Wrapping Your Head Around Lighting
Lighting can be a big hurdle for beginning filmmakers (or even experienced ones!). Where do you even start? How do you make a light look natural? Isn't the room lighting or sunlight good enough?
I've found that in most of the classes and workshops I've taught, lighting tends to be the first thing to go, when the going gets tough. For most students it just feels like a nice extra step, but it often gets forgotten about so long as the room light is bright enough, and you can see what's going on.
However, intentional lighting choices really can take your film from the "my first film look" to "hey, that looks pretty good".
Here are a few tips I've learned over the years of how to light your film (dramatic, documentary, interview, commercial, anything!) in a professional looking way, no matter what gear you have available.
1. Consider the Source - start there and work backwards
Where should the main light be coming from in this scene? The sun? An overhead room light? A lamp in the corner? This light is known as the source light. Knowing where the light is coming from helps you make decisions that look natural and make sense for the environment you're in.
2. Create a bit of contrast
Go look up some shots from your favorite movies or shows and you'll start to notice a pattern in the lighting choices. In the majority of the lighting, there is one side of a person's face that is typically brighter than the other. This creates a nice cinematic contrast in the person's face and keeps them from looking flat onscreen.
3. Have the brightest light on the subject's face be opposite from the camera
If you take a look at lighting from a film, you will probably start to notice that the brightest light on a person's face is typically the far side of the face from the camera. This comes from a technique used in filmmaking called 3-point lighting.
In this screenshot the source is a ceiling light. I positioned the actor so that the light was on the far side of her face (see diagram blow).
4. Use the source light as the main light on a subject
Position your subjects so that the brightest light in the room is on the opposite side of camera to them (like the above post). If you're working in the sun, this is the easiest way to use natural light to your advantage.
In this documentary scene, I used the bright sunlight as my main source light.
3. Use your source light as a jumping off point
The goal of lighting is to create a believable environment for your story. The easiest way to do that is to "motivate" your lighting choices so that the light is coming from an identifiable source.
For example, take a look at the photo below. It looks like most of the light in the room is coming from the bedside lamp. However, the lamp itself wasn't bright enough to light up the actress for the camera, so I needed more lights. So, I used a separate light, just offscreen that lit the actress from a similar direction as the lamp. It looks natural that she has a light on her from that side of the room, as you already can tell where the light should be coming from.
4. When in doubt, start soft - blasting a light at someone's face usually isn't great
Try working with the source light you have available, can you use that as that light, and use a bounce board (reflector disk, white piece of Styrofoam, table cloth, really anything that's white) to reflect that light softly back at them?
A favorite trick of mine is to try bouncing the light off of a white wall or ceiling if possible. Instant soft, bounced light!
5. Add a little something that separates your subject from the background
Sometimes a subject can look as if they're blending into the background if you don't add an extra light to outline their back, shoulder, or head. It really doesn't have to be a lot, but even a small light illuminating a person's shoulders or back can make a big difference to keep them from looking like their one with the back wall.
I hope these tips help as a starting point for lighting your scenes. Like any filmmaking the biggest thing is going out there and start practicing. The more you play around with it, the easier lighting gets, really!