3.3 Lighting

Lighting is part science, part artform which makes discussing its use in feature films particularly difficult.
It’s important to remember that in most feature films, although the lighting might look normal and natural, the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to achieve a particular lighting effect.
Lighting always makes a significant and meaningful contribution to the narrative.
As Stephen Burum, the cinematographer on films like The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, once said:  ”The art of cinematography is the art of lighting and making that light tell the story.”


It’s important to understand and use appropriate terminology when discussing lighting in feature films. Here are some common phrases that you might find useful when discussing the films you study in class.

Key light. The main source of light in a scene.

Fill light. The secondary source of light in a scene, often used to reduce shadows.

High key lighting. A scene that is well lit with few shadows.

Low key lighting. A scene with little light resulting in shadows and darkness, often used in horror and film noir.

Backlight. A light positioned behind the subject, often casting them into darkness.

Rim light. A light positioned above and slightly behind the subject which helps to define the edge of the figure. Sometimes referred to as a hair light.

Hard light. A lighting source that casts harsh shadows.

Soft light. A diffuse, ambient light.

Chiaroscuro. Any shot that uses low key lighting, high contrast and shadows.

Three point lighting. The common use of a key, fill and backlight.


Responsible for coordinating the camera and lighting departments on a film shoot, the chief cinematographer – referred to as the director of photography – is often the person behind the look of a film.

Here are five cinematographers you should check out to refine your appreciation of lighting.

Roger Deakins. Roger Deakins in a multi award-winning cinematographer who has had a long running relationship with Joel and Ethan Coen, working as director of photography on films such as The Shawshank RedemptionFargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men and Skyfall. He has received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers.

Janusz Kaminski. Janusz Kaminski is a longtime collaborator with Steven Spielberg whose films include Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds and Lincoln. Kaminski has also directed a number of films, including the highly styled horror film Lost Souls.

Jeff Cronenweth. Jeff Cronenweth has worked as director of photography on a number of films and is noted for his collaboration with director David Fincher. Cronenweth’s films include One Hour PhotoThe Social NetworkThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Hitchcock.

Robert Richardson. If you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino, you’re sure to recognise the work of Robert Richardson who has worked on a number of Tarantino films including Kill BillInglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Before teaming up with Tarantino, Richardson had already had a long and successful career as a DoP, working on films like PlatoonA Few Good Men and Casino.

Matthew Libatique. Matthew Libatique is a versatile cinematographer who has had success working with a number of filmmakers including Darren Aronofsky and Jon Favreau. His films include IronmanThe FountainCowboys and Aliens and Black Swan.


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