Lighting Your DSLR Shoot

If the composition, blocking, and camera movement shapes the visual look of your film, lighting determines what the look feels like.

No matter your lens choice, proper exposure, and ISO setting, a lack of understanding how to utilize light will destroy your cinematic look. A cinema-like camera will not provide a film look alone. Lighting is your most powerful ally in helping you sculpt a film look. Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (The Deer Hunter), says that the "type of lighting we use actually creates the mood for the scene. "

This mood is what you, as the shooter, must try to shape and capture with your camera. It helps provide visual depth to your picture. If you shoot an off-whitesubject against a white wall, there's not much contrast-not much light and shadow-and the picture appears flat. If you shoot somebody white against a dark background, the person stands out, and if you add background lighting to the scene, the depth increases. Because of the large sensor of DSLRs and some advanced video cameras-along with high ISO settings for DSLRs and the video camera's comparable gain settings-they maintain a strong advantage
over small chip video cameras because of the capability to shoot in natural and practical low-light situations. Fewer lights are needed on set.

The quality of light refers to what it looks like and what it feels like. What it looks like is what you see on the surface. The feel, on the other hand, conveys the emotion shaped by lighting. You can craft the look and feel of a film by paying attention to:

1. Light quality

2. Light direction

3. Light and shadow placement

4. Color temperature


Hard light is direct, producing harsh shadows, and results in a high level of contrast. This can come from a sunny day or an unshaded light pointed directly at a subject. Hard lights are especially effective as backlight and rimlight sources, such as the example below.

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Steve Lawes utilizes a soft three-quarter frontal key light while utilizing a shallow depth of field using a Sony PMW-F3 Super 35 mm HD video camera in Convergence, directed by Martin Scanlan. In addition a hard light source is utilized as a three-quarter rear "kicker", the harsh light providing tonal contrast to the shot, due to the stark brightness opposed to the soft quality key coming from the left front. Shot on a Sony PMW-F3. (See Scanlan, M. and Lawes, S. (2011). Convergence. <htlp:l/vimeo. com/16898584> .)

Soft light is indirect created by reflecting or diffusing the light-an overcast day or a scrim or sheet dropped between the light source and the subject, or simply bouncing light off a white art board, or even reflecting light off a wall or ceiling. This type oflight provides low contrast to the image (see Below).

One of the counterintuitive properties of light is the fact that as the lighting instrument is brought closer to the subject, the softer the lighting gets, while farther away, the harder it is because it becomes more of a point source, causing the hard light quality to stand out. A diffused light source from farther away may convey a harder light quality than a low-watt Fresnel lamp up close.


The direction of the light will determine the placement of shadows and, con­ sequently, the physical texture of objects and people. There are fewer shadows when the lighting is on-axis of the camera (the front). Shadows increase as the light shifts off-axis of the camera and to the rear of your subject. Light from the side will increase the texture of the scene. When lighting is "motivated," it refers to a light from a particular source, such as a fireplace, window, lamp, or the sun. In the medium close-up of Evie Bickerin the still from Scanlan's Convergence (see right) shot on a Sony PMW-F3 HD video camera with a Super 35mm sized sensor, a high three-quarter key highlights the left side of her face, while soft shadows sculpt her cheekbone with soft-quality light, the light motivated by a sunlight. Her dark clothing and well-lit face provides high contrast in the scene, making her expression stand out. (The bright pink scarf also punches the scene with color, again making her stand out in the scene.) This light was likely scrimmed providing a soft look and feel on the woman. If the scene expressed hard light and shadows a totally different feel would shape the scene. As an additional note, the saturation of color is more prominent when the source is from the front, while colors become desaturated when the lights are placed in the rear.

Scan Pic0020A woman sitting at an outdoor cafe in Martin Scanlan's short, Convergence, director of photography by Steve Lawes. A high three­quarter key highlights the left side of her face, while soft shadows sculpt her cheekbone with soft-quality light. Shot on a Sony PMW-F3.

 Following are a series of stills from a variety of DSLR and large sensor video shooters' work, each one illustrating a different light source direction.




Light Source Direction: Side

A side key light on the front of the face brings out the main features of the character, the emotions expressed by the face.



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In Philip Bloom's San Francisco's People, he utilizes practicals from street lamps to light his subject. 

 Light Source Direction: Side

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In this still from Rii Schroer's 16 Teeth: Cumbria's Last Traditional Rakemakers (featured in Chapter 9), we see how Schroer utilizes side lighting to highlight the features of her subject. Side lighting brings out texture because it reinforces shadows, as we can see with the man's wrinkles (on-axis light will lesson shadows). Fill light reflects back onto the man's screen-right face to help ease out the shadows (light from a window). Backlighting provides a sense of depth to the frame. Shot on a Canon 50 Mark II. Canon 24-70 mm/2.8 lens.

 Light Source Direction: Back

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Steve Lawes utilizes the backlight of street and city lamps (in a shallow depth of field), creating a silhouette of the two leads in Convergence. Backlight from a low angle, rear, provides a colored rim light around his performers shaping a colorful shot with the cityscape in the distance. Shot on a Sony PMW-F3. 

 Light Source Direction: 3/4 Rear

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A three-quarter rear key provides a hard quality light source on the face of Neil Henry sculpting strong shadows on his face. A fill light from the left side removes some of the shadows. Shot on a Sony PMW- F3. 

 Light Source Direction: Front

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This frontal key light from Scanlan's and Lawe's Convergence brings out the full emotion of loss and longing in the character (performed by Neil Henry), with just the hint of a soft shadow screen right. Notice the eyes contain a glint in them. Frontal lights make characters come alive through eye lights. Some cinematographers will add an eye light to bring liveliness to the shot. Shot on a Sony PMW-F3. 

 Light Source Direction: 3/4 Frontal Key

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This still from Vincent Laforet's Reverie utilizes a ~ frontal key (Profoto 7B head with reflector and modeling lamp with bare head) from a high angle, emphasizing the beauty and dramatic look of the woman. Backlighting is shaped from available (practical) street lamps and also causes shadows to fall into the foreground of the shot. The higher the backlight, the shorter the shadow on the ground (but not the face). Shot on a Canon 5D Mark II, 50 mm lens at f/2. 

Note: If you're shooting in the daytime and need to make it look dark, use blue gel filters with a high hard light (representing the moon) and desaturate the colors.


Shadows bring out drama and are essential when creating a night scene (see Figure 2.10). Related to light direction is the placement of shadows. The direction and height of the light determine how shadows fall in the cinematographer's composition. Lights from the front will minimize shadows, whereas lights from the rear will increase the amount of shadows seen on camera. The higher the light source, the shorter the shadow. If you want long shadows, shoot at sunrise or sunset, or place your lights low, instead of high, in the background. Side lighting will increase texture.


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In the opening sequence to Laforet's Reverie, we can see how he crafted a night look for this scene. Soft light (with a blue gel to color the scene) from above left lights the actor's face, while one from the front hits his feet. The light is tightly controlled, minimizing spill, so as to enhance the shadows in the space. The lack of a backlight also helps accent the darkness and provides the night-time feel. Shot on a 5D Mark II.

FIGURE 2.1:1.

An overview of the color tones during different times of day. Sunset can also refer to sunrise. The warmer and cooler label refers to the quality of the tones, not to actual temperature.(Based on image from http://www.freestylephoto. biz/camerakh.php, accessed 28.02.2010).


Digital sensors see lights differently than people do. Computer chips are not as smart as human perception and have a hard time adjusting precise and subtle differences in color caused by different kinds of light sources. Different chemicals burn at different wavelengths, producing different color qualities depending on whether the lamp is halogen, tungsten, fluorescent, sunlight, and so on. Also, sunlight changes its color temperature depending on the time of day and whether or not it's cloudy (see Figure 2.11). Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin (K).

Color temperature, daylight & light bulbs

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Our eyes adjust to these varying color temperatures automatically. Indoor settings for cameras are usually set at 3200 K whereas outdoor settings are usually at 5600 K; both of these numbers are averages for indoor tungsten lighting and outdoor daylight. Even though cameras have automatic white balance systems, the white balance setting of your camera allows you to adjust the setting manually. You may set your camera to manual mode and adjust it with a white or graycard. The Canon SD and 7D, as well as the Panasonic Lumix GH series, include adjustable color temperatures you can select with the dial (Philip Bloom refers to this as "dialing in the color temperature"). Balancing correctly is important so that you can control your image. Sometimes you may want to experiment with color temperature as a way to change the look of the scene, but you should always control this important element of lighting.

In addition, many of these cameras allow you to create presets for the picture look. Several DSLR shooters have mimicked the look of a variety of film stocks to create different looks as well.  In addition, post­ production color grading allows you to further shape the look of your project (Philip Bloom, for example, uses Magic Bullet software to utilize color grading plug-ins to achieve his looks).

There is no one way to determine color balance. Do you balance for tungsten if you're indoors near a window, do you just go with the camera's preset (daylight, indoor, outdoor shade, and so forth), or do you dial it in? You need to look at the image and think about how it relates to the story to best determine what you need. Shane Hurlbut, ASC, dials in his color temperature by eyeballing the monitor or the camera's LCD screen and getting the look as close as he can get it before turning it over to postproduction. Others suggest using the presets for consistency depending on the lighting type you're in, and setting manual white balance only when in a mixed lighting setup (halogens, fluorescents, incandescents in one room, for example). The Canon 7D tends to go a little red when shooting indoors with the incandescent setting.

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Three shots of the same model using three different color temperatures. The middle one is "correct." The first one is too blue, and the third is too warm for the standard look. However, the color temperature is a guide; you may decide the warm image is the color temperature you're looking for to capture the feeling of your story.

(Photos by Kurt Lancaster.)