lighting.

While reductive lighting is taking light away to achieve a balanced exposure, additive lighting is simply adding more light to the shaded or indoor areas of a scene, in order to allow you to stop-down your camera (or use an ND filter) to gain a proper exposure.

Cinematography Tips: How to Use Additive and Reductive Lighting - Additive LightingAn example of a scene balanced with additive lighting — Image via Kinetek.

Additive lighting is most common in bigger budget scenarios, where powerful lighting is abundant. In the case of the video above, a powerful HMI style light is used to punch-up the exposure of the shaded area, allowing the cinematographer to maintain both the darker and lighter areas of the scene, visually. This is additive lighting.

One of the downsides of additive lighting is that it’s much brighter for the talent, and often much hotter. This can make it more difficult for the performance, as it’s hard to act with a bright light pointed directly into your eyes.

Negative Fill

Another great example of reductive lighting (in a different way) is using negative fill.

This is where you use a black material to completely kill the light coming from a certain direction. This technique is primarily used to control bounced light. Particularly bounced light that you don’t want.

One of the easiest ways to make a lighting setup look more professional (and intentional) is to use negative fill. As someone who is a big fan of contrast in my setups, I’m always surprised at just how much of a difference it can make in a scene.

Cover image via Fer Gregory

Looking for more film and video production tips? Check these out.

Why Is The 4:3 Aspect Ratio So Popular Right Now
The YouTube Cinematography Channel Every Filmmaker Should Watch
The Videographer’s Reference Guide to Exposure + FREE Camera Bag Tag
How to Use Free Sound Effects in Your Video Projects
How to Build a Visual Story in Your Film or Video Project

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