Lighting 101 – The DP’s Playbook


Like any good football coach, most DP’s have a basic Playbook they use when it comes to lighting.  Of course, everyone’s got a different style and likes to mix it up, but there are things that we know work well and light positions that we can always fall back on.

If you’re interested in learning the fundamentals of how to light a scene, here’s a quick summary of concepts Cinematographers often think about.

Many DP’s like to light the set\background first and then start applying these rules on Key, Fill and Backlights.  For instance, if there are practical lamps or windows, we’ll light for those first before setting the lights for the actors.  We might then work with the director to block the actors into better lighting and composition positions.  Sometimes we want to take the light off the actors, ‘Un-Light’ them, or make the lighting feel less staged.  Feel free to break these rules, and know that it’s often the bolder choices that can set a DP apart.

There are all kinds of funny names for different types of lighting:  Half Light, Rembrandt, Beauty Light, Grease Light (aka Kicker Light), Neg Fill, etc.


*This is the classic ‘Rembrandt’ lighting.  Notice the shadow from his nose.

Let’s start with the classic Three-Point Lighting most people are taught in school.  It includes a Key Light on one side, the Fill Light on the other side of the camera, and a backlight.

3-Point Lighting

I’m not usually a fan of this style of lighting, mainly due to the position of the fill light.  I prefer to use what I call ‘Same-Side Fill’, where the fill light works to wrap the key light around onto the actor’s face.  Here’s a diagram of what I’m talking about.  Go ahead and spend a few seconds studying it and the notes I wrote on it:

Same Side Fill_Simplified

This diagram is my most common Play in the book.  It works.  It’s pretty.  It’s a classic.  By adjusting the diffusions and scrims in these lights, you can go from high-key to very dramatic.  Often though, I find myself trying to work my way out of this box and make some scenes look less lit.  Also keep in mind that you might not want any fill light.   I’ll talk about other options in a bit.

NoCountry_1 Shawshank_1

I generally have two basic ‘Rules’ that I can apply whenever I get stuck and don’t know where to start.  They are: Backlight and Diffusion.

Some people like to set the Key light first, but I sometimes like to see the Back light set up first and make decisions from there.  I usually like the backlight as opposite and 180 degrees of the camera as I can get it.  This often means we need to hang it or arm it in and keep the cable out of the shot.

I also like to add diffusion to the lights to keep them from feeling so direct and forced.  It makes the light more appealing, even just a light amount of it.  Diffusion and lighting direction can be an art as much as a science, and it takes some experience to know how these can affect your lighting.

Thinner diffusions like 251 and Opal can just take the edge off while still maintaining some direction to your light.  As you get into thicker diffusions like Light Grid, the source-iness of the light goes away and the ‘size’ of the light becomes larger.  I often use large frames of diffusion in front of the lights — 4×4’, 8×8’, and even 12×12’.

First, where do you set the key light?  In general, I like it when the actor is looking in the direction of the key and fill lights.  This means we mostly set the Key light on the side of the camera that the actor is looking for most of the scene.  For example, if I have two actors talking and I’m going to shoot coverage of the scene, the key light will go opposite the camera-side of the eyeline.  Here’s another diagram.


Putting the Key light on the actor’s Eyeline side tends to be ‘Slimming’, helping the actor to appear thinner.  Here’s an example from ‘Training Day’ of the Key and Fill light set in the actor’s eyeline:


It’s possible to put the Key light on the other side, out of the eyeline, but you have to be careful with this or the light can feel very flat and make the face look broad.  If you’re going to go in the opposite direction, it can work well if the eyeline is close to camera (not wide) and if the Key light is used to create more of a half-light than a Rembrandt.  Not that he always did this, but I found very good examples of it in Conrad Hall’s work:



In both cases, the actors are looking away from the Key light side, and the Key to Fill ratios are fairly contrasty.  The Key light is used more as a Half-light than a Rembrandt, so as to preserve a darker side to the face.

Here’s an example of a ‘Grease Light’ or ‘Kicker’ on the dark side of Brad Pitt’s face.  Notice how it doesn’t hit his nose (a personal pet-peeve of mine when it does):


When lighting a 2-Shot, I sometimes employ what’s known as a ‘Back-Cross’.  This is two lights that each serve double duty — they backlight one actor while providing a Rembrandt on the other.  This also facilitates a quick turn around for lighting the coverage.




Another Play I really like is ‘The Robert Richardson’.  It’s often a bright, hot downlight (maybe a PAR Can) that bounces off a table or the ground and lights the faces.

Hugo_Richardson IngloriousBasterds_2


Another way to soften your Key Light is to build a ‘Book Light’, where the light bounces off a material (like Beadboard) and then goes through a frame of diffusion.  This creates a very soft source that often doesn’t require much fill light, but it can occupy a lot of space and take a lot of stands and flags.  It also needs a pretty bright light for a key source.

Book Light

Sometimes you can use a diffusion frame in front of your light, and raise it up a bit so that some hard light leaks on the actor while diffusion still covers the face.  Here’s an example of John Toll’s in Almost Famous:


Another technique I’ve learned to love for certain applications is the Beauty Light. It can look awesome and glamorous on a well-made-up actress, but it also can look completely fake.  Often, I use it in music videos or cosmetics commercials.  Generally, the light is right above the camera, and high enough that it throws a ‘Butterfly’ nose shadow straight down, but it’s not too high that there are shadows in the eyes.

Beauty Light

Maybe in a future post I’ll examine the differences among light sources, like Tungsten vs. HMI vs. Fluorescent vs. LED.  They’re very different, in terms of quality of the light, color, spectrum, brightness, etc.  They all have uses though, and it’s often about finding the right tools for the job.  For my quick diagrams, I used tungsten lights (and maybe you don’t always need a 5K or 10K — I got lazy and didn’t change up the sources too much for these examples).  You could need HMI’s or Kinos, depending on your set and location.

These are just examples of common techniques.  There are lots of other plays in the book and ways to change these around to suit your scene.  Everyone will have different ways of doing things and different opinions, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.  These techniques can take a lot of practice, and I encourage you to be bold and break the rules.

Personally, a DP’s work can get pretty boring when they keep doing the same thing over and over again, so it’s important to learn what works and then think about other options. I often like to have a couple days after the location scout to think about how to light a set, because the first ideas can be pretty standard and ho-hum.  Given some time, I find that better ideas will come up if I can allow my mind to wander and marinate on the lighting plan.

I also find it to be helpful to study the work of other DP’s you admire, and pause the DVD’s or use screen-capture software to save stills so you can examine how they’re constructed.   I welcome your comments and additions.  Thanks for reading!



About Graham Futerfas

I'm a professional Cinematographer working in Los Angeles.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Lighting 101 – The DP’s Playbook

  1. Darrin Stuckwisch says:

    Love it…..

  2. Darrin Stuckwisch says:

    It’s gonna be a min but great study material…

  3. Pingback: Lighting 101 - The DP's Playbook | CINE DIGITAL...

  4. I love this post Graham! I’m a portrait photographer myself, or at least trying to be and very eager to learn on interesting lighting and light in general. I’m trying out some of your described plays. Thanks for this info!

  5. Ben says:

    Great post.. I’d love to hear more of your insight on lighting with the practical illustrations.. Clear and inspiring.. Thanks.

  6. Xavier says:

    Awesome, thanks Graham

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s