Lighting on Location

In its simplest role, light is necessary for exposing the image on your camera.

But after this fundamental role, lighting becomes art. Even with natural available light, you can alter the look of lighting by choosing how your piece will interact technically with camera settings, what location you choose, and how you set up the shot. 

Using artificial light and a set provides a blank canvas to tell the story with light. Regardless of your lighting interactions, you will be having many discussions about lighting while on location.

On your shoot, you may have only one or two lighting people, or you may even be doing it all by yourself On a large movie set there are entire teams of people responsible for the lighting. At the end of the day, the same issues and decisions will come up on blockbuster movie sets as one-person shoots. How can the lights tell the story? Do you have the proper lighting to technically be able to get the shot? What lights do you have? Where should you put them? What can you do with them?

Planning the Lights

You should plan the lighting during pre-production, so you can rent or purchase the appro­priate gear. You must plan the lighting based on the blocking and the image composition; part of the composition of a frame is the lighting, and establishing the lighting composi­tion is as important as framing the image. In fact, during pre-production, it is beneficial to sketch out the lighting setup so that you can gather the equipment and provide a blueprint for all crew members.

The plan should contain the types of lights, proposed angle and location, any grip equipment that is needed (because most likely on your set the grip/lighting assistants will be the same person or even you), camera and initial setup, major landmarks, initial starting point of actors, cardinal direction or GPS location, sun position, or any existing lighting you are planning to use graphed with details about the type of light and the shots/scene numbers or desired time of day you're trying to capture.

You should create a new lighting blueprint for any major lighting changes or setups. You can give these blueprints to all pivotal crewmembers and include them with the story­ board for on-set reference. The blueprint is likely to change, but it gives you a starting point for lighting ideas on the set. It is important to carefully plan any intricate lighting setup or tricky situation.

Timing: When to Set Lights

On set, the lighting may be at least partially set up according to the plans, but most of the lighting setup work will take place after you've done the blocking. If you are prelighting, start with the background and then light forward, saving the last lighting decisions for the details in the actors' faces or for tweaking. At this point, ask yourself, "What will the major light sources be, and where is the source light?"

After the rehearsal, lighting tweaking will take place and will cease prior to the first shot. During the rehearsal, the blocking and the camera movements are connected to the lighting. This is the time to also look past the first shot and examine the coverage, the series of shots or setups that are planned to be shot on that location and that day. Lighting can be a bit like chess, and thinking ahead to the next shots will save time and confusion.

The lighting will often have to be reset or tweaked with each setup or shot, as well as Scan Pic0032every time the camera moves or the blocking changes. Often with a small crew or even on a full-scale set, some people in the lighting department will be involved with moving light as the scene progresses or at the least holding or adjusting bounce cards to control light during the shot. 

Choosing Lights

DSLRs allow for extensive creativity and flexibility in lighting. Most types of bulbs and light will be effectively read by a DSLR. You can use professional light kits or a variety of lights picked up from your hardware store.

In this arena, what is often more important than the exact type of light is what you do with the light. Position, adjustment, and handling of the light are ultimately what matters with DSLR lighting schemes. As you pick your lights, take note of the differ­ent types of light that are either present on the set or available for positioning on the set

Scan Pic0033

 (a) A light setup on set. (b) A lamp (called a practical) can be used or added to help light the
scene. (c) In a pinch, you can use the headlights of a car as ambience or direct lighting for your scene. (d) A
great help is using windows and natural light to light your scene. You can use direct sunlight or use curtains
as diffusion to soften the light.

All decisions must start with the quantity and brightness of the light. Simply put, what are the light requirements for proper exposure and desired depth of field? Even if you using natural lighting, you may have to augment to get the exposure you want or the depth of field you need to get your shot in focus. Pay attention to how much light may have to be added or what exposure you may be dealing with if conditions aren't ideal on the day of shooting.

Distribution and Shape

Different light sources distribute the light differently. Light may also take on a shape depending upon the shape of the light source or if something gets in between the light source and the shot and adjusts the shape of the light. The light can be forced into patterns depending upon what is placed in front of it.

Scan Pic0035

Image above shows that you can point your light at a simple broken mirror to create an interesting lighting pattern. If you have the time, you can take and glue pieces of broken glass onto foam core or some wood and make a larger target to bounce light for any scenes that require a larger area to light.


Light is often not a pure white; it has color or a slight color cast. The color of thelight is not merely about setting proper white balance. The color of the light can influence the overall look of the piece indesirable ways, and you may want to pick the light based on its color, shoot at the magic hour to get golden hues, or adjust the light to manipulate the color of the light. The color is a result of the light temperature, gel on the lights, or filters on the lens or camera.

Scan Pic0036          Scan Pic0037

(Left) A street scene with mostly one color light temperature and one type of light. (Right) A street scene with a variety of colored lights and light temperatures.

As you pick the light, you will need to determine what light temperature and color fit the piece. Often you can add visual interest by using a small bit of aScan Pic0038 contrasting color temperature light in backgrounds or by playing with cool and warm tones in the shot. Usually proper white balance is desired; however, sometimes the color can be changed for effect by altering white balance, for example, by allowing fluorescents to go green in a shoot (Right). Color can also be affected subtly by using filters or in controlled areas by gelling windows or individual lights.

Scan Pic0039Light temperature may change or the light may grow dimmer as the light is used, as it heats up, or as the bulb gets older. This is especially true for many of the battery-operated lights or certain LED flashlights and quartz lights. As you shoot, pay attention to any changes in brightness or color temperature that may be affected 

(Left) (Top) Light at the beginning of a four-minute scene. (Lower) Light at the end of a four-minute scene in the same shot.