SET: A Brief Introduction To Lighting

SET: A Brief Introduction To Lighting

It’s your first year of film school, or it’s your first time being introduced to lighting. You learn that there’s this method called three-point lighting; there’s a key, a fill and a backlight. You think you have the keys to the universe; you can now light your set. You try it, and yet something doesn’t feel right. It feels almost unnatural to you. This is what your teachers taught you, so it must be right. You fall into contention with your beliefs and understanding of the subject. Before we go into the technical aspects as to why that may be, let’s delve into the psychological aspects. This is what teachers tend to miss out on when teaching lighting in the first place.


To start, here’s what I’m going to tell you. Your lighting is going to and will always be motivated by the story you’re trying to tell. Nothing more. Nothing less. You are not lighting for your reel. You are not lighting because it will make your images pretty. You are lighting because your sole objective is to engross your audience in the world that you are presenting.


This lighting you create is what’ll emotionally satisfy your heart and the needs of the story. You light from the headspace of your protagonist. How does the character feel right now? What does the world of the protagonist look like to him or her. It’ll take your audience to the deepest, darkest depths or the lightest, brightest heights. Either it feels right or it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, you need to find what does.


This is how you place the lights. Where you place the lights. It’s the color temperatures you use and how you mix bright and dark to create color separation and contrast. It’s how you set your lights at various brightness levels to give depth to a scene.


Notice that I put these three topics in this specific order for a reason. Story always comes first. Emotion comes from the story you tell. Finally, while it’s the most important, technique is what your audience’ll think the least about; the untrained eye will not see how you pulled off a specific lighting setup and how subtly implemented it was because story and emotion always come first.

Remember, cinematography is not about materialism; it’s about what’s inside your head and your heart. You can have all the cash in the world to buy all the gear you want, but if you don’t know how to use it effectively, you’re simply wasting your money.

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