The Art of Film Lighting: Understanding and manipulating light from an artistic standpoint

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Lighting shapes the reality in front of the lens, giving it depth or flatness, excitement or boredom, reality or artificiality. The art of cinematography is the art of lighting and making that light tell the story.

Text: by Sam Kiwan & Leal Butler; Photos: Leal Butler (SAE Auckland)

From an artistic standpoint, the Director of Photography (DOP) must consider how the light falls on and around the actors, how colours bounce off objects and reflect onto faces.
A DOP needs to have the skills to control and adjust these qualities to coalesce with the tone of the director’s vision. He or she must also be aware of the location of highlights and shadows – and choose which areas to expose for.
For example, if a DOP chooses to expose for a brightly lit area then the not-so-brightly lit areas will appear darker. Conversely, if the DOP exposes for a dark area, then he or she runs the risk of ‘blowing-out’ the brighter areas. This phenomenon will be familiar to anyone who has discovered that photographing a person outside in the shade may cause detail in the sky to ‘disappear’.
Or, if it doesn’t, the subject’s face may appear underexposed, but the distant cumulonimbus are rich with detail.

High key lighting can suggest an upbeat mood. Harder light may add to the drama, whereas in this instance soft light has effectively done the opposite.

High key lighting can suggest an upbeat mood. Harder light may add to the drama, whereas in this instance soft light has effectively done the opposite.

Properties of Light

1. Intensity
2. Direction
3. Colour Temperature
4. Quality

Intensity

Intensity refers to a lamp’s brightness. It is a product of a lamp’s wattage and its efficiency that can be measured in lumens. If you want to use the brightest lamp available, don’t enquire about its wattage – find out how many lumens it produces.
For example, a Dedolight rated at 150 watts may produce 40 lumens per watt while an off-the-shelf incandescent bulb might only be rated at 16 lumens per watt.
Of course, if you want a really bright light, then you should probably look into renting a hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamp with an output of about 100 lumens per watt. You have probably seen these lamps at work at a sports field.

Direction

The direction of light suggests the mood of the scene, time of day, and type of location. It also models the objects in the scene, bringing out their shape and texture, or intentionally obscuring shape and texture. A variety of specialty lights can also be used to further enhance the look of the scene.
If you are shooting a scene at the breakfast table with the kids still in their pyjamas, it would make sense to have the light streaming in low from the room’s windows. And at dinner-time, from the windows on the other side of the room.
If you want a spooky light, an extreme low or high angle cast on your actor’s face might help to achieve the effect you are after. Think of the basement scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho film.
While you are lighting your actors, take into consideration their eyes; are they lackluster and dull? Then give them a bright reflection – a catch light. It is unusual to see a professionally lit actor who is not lit with this ‘spark of life’.

Colour Temperature

Different light sources give out different colour temperatures. This is not a reference to the sort of temperature that makes you want to put your coat on (or take it off) – it is a reference to the fact that if you heat up a piece of iron, it will turn from black to red to yellow then to various shades of blue.
Tungsten lights have a colour temperature of about 3,200 Degrees Kelvin (named eponymously after Lord Kelvin of Nineteenth Century Scotland).
But if you are outside in New Zealand on a sunny day the colour temperature will be about 5,400K. This is a blue light.
If this seems unlikely, that is because your eyes have a sort of automatic white-balance as your brain quickly becomes accustomed to most common temperatures of light. But if you have ever taken a digital photo and wondered why it looked so orange or so blue, it is probably because the camera’s white balance was incorrectly set.
When shooting video, things can get a bit muddled if you’re shooting underneath a bright incandescent light near a window – the camera’s auto white balance may not know how it’s supposed to calibrate itself.

In this photo, the subject looks a little too blue due to incorrect white balance. Raising the colour temperature from 2,800K to 4,300K would give the photo a more natural, realistic appearance.

In this photo, the subject looks a little too blue due to incorrect white balance. Raising the colour temperature from 2,800K to 4,300K would give the photo a more natural, realistic appearance.

Quality

A source of light can be hard, soft, or anywhere in between, depending on the type of shadow it casts.
If you are lighting an actor who is playing a hardened villain, you might think twice before placing a diffusion filter in front of them. You would probably want to harden the light, emphasise their scars and rough skin – and you may be inclined to do the opposite if you are lighting the production’s femme fatale.
The main source of light on our planet is the sun.
Light that falls directly from the source (the sun) onto any object (actors) is hard light, and it creates distinctive highlights and shadows. But if the light travels from the sun and through clouds, the clouds will diffuse the light and become softer.
High-noon sunshine on a cloudless day can be very unflattering. Cinematographers will often set up cumbersome overhead silks for their actors to perform under during such conditions.

In this case the subject’s face appears to be underexposed compared to the background. Lighting - and exposing for - the subject would have seen vastly improved results.

In this case the subject’s face appears to be underexposed compared to the background. Lighting – and exposing for – the subject would have seen vastly improved results.

In Conclusion

Imagine if the six o’clock news were lit like a vintage film noir picture, or if The Maltese Falcon had been lit like a shampoo commercial. The effects would be very different. A director of photography works closely with a production’s director and production designer to create and maintain (or alter) the mood of a film.
And yet, these artists tend to work in the shadows, obscured by the box office draw of a film’s stars and its director.
The title Batman Begins is an evocative phrase – it conjures up an image, a quality of lighting. We may think of Christian Bale or Liam Neeson, or even the director, Christopher Nolan. But it is no coin-
cidence that Christopher Nolan has worked with
Wally Pfister on each of his Batman collaborations. Wally who you ask? Wally Pfister – the Director of Photography. He is the guy who knows how to get the look that Nolan’s after. Just as Janusz Kaminski’s worked to give Steven Spielberg the look he was after for all of his movies from Schindler’s List through to Lincoln.

A Minolta branded Light Meter.

A Minolta branded Light Meter.

Using an Electronic Light Meter

To correctly expose your subject, a light meter – one of those devices with the small white dome at the top — can be a very useful tool. If you are shooting video at 25FPS, set the meter’s time to 1/50 and match the meter’s ISO to the ISO on your camera. Then hold the meter so that the dome is next to the subject, pointing at the camera and in the light you are metering for, and then press the measuring button. The meter will display the correct f/stop for your lens. This is known as an incident light reading.

Author Profiles:

Sam Kiwan earned his Master’s Degree in Film at Bond University and has been the Team Leader of SAE Auckland’s Film Department since 2006.

Sam Kiwan (author)

Sam Kiwan (author)

Leal Butler is a graduate of California’s Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, and he has been supervising and lecturing at SAE Auckland since 2008.

Leal Butler (author)

Leal Butler (author)

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Coming from a photography background, learning this viewpoint about working with light is really helpful and refreshing. I’m making notes.
    Thanks guys.

  2. Avatar

    Nice overview on lighting and the DOP’s responsibility. I worked with some photographers in NYC who were primarily catelog photographers for Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and other similar stores. They all had very specific set ups and knew the lighting by heart because it basically never changed. On a movie set, it is infinitely more difficult because everything changes constantly. I think a newbie in the field learns more on the set of a movie production – any production, no matter how small… than with a professional photographer shooting catelogs. Just my 2c. 😛

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