Types of Film Lights (and How to Use Them)
Art and Experience: Choose the type of film lights to use on your movie or TV set can be a daunting task, so we created a helpful list of all the lighting types for you!
Your film lighting matters in every shot. It can help you set the tone, look professional, and create the atmosphere of your story. We’ve deconstructed lighting on No Film School before, but today we want to aggregate all the ideas and techniques behind picking a lighting scheme for your film. These are video lighting setups and film lighting setups that are crucial to storytelling.
Aside from the camera, lens, and angle, learning how to shape and utilize film lighting is one of the most important lessons and trademarks a filmmaker can have in their toolkit. And that’s more than just a 3 point lighting setup. It’s a cinematic look.
So let’s jump in!
Let’s go over some lighting definitions first…
Let’s talk about film lighting. It’s more than just three-point lighting and motivated setups. We want to go overlighting placement and schemes to help you really emphasize what you want on screen.
What is a Key Light?
A key light is the primary light source of the scene. It is the most intense and direct light source. Generally, the key light will illuminate the form of the subject or actor.
Key Light Summary:
- Avoid placing your key light near the camera or your light will become flat and featureless.
- Create a dramatic mood by using the key behind the subject
- A key light is the primary light in a three-point lighting setup.
What is High Key Lighting?
The definition of high key lighting is a style of lighting for film, television, or photography that reduces the lighting ratio in the scene. In the first days of film, this was done to deal with high contrast, but now it’s used by filmmakers to adjust the mood and tone of a scene.
High Key Lighting:
- Dominated by white tones from bright lights
- Minimal use of blacks and mid-range tones
- Tone can be optimistic or hopeful
- Used in a lot of pop music video lighting setups
What is Low Key Lighting?
The definition of low key lighting is a filmic lighting style that uses a hard source to encase your scene in shadow. Low key lighting wants contrast and blackness.
Low Key Lighting:
- Dark tones, blacks, shadows
- Striking contrast images
- Used in noir or thrillers for ominous warnings
What is a Fill Light?
A fill light cancels out the shadows created by the key light. A fill light is placed on the opposite of the key light, and usually not as powerful as the key.
Fill Light Summary:
- Remove shadows created by the key,
- Does not create shadows or it’s own characteristics.
What is a Backlight?
A backlight hits an actor or object from behind. It is placed higher than the object it is lighting. Backlights are used to separate an object or an actor from a background. They give more shape and depth. Backlights help the frame feel three-dimensional.
Back Light Summary:
- The sun is a great backlight – you can use a reflector or bounce the sun at a lesser intensity back the subject.
- If a backlight is placed behind an actor at an angle, the backlight is called a “kicker.”
Two Point lighting setup
Use a key and fill light to draw a line toward your subject.
Credit: Two Point Lighting Setup
Three-Point lighting setup
Or you can use the traditional three-point lighting setup: a key, fill, and backlight.
What do you know about light fixtures?
There are many types of film lights, but we want to categorize light fixtures first to give you the basics before it gets complicated.
Open Faced Light Fixtures
An open-faced lighting fixture creates hard light that casts hard shadows on the subject. It provides nothing to filter the subject from the bulb’s light.
Examples of Open Face Light Fixtures:
Fresnel Light Fixtures
A Fresnel lens is a type of lens that is divided into repeating concentric circles. This results in a thinner lens than a conventional lens of similar power. This lens provides an even light and allows the beam to be varied from flood to spot. It does this by changing the distance between the lamp/reflector unit and the lens.
Examples of Fresnel Light Fixtures:
Practicals Light Fixtures
A practical light is a source of light that comes from an object within the scene being filmed. To cheat brighter or dimmer, existing bulbs are swapped out for those of different wattage or color temperature.
Examples of Practical Light Fixtures:
Flashlight, lamp, candle, etc
What effects the performance of each light?
Not every light performs the same way. Lights and lighting are tricky to handle. You have to plan for every circumstance. But the good news is, lighting can be adjusted. Let’s look at different factors that affect lighting in every scene you shoot.
CRI stands for Color Rendering Index. The Color Rendering Index describes the ability of a light source to reveal the color of an object, as compared to the color a natural light source would provide. The highest possible CRI is 100. A CRI of 100 generally refers to a perfect black body, like a tungsten light source or the sun.
Color temperature describes the “color” of white light by a light source radiated by a perfect black body at a given temperature measured in degrees Kelvin. Yeah, that’s a mouthful. You’ll understand color temperature better if you’ve ever changed a light bulb at home and noticed that it doesn’t match the other bulbs in your fixture. Light can be warm (yellow/orange) or cool (blue). Color temperature can even affect the tone of your story. The best lighting misses both cool and warm to create an environment and to get the color you want out of an object or subject.
1,700 K: Match flame
1,850 K: Candle flame, sunset/sunrise
2,700–3,300 K: Incandescent lamps
4,100–4,150 K: Moonlight
5,000 K: Horizon daylight
5,500–6,000 K: Vertical daylight
6,500 K: Daylight, overcast
15,000–27,000 K Clear blue poleward sky
Do you know your sources of light?
Okay, now we’re getting into the fun stuff. Light sources change depending on the kinds of bulbs you use. The build will affect the color temperature and bulb strength can change the CRI as well. So let’s dive deep.
So what’s a tungsten light source? Tungsten or Tungsten Halogen lights are incandescent filament bulbs which are common in homes and offices but have been being slowly replaced with longer lasting, more reliable bulbs. What sets these bulbs apart is that they take advantage of what is known as the “halogen cycle.” Each bulb has pressurized halogen gas within them. That gas helps redeposit evaporated tungsten metal back onto the filament to shine brightly.
Tungsten lamps operate at a high temperature, and thus have a higher color temperature and are more luminous.
Tungsten bulbs are often used to mimic daylight because they produce a warm light. They usually have open-faced light fixtures or Fresnel. They can go up to 200kW and usually have a dimmer switch to help you control direct light. They produce a continuous spectrum of light from near ultraviolet to infrared, producing near-perfect color rendition.
If you want to change the color temperature, you need to use gels.
Uses of Tungsten Lights
Light interiors and match domestic places or office locations. Daylight.
Advantages of Tungsten Lights
- Almost perfect color rendition
- Low cost
- Does not use mercury like CFLs (fluorescent) or mercury vapor lights
- Better color temperature than standard tungsten
- Longer life than a conventional incandescent
- Instant on to full brightness, no warm-up time, and it is dimmable
Disadvantages of Tungsten Lights
- Extremely hot
- High power requirement
- The lamp is sensitive to oils and cannot be touched
- The bulb is capable of blowing and sending hot glass shards outward. A screen or layer of glass on the outside of the lamp can protect users.
HMI stands for Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide. So, maybe stick with saying HMI light. Much easier. HMI lights are a metal-halide gas discharge medium arc-length lamp. Yup, we are getting super technical. HMI lamps are capable of between 85 and 108 lumens per watt, up to four times that of conventional incandescent lamps. They’re able to produce that high of an output thanks to a chemical reaction between mercury and electricity in the bulb.
HMI bulbs are designed to emit a 6000K color temperature light to match sunlight. HMI lights are also flicker-free.
HMI’s are used when high output is required. They are also used to recreate sun shining through windows or to fake additional sun while shooting exteriors. HMIs can light huge areas at once.
Advantages of HMI lights
- High light output
- Higher efficiency
- High color temperature
Disadvantages of HMI lights:
- High cost
- High power requirement
- Dims only to about 50%
- the color temperature increases with dimming
- HMI bulbs will explode is dropped and release toxic chemicals
A fluorescent light contains low-pressure mercury vapor bouncing around to produce ultraviolet light. Fluorescent lights are more efficient than incandescent light. They are capable of generating up to 100 lumens per watt, similar to the output of HMI. So what’s that mean? It means that the spectrum of light emitted can achieve a CRI up to 99. The color temperature of a fluorescent can vary also from 2700K to 6500K.
Uses of Fluorescent lights
Fluorescent film lighting is achieved by laying multiple tubes next to each other, combining as many as you want for the desired brightness. The good news is you can choose your bulbs to either be warm or cool depending on the scenario you’re shooting. You want to get these bulbs close to the subject because they’re not great at opening up spaces. Fluorescent lighting is used to light interiors and is more compact and cooler than tungsten or HMI lighting.
Advantages of Fluorescent lights
- High efficiency
- Low power requirement
- Low cost
- Long lamp life
- Capable of soft even lighting over a large area
Disadvantages of Fluorescent lights
- High CRI
- Domestic tubes have low CRI & poor color rendition.
LED stands for light emitting diode. LED lights are solid-state semiconductor device. LED’s are extremely efficient. They’re truly the lights of the future, mostly because we keep inventing new ways to use them. Right now they are limited in overall light output when compared to any of the other light sources. But things can change fast. LED lights can reflect daylight and many have a variable color temperature. So you can seamlessly switch color temperature as needed. The CRI rating of LED lighting can be over 90.
Uses of LED lights
LED’s are more and more common on film sets. You can use batteries to power them. That makes them portable and sleek – no messy cabled needed. You can rig your own panels of LED lights to fit any space necessary as well. LED’s can also power Fresnel style lamp heads such as the Arri L-series.
Advantages of LED light
- Soft, even lighting
- Pure light without UV-artifacts
- High efficiency
- Low power consumption, can be battery powered
- Excellent dimming by means of pulse width modulation control
- Long lifespan
- Environmentally friendly
- Insensitive to shock
- No risk of explosion
Disadvantages of LED light
- High cost.
- LED’s are currently still expensive for their total light output
Luminous Efficiency Compared
Luminous efficacy is a measurement that indicates the ability of a light source to emit visible light using a given amount of power. It is a ratio of the visible energy to the power that goes into the bulb. Watts out versus watts in.
So which lights should I use?
All of them. Each light we covered has a specific purpose. So it really depends what you’re trying to do on set, hat you have access to, and the nature of the scene and story.
What’s next? 50+ Camera Angles, Shots, and Movements!
Have you ever been overwhelmed at the possibility of every camera angle, framing, and shot type available as a filmmaker? Us too. So we provided a cheat sheet with definitions for you! There are so many camera movements and camera angles; it can be hard to keep track. To make film and television like the masters, you need to practice and learn the various camera movements, angles, shots, and tools.
But how can you know if you’re hitting all the basics without a comprehensive checklist? We put our heads together and came up with this list that should help any filmmaker master the basics and take on the industry.
Click the link and continue your education!