- At its most basic, lighting must do three things. It has to provide enough light to create the image with the camera. It has to make up for the difference in contrast between what our eye sees and what the camera sees. It has to enhance the illusion of the third dimension of the real world in the two dimension world of the cinema screen. If you've learned anything about lighting before this film no doubt you've heard about three-point lighting.
That mall of lighting involves three lights. The key light, the fill light, and the back light. The key light provides the illumination to create the image with the camera. The fill light makes up for the difference in contrast between our eye and the camera. The back light provides separation from the background to enhance the three-dimensionality of the image. There's no doubt that most cinematographers use this vocabulary when lighting a scene. However, I think this entire concept can be dangerous to having your head as you create lighting.
For one thing, it's a symbol system. By that I mean, it implies that there's one model for the infinite number of lighting situations in which you find yourself. The second problem, is that it already has you thinking about three lights. If you could do all the things that you need lighting to do with a single light, then that one light is all you need. The biggest problem is that this three-point lighting tends to look like lighting. We don't want lighting that looks like lighting.
We want lighting that looks like the real world, as if no one created it. It just happened. It's natural to the world you're creating. If we wanted to create a world in which artificial lighting was a part of that world, then three-point lighting would be a legitimate way to do it. Just so I'm clear, anything that tells your story well is legitimate. For instance, most cinematographers try to avoid lighting that is overly bright and flat. Meaning a key light/fill light ratio of one to one.
In other words, a key light and fill light of equal brightness. However, if a cinematographer were lighting a scene that takes place in a TV studio, the authenticity of the scene relies on the audience recognition of that signature look of the nightly news lighting set. An example of what I mean is this scene from the film Magnolia. In this scene, Tom Cruise's character, Frank T.J. Mackey, is a motivational speaker who lives his life in the public eye.
He gives an interview to a reporter. It's important to the story that we as the audience know that this is an interview. The public nature of the questions the reporter asks Mackey is a critical part of the tension of the scene. We can see the reporter, the cameras, we see the lit quality of the TV interview lighting. This is the reality of the scene. That's the intent of this three-point lighting by cinematographer, Robert Elswit. Nowhere else in the movie do we see lighting that is so clearly visible as lighting.
This is both the virtue and the problem with three-point lighting. There's another problem with three-point lighting. It tends to work better in still photography than in motion photography. When both the camera and the subject can move, What once was the primary source of illumination, can fade into the background and become something else. The same for the fill and the back lights. You will find that this vocabulary is useful. When lighting, it's often helpful to talk about the key light, the fill light, or the back light.
Just keep in mind that these definitions become far more fluid in motion photography. So feel free to use the terminology of three-point lighting. Your gaffer is your assistant in devising and executing your lighting plan. Your key grip is your primary advisor for set safety. Use the terminology of three-point lighting to communicate with your gaffer and your key grip. It's easier than inventing your own language. Just be careful not to fall into the traps inherent in three-point lighting.
Keep your lighting real.
Follow along and learn the fundamentals required to shoot a story with a camera. Learn how to plan your production, assemble a crew, choose the right camera and lenses, and make creative choices that best fit the themes, characters, and story of your film. Bill covers the elements of composition, exposure, optics, lighting, and camera movement. Part 2 (coming in November 2016) will show you how to put all these ideas together on set, and deliver the footage to an editor and director for assembly into a complete, coherent, and compelling story.
- Motion picture history
- Preproduction planning
- Working with a crew and actors
- Understanding the story
- Composition in film
- Working with different types of cameras
- Recording, compression, and storage
- Choosing a lens and focal length
- Finding the correct exposure
- Lighting a scene
- Lighting and grip equipment
- Camera movement