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Cinematography 3 / Light

Updated: May 30, 2022

The final act. In this post, we will briefly talk about the basic lighting types, usage areas, control techniques and basic styles and close the Cinematography chapter.

Natural Lighting : Any type of natural light available in the selected location. Oftenly it refers to sunlight and daylight. Free! is the biggest advantage. Hour of day and weather should be taken into account in time consuming shots to keep continuity. It can be controlled by Reflectors, Diffusers of Flags.

Revenant. Nice example of natural light. Almost all scenes shot with natural light.

Key Lighting : The main light source in a scene. It is the brightest and most linear light. Its purpose is to illuminate the subject/character, to show its shape, size and depth. It has various emotional effects depending on the usage areas and the angle of placement. Using low angle shows the fear, while using it from a back creates dramatic effects. One of the things to consider when using a Keylight is that it should not be placed close to the camera which eliminates shadows mostly and causes subject/actor look flat, unqualified, insensitive (not merciless, non-reacting) and removes depth.

In 3-point light setups, it is the main light source and if we consider the camera as 0 degrees, it is positioned between 30-60 degrees vertically. Additional ~30 degrees on horizontal axis prevents nose casting shadow on lips.

The Prisoners

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

High Key Lighting : It is a technique used to reduce the light ratio/contrast in the scene. Light ratio is the relationship between Keylight vs Fill Light. Although it was originally used to control the contrast in the scene, it is now used to adjust the atmosphere and tone of the scene. Since it is a homogeneous lighting, it minimizes sharp shadows, darks and even mid-level tones and dominates bright tones. Frequently used in sit-coms, comedy, cosmetics commercials, music videos. Gives an optimistic, hopeful impression.

You can finish shooting that could take days in hours, as it doesn't require a special setting for each scene. Downside is that it cannot add meaning or drama to certain regions and subjects compared to others.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2

The Hobbit

Low Key Lighting : Unlike HKL, it is a lighting system in which contrast, darkness and shadows are dominant over light. Little or no Fill Lighting. Usually there is only one light source is used. It exposes emotions such as, drama, tension, fear, doubt, mystery, anxiety, etc.

Fight Club

Schindler's List

There Will Be Blood

Fill Light : Purpose of Fill Light is to eliminate shadows casted by Keylight. It is generally placed the opposite of Keylight and is not as bright as Keylight. Because of that, its own shadows are too dim can be ignored. To get this effect properly, moving the Fill Light closer to the camera will further reduce the chances of casting shadows. Fill Light can be created from Key Light's reflection by using only the reflector in the appropriate position.

Key + Fill


It is a lighting system created by the combination of Key, Fill, Backlight. It is a standard method used in media. With using three different positions and lights, it allows the Cinematographer to light the scene as he wishes and control the shadows.

Backlight : It is the light that hits the subject from behind and slightly above. It is used to isolate the subject from the background, to create a silhouette, to strengthen the depth. While linear sunlight is too bright for a Keylight, it can be a good Backlight. With using reflectors and diffusers we can get Key Light and Fill Light from Backlight.

Shutter Island

Practical Light : The light sources exist in environment and natural for that environment which is like street lamp, candle light, light emitted from a tv etc. Harmony in color temperature is one of the important factors. Increases perception of depth and natural light. Downside is that brightness can not be controlled easily. For this reason, Fill Light etc. is used from out of frame in many shots. It may also cause lens flare problem.

Eyes Wide Shut

Blade Runner

Hard Light : Lighting that when the light source hits the scene bright, linearly, with high light ratio, high contrast, light v. shadow contrast becomes visible and clear.

Indroduces feelings like ominous, suspicious, tense, guilt...

Blade Runner

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Soft Light : It is an aesthetic technique that does not have a strict explanation depend on the light source, simply reducing or softening the shadows. It makes the subject look more beautiful, young and smooth.



Side Light : Light from one side which highlights the subject. With the combination of very low Fill Light a dramatic atmosphere can be created.

007 - Casino Royale

Motivated Light : Lighting technique which imitates natural light while there is none.

The Exorcist

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Ambient Light : The light currently available at the location. Sunlight, daylight, street lights, neon signs, etc. It is necessary to pay attention to the time and weather conditions in lightings based on the sun and daylight.

Road to Perdition

Let's take a look at the auxiliary elements used in lighting.

Reflector : Mirror like element. Used to create Fill, Backlight from Main Light.

Diffuser : Element that eliminates harsh shadows and sharp contrasts by softening incoming light.

Flag : A matte black piece used to block light and create and deepen shadows.


Different light sources have different colors. Candlelight gives a reddish hue, while midday sunlight gives it bluish hues. All these different hues are given in a single global scale which is called Kelvin scale, expressed in K and known as the Color Temperature.

You can see the energy, color relationship in the graph:

This was the finish line for the Cinematography. At least for now.

Stay safe.

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