Cinematography Tips: 10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting

10 Things Beginners <span class=Need to Know About Lighting a Scene - Cover" />

I’m always looking to stay sharp and learn new things about filmmaking. In this series, I’ll teach you 10 things I already know about lighting; next, we’ll learn 10 new things about lighting. Let’s get started.

The Shutterstock Tutorials YouTube channel is about to pass 100,000 subscribers. For all of you who have watched and supported the channel, thank you so much. The growth of the channel has made me think about why we started it, and how it has changed since then. It’s been a fantastic avenue for us to learn new things about our interests and share what we’ve learned with the community.

This leads me to my point. My favorite thing about filmmaking is lighting – always has been. But since we’ve started this channel, I haven’t challenged myself to learn anything new about the subject, aside from building a few weird things.

I decided that my next big project would be to learn 10 new things about lighting. To start, I made a video to review 10 things that I already know about lighting. If you’re a beginner or someone looking for a refresher on a few things, check out this video with a few tips and techniques I like to use.

To me, there are no rules when it comes to lighting. If it looks good, then it looks good, end of discussion. Don’t look to any of these concepts or techniques as absolute rules to follow (unless they relate specifically to the laws of physics, in which case you don’t have a choice).

1. The Larger a Light Source Is, the Softer It Will Be
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Large Light Source

If you want to soften your light source, you need to make your light source bigger in relation to your subject. This is one of the most common mistakes I see beginners making. You can do this by moving the light closer, or making it considerably larger by using a large bounce or piece of diffusion. Don’t think that adding a little sheet of diffusion directly to the front of your light source will make your light soft enough to shoot professional looking, softly lit portraits or interviews.

2. Dimming a Tungsten Fixture Will Change the Color Temperature
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Tungsten Light Color Temperature

If you’ve dimmed any of the tungsten or incandescent fixtures lighting your scene, they will appear much more orange on camera. This can throw off the look of your scene if you’re not careful.

On the other hand, you can also use this for effect. For instance, fire light or candle light is at an even lower color temperature than tungsten or incandescent light. So, if you need to get a candlelit look, dim your tungsten fixtures for that soft amber glow.

3. Reducing Light Is Just as Important as Adding It
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Adding and Reducing Light

Having the most powerful lights possible is a popular concept in filmmaking. You need powerful lights to compete with sunlight, or to give you enough output to be bounced and then thrown through diffusion for an extra soft look. Having more power means more options – I get it.

However, I think many new cinematographers focus too heavily on having powerful light, without knowing how to control it. You must master the techniques of using flags and nets (among other things we’ll discuss later) before you rent that Arri M18 and start blasting light all over your location.

4. Smart Side Lighting
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Smart Side Lighting

When you’re starting out it can be hard to decide which side of the camera you want your light to go on, particularly for interviews. This technique is a great starting point. Smart side lighting is when you place your key light to the side of the camera that your subject is looking. You’ll pick up a really nice eye light, the shadows will be on the camera side, and overall you’ll have a more cinematic and moody look.

This is one of those techniques that shouldn’t be taken as a rule. You may decide that using this technique isn’t right for your scene.

5. How To Prevent a Blown Circuit
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Wattage Formula

It’s super easy to blow a circuit at your location, especially if you’re using power-hungry tungsten and HMI fixtures. This can lead to some very awkward conversations with the location owner, or something like shutting down the power for an entire parking garage (I totally didn’t do that once).

When you arrive to your location, ask to see the breaker box. There you’ll find each circuit, which will be labeled with the amperage of the circuits. Usually, they will be 20 amp circuits.

Now you just need a simple formula to figure out what amount of wattage you have available to you. In America, we use 120 volts, and in Europe and other parts of the world, they use 220 volts.

Use this formula: Watts equals your voltage times your amperage. For example, in America, for a 20 amp circuit, you’d multiply 120 volts by 20 amps to get 2400 watts. That’s the available wattage of the circuit.

This means you can use around two tungsten 1k fresnels in your location before you blow that particular circuit.

6. Gelling a Light Will Reduce It’s Output
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Gelled Light Output

It can be frustrating when you have the wrong color temperature light fixture for your scene. Say you have a tungsten fixture, and you’re shooting a scene in daylight. These situations require the use of a color correction gel.

However, once you gel that light you’re going to lose over half of the light’s output. This means that it will be extremely dim, and you won’t be able to get the look that you want. This is why it’s important to know which lights you need to match the existing light in your location or the other lights in your scene. Because once you match them, they won’t be as bright as you wanted.

7. The Inverse Square Law
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Inverse Square Law

The inverse square law is a relatively simple thing, though when people talk about it they make it seem very complicated.

To sum it up, for every time you double the distance of a light from your subject, the light’s intensity will decrease to a 1/4 of its previous brightness. This is also inversely proportional to the area of illumination that light is creating.

That’s just a fancy way of saying: If you move your light further away, it will be bigger – and a lot dimmer.

8. Using the Sun As Backlight
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Using Sun as Backlight

When shooting documentary style or just trying to decide how to frame and set up your outdoor scenes, it’s always a good idea to see if you can use the sun as backlight. It’s a quick way to light an outdoor scene without using a single light fixture.

This will only work at certain times of day, but you can generally get a decent look using the sun this way. For one, you get a nice rim/edge light on your subject, not to mention lens flares and other aesthetic benefits. Two, you can easily use a bounce to quickly bounce some sunlight to bring up the exposure on your subject’s face.

9. Negative Fill
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Negative Fill

Whether it’s easy to tell or not, there will always be a ton of light bouncing around your scene. Sometimes it’s desirable, and other times it’s not.

This is where negative fill comes in. Negative fill is the technique of blocking unwanted light, usually of the bounced light variety. This is where you throw up any sort of non-reflective black material or surface in order to completely kill bounced light coming from any direction. This is necessary particularly in rooms with white walls.

Negative fill, you can be a 4×4 floppy, a sheet of duvetyne fabric, or even some weed guard fabric from a home improvement store. In fact, you can use anything that’s black and non-reflective.

10. The Book Light
10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting a Scene – Book Light

A book light is a technique in which your light source points straight into a bounce of some sort, and then the bounced light is diffused through a layer of diffusion. This results in extremely soft light.

One of the more common configurations has the ends of the diffusion and the bounce meet, causing it to look like a book. This is one of my favorite setups for interviews or dialogue scenes. It’s very flattering, as the light doesn’t have a any strict directionality to it.

Go beyond these 10 tips with more of our filmmaking content:

15 Things I Wish I Knew As A Beginner with Adobe Premiere
Cinematography Tips: How to Use Additive and Reductive Lighting
Tips for Recording ADR on Your Own — on a Budget
How to Build A Super-Bright DIY LED Balloon Light
How to Add Cinematic Effects to Your Project with Shutterstock Elements

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