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Lighting Techniques That Make Your Footage Look Cinematic

Dave’s Grip & Lighting on the job lighting a corporate interview

If you’re into filmmaking, or looking for a gaffer in Miami, like us to help you out, you’d probably agree that lighting skills are an essential tool in every filmmaker’s tool box. One size does not fit all in the lighting world and the last thing you want is for your cinematic scene to look like broadcast news. And, you probably also want to know how to do it yourself! 

DIY baby!

While everyone uses lighting in filmmaking, many don’t know how to use the available tool effectively. Our goal is to shed some light on the basics of interview lighting and lighting actors. Whether you’re a film school student or an indie filmmaker, here are some basic lighting techniques that we’ve been using for years that’ll help your footage look more cinematic:

Three-point lighting

Before you can play with light in filmmaking, you need to understand basic three-point lighting. It’s standard to illuminate a scene from three separate positions, with three different lights – key light, fill light and backlight. Each light serves a different purpose in your overall lighting scheme. Let’s take a close look at each of them.

Key light – The primary light source in a scene and often the strongest one is called the Key light. This light helps to effectively expose the main subjects in a scene. Typically, you set the key light on one side of the subject roughly around 45 degrees above them, so that their other side gets a contrasting shadow.  This could be an Arri Sky Panel. Kinoflo 4 foot 4 bank. Arri 650 Fresnel with a Chimera.  Litemate 4. Astra 1×1 Bicolor LED.  Kinoflo Diva. 

Fill light – As the term suggests, the fill light helps fill the shadows on your subject created by the key light. That’s precisely why a gaffer in Miami like me would always recommend placing the fill light on the opposite side of the key light. Fill light is usually softer than the key light, but you can vary its softness depending on the mood and feel of your scene. To that end, you may can use a reflector as your fill light source. Astra 1×1 Bicolor LED soft. Litemate 4 dimmed.  Arri 300 Fresnel with a Chimera.  Kinoflo Diva.

Back light – The purpose of back light is to separate the subject from the background. This light usually shines above and behind a subject. Gaffers in Miami often direct the light on an actor’s shoulder to create an light contour that creates separation and gives the an edge to the subjects body.  This could be a Joker 200.  Arri 650 Fresnel.

Four-point lighting

This technique adds a fourth light, commonly known as a background light, to the typical three-point lighting setup. That way, you can add more depth to your scene. When I work as a gaffer in Miami I will often position the fourth light behind my subject  low and on the floor on a pigeon plate screwed to a pancake apple box and direct it to the background. You can also use the background light to kill the shadows cast by your foreground objects or subjects. Often you are lighting a backdrop or wall behind the subject.

Butterfly or Paramount lighting

A lighting concept borrowed from studio portrait photography, butterfly lighting is a way of illuminating an actor’s face with the key light thrown directly at them from the front and above. As a result, the key light creates a hard shadow under the actor’s nose or chin. Often, the shadow would look like a butterfly, hence the name butterfly lighting. You’ll see a massive use of this lighting technique in old Hollywood movies by Paramount Pictures, which is why it is also called Paramount lighting.

If you want to soften the harsh butterfly-like shadows, you can use a reflector to bounce back some fill light from front and below onto the subject’s face. This will also help kill any shadows under the subject’s eyes and make the eyes appear to glow.

Rembrandt lighting (one of my favs)

Pioneered by the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt, this lighting technique uses a single light source, AKA the Key light. The light illuminates one side of the subject’s face, while also creating a triangle of light on the other side. This type of lighting looks natural and helps add definition to the subject’s face.

If you’re not sure how to execute this lighting setup in your film set, consider hiring an experienced gaffer in Miami. Usually, you should place the key light on the side of the face that is farthest from camera, with its height raised at around a 45-degree angle. Now you simply need to fine-tune the light’s positioning until it forms a triangle of light on the shadow part of the face. If you want, you can use a reflector as your fill light.

Loop lighting

Here’s one similarity between loop lighting and butterfly lighting. Both of them create a shadow under the subject’s nose. But the shadow from loop lighting typically extends toward on the subject’s cheek, as opposed to appearing right under the nose.

Loop lighting got its name from the fact that the shadow created by it looks like a loop. You can create either a small or a long loop depending on your scene and creative preferences. This lighting setup requires positioning the Key light on one side of the subject’s face at around 30-45 degrees above eye level. You can also use fill light to soften the harsh shadows created by the primary source light.

Split lighting

If you want to add a sense of drama to your scene or want to make your character look menacing, consider using split lighting. This lighting technique, as the term suggests, splits the subject’s face into two equal halves. To achieve split lighting, a gaffer in Miami would often place the key light 90 degrees offset from the actor, so that only one half of the face gets lit. You can also use flags and barn doors to make sure the other half of the actor’s face is in complete shadow.

With these basic film lighting techniques, you can now start experimenting with them in your filmmaking. These methods can be blended.  Practice using a combination of these techniques on your productions to make your film look cinematic and not like news!