In this section, we’re gonna be talking about how to control, modify and shape your light sources.

This is the single biggest, most important skill you can learn as a cinematographer and will take your work to the next level if you learn how to do it properly. It’s not just enough to just throw lights up anywhere in your scene, but really learning how to position them and modify them to do what you want is key to transforming your work.

So in this section, we’re gonna be talking about the four characteristics of light that you can control, The Angle, or the Direction that the light is coming from; The Quality of the light, which is how soft or hard the source is; The Intensity or Brightness of the light; and The Colour of the light.

Understanding how to adjust these characteristics properly will drastically change the look of your scene. As you learn to take control of these attributes, it’s important to take note of what looks natural in the space you’re shooting in. This is called motivating your light.

For example, if your subject is supposed to be sitting in a room with an overhead lamp, then you’ll want a dim orange- coloured light hitting them from above. On the other hand, if the light is supposed to look like window light, then you’ll want a large, soft daylight source hitting them from the side.

When you motivate your light, it helps the viewer to understand the space your subject is sitting in, and it will look natural to them. Motivation is something that I’ll be talking about a lot in this section, as it applies to all four of these characteristics and is a big player in getting cinematic shots.

Anyway, let’s jump into it.


The first characteristic of light that is important to understand is the angle or the direction the light comes from. This is probably the simplest characteristic to understand, but also one of the most powerful, as the direction of your light can completely change the mood and the story. Technically, you can light your subject from any direction you want, but it’s important to understand what it does to your image.

In this video, we’ll be focusing primarily on the key light, since that’s what makes the biggest difference, but understand that you can use combinations of these angles with different light sources to get different looks. So, let’s start with probably the most common lighting angle, which is 3/4 lighting.

Here, the light is sitting at about a 45 degree angle from the face, at or above eye line. If you divide the face into four sections, you’ll notice that most of the light is hitting three of the four sections, and the fourth section opposite the light is in shadow.

Because people’s facial features are all different, it might take some moving the light around a bit to get it to look just right. If you want a little bit moodier look, the best way to find the exact spot for your light is to try and create a triangle of light on the subject’s cheek opposite the light.

This is referred to as Rembrandt lighting because the painter Rembrandt used this technique in a lot of his paintings, and it has a very natural, flattering look that is very commonly used in Hollywood movies. When you’re shooting interviews, talking heads, or dialogue scenes, usually your subject won’t be looking directly at the camera, but it’s still possible to use 3/4 lighting.

You’ll just have to adjust your lights. If you move your light to the front side of the subject’s face, this is called broad lighting or front lighting. When you move the light to the back side of your subject’s face, it’s called narrow lighting, short lighting, or reverse lighting.

Reverse lighting is extremely common in all types of filmmaking because it creates a lot more depth on the subject’s face by pulling the shadows towards the camera, whereas broad lighting can tend to make the face look more flat. So, when in doubt, I would recommend using reverse lighting, and you'll start to notice that a large majority of scenes in movies are actually shot this way.

Now, as we move our light source further around the face, we get into the territory called side lighting. It’s called this, obviously, because the light is coming from the side, and it creates a nice vertical line down the middle of the face, dividing the key side and the shadow side. This angle can be used in more moody scenarios to give kind of an uneasy look to a character because you can only see half of their face.

Now, if we move our key light all the way around to the back of our subject, this is referred to as back lighting. It might seem counterintuitive to light your subject from the back, but this angle is actually very commonly used.

When back lighting a subject, you don’t always have to point your light right at them, but rather you can use the light to light up the room behind them, allowing them to stand out as a silhouette against the lit up background.

When using a back light, you can also bring in a bounce board to create some fill light, and control the amount of light on your subject’s face. With less fill light, you’ll get more of a silhouetted look, whereas with more fill light, it will simply look like a dimly lit room. When making these decisions, it’s important to let the story guide your choices.

Moving on to top lighting.

This is a technique that is commonly use in scenarios where it makes sense for the light to be coming from above the subject. If you place your light directly above your subject, you’ll get long shadows under the eyebrows, nose, and chin, creating a really dramatic look, but as you move the light forward towards the camera, those shadows will get smaller and make the light look more flattering on your subject.

And the last lighting angle is bottom lighting, or up lighting, which basically means lighting your subject from below them. This is probably the least common technique, as it doesn’t look very natural because we’re not used to seeing light coming from below.

So, this angle can tend to give a scary look, similar to when you’re lighting your face with a flashlight to tell scary stories. However, if the light is motivated it can actually feel very natural. For example, if you have a subject sitting in a bed, looking at their phone, it would make sense that the light from the phone would hit their face from below, so it works out really well in this scenario.

Again, this is a reminder of how important it is to motivate your light, so that your scenes feel natural and make sense to the viewer. So, those are the most common lighting angles to use in your work.

Keep in mind that the angle of your key light can completely change the story you’re trying to tell, so be sure to pay attention to how you’re motivating your light to create the right mood.


Next up we’re gonna talk about quality of light. Now quality in this case doesn’t mean what you usually think of when you hear the word quality. We’re not talking about whether the light is good or bad.

Quality of light refers to whether the light source produces a soft or hard light on your subject. A hard light source will create hard lines of shadow on your subject, whereas a soft light source will blur those lines, creating more of a gradation between light and dark. 

Typically, soft light is more flattering on a subject’s face, which is why most movie scenes are lit with soft light.

But again, the story you’re trying to tell will motivate what quality of light you use. For example, if you’re shooting a scene with somebody standing in the sun on a hot day, you may want to allow the light to be hard so that it looks like sunlight. Now when it comes to quality of light, it’s important to understand that the only way to make a light source softer is by increasing the size of the source relative to your subject.

What that means is that a large light source close to your subject will produce the softest light, and a small light source far away from your subject will create the hardest light. In fact, if you take a large light source and move it away from your subject, the light will get increasingly harder.

The best way to explain this is using the sun. The sun is actually the largest light source on earth at around 860,000 miles in diameter, but the sun produces very hard light because it’s so far away that relative to us, it’s actually very small in the sky. So distance is one way you can make your light source softer, but what about physically increasing the size of the source?

Well, there are two ways you can make a light source bigger: diffusion and bounce. Diffusion is what happens when you pass a light source through a piece of fabric or paper. The light gets diffused and the material you’re passing the light through now becomes the source.

For example, if I take this LED spotlight which is currently producing a hard light and I put a Softbox on it, the Softbox then becomes the new source and is much bigger than the spotlight by itself, so now it produces a softer light.

The other way to make a light source bigger is by bouncing it. If I take this same LED spotlight and I bounce it into a piece of styrofoam board from Home Depot, then the board becomes the light source, which is larger than the spotlight, so it produces a softer light.

This is the reason why window light is usually very soft. The hard light from the sun comes down toward earth and bounces off of everything it touches: the ground, the trees, the atmosphere, and lights up the sky, and then that bounced light passes through your window, creating a very soft light.

Of course, this is assuming the sun isn’t directly outside your window, which would produce a hard light. So whether you’re lighting a scene or you’re using natural light, pay attention to the quality of light as getting this right can make a huge difference in your work.


Intensity refers to how bright or how dim your lights are. When you have a light source that is too bright, it’s important to know how to make it less bright.

Traditionally, lights have been dimmed using what are called scrims or nets. A scrim is usually a mesh material that cuts down the amount of light but doesn’t change the quality of the light. By placing a scrim in front of the light source, you can see that it essentially dims the light.

Nowadays because LEDs have become so popular, scrims and nets are being used less and less because many lights now have on board controls for dimming the light.

And this makes it so much easier because you don’t have to fiddle with extra gear to get it just right. You can just dial in the exact intensity of the light you want. If you’re not using LEDs though, don’t worry, because you can also add a dimmer externally to almost any light and generally get the same result.

The other commonly used tool for modifying the intensity of light is called a flag or a cutter. A flag is similar to a scrim except that it’s made of material that will completely block out the light. By flagging off light this way, you can get special effects on your image. For example, if you want your background to be darker, you can use a flag to block your key light from spilling so much. Or, if you want to create a film noir look, you can flag off some of the light on your subject’s face.

Another common use for flags is to create what’s called negative fill similar to how you’d use a bounce board to add fill to the shadow side of your subject’s face. If you’re in a small room where there is already too much fill on their face, you can actually place a flag or black fabric on that side to take away light and create more contrast. 

All of these tools are used to modify your light further so that you can create the mood you want and tell your story properly.


The last characteristic of light that you can control is colour. And this is a big one.

Being able to change the colour of lights allows you to motivate your lights in ways you can’t with other techniques.

Traditionally, film makers have used what are called gels to adjust the colour of their lights. A gel is a piece of plastic that’s tinted a specific colour to modify the colour of the light, without changing the quality or the intensity of the light.

There are three main reasons to use gels: to change the colour of a light; to change the colour temperature of a light; and to change the tint of a light. For example, if I take this LED, which is daylight balanced, and I add a red gel to it, you’ll notice that the light starts to turn red. The more gels I stack onto this light, the more red it will get.

Now let’s say I’m using this same daylight balanced light, but I really need a tungsten-balanced light. I can simply add a gel called CTO, which stands for colour temperature orange, and now the light is closer to tungsten colour temperature. You can also gels to adjust the tint of your lights.

For example, if you’re using low CRI lights that have some green in them, you can use a magenta gel to cancel it out.

Likewise, if you’re shooting in an office or a retail space with lots of low quality lights, you can add a green gel to your lights to make them match the rest of the environment, and then adjust your tint in post, to bring all of them back to normal. It’s a good idea to understand gels and how they work, because you’ll likely come across lights that are the wrong colour for what you’re trying to do.

So, you’ll need to be able to change them. The cool thing is, most LEDs will allow you to change their colour temperature between tungsten and daylight value, without the need for gels. And a lot of newer LED lights are starting to allow you to make them any colour with controls right on the light. This makes the process so much easier because you don’t have to use gels any more.

Now, as of making this video, colour-tunable LEDs are still very expensive, but I expect the price on them will come down drastically over the next few years. So there you have it, the four characteristics of light that you need to know how to control.

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this section, this is the single, most important skill you can develop, as a cinematographer. So, make sure to study how to make these modifications in order to motivate your light, to feel natural and tell your stories properly.

Share our blog

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Continue to...