How Cinematographers Create Good Lighting for Style and Story
By: Domonique Salberg
In this discussion, we will go over what good lighting is, what we want it to do for us, and how it helps form composition and the story through the objectives featured here.
Full Range of Tones
To start, we generally expect an image to have a full range of tones from black to white (tonal range is always considered in terms of grayscale, without regard to color). There are exceptions, though, as a general rule, an image with a broad range of tones, with subtle shades along the way, will be more realistic, impactful, and pleasing to the eye.
Color Control and Color Balance
For most of films history, it was conventional to precisely color balance all lighting sources in a scene, such as making all the lighting sources tungsten balance. However, with rapidly improving video cameras, better film stalk, and changing visual tastes, mixing slightly or radically different color sources in a scene is common. Controlling color is also essential in the mood and tone of a scene.
Filming a scene with flat front lighting does not reveal the shape and form of the subject and tends to make the scene two-dimensional. Lighting from the side or back shows the shape of an object—its texture and distinctions of form. It is crucial not only for the shot’s overall depth, but it can also reveal character, emotional values, and other clues that may be important to the story. Additionally, it makes the story more real, more tangible, more recognizable.
Separation in the context of film means to make the main subject “stand out” from the background. A typical method to do this is backlighting or making the area behind the main subjects significantly darker or brighter than the subject. In our attempt to make the image as three-dimensional as possible, creators usually try to establish a foreground, midground, and background in a shot; separation is an integral part of this.
Whether the film or video is projected on a screen or viewed on a monitor, they are two-dimensional: flat (3D is just an illusion). Thus, a big part of the creator’s job is making this flat art appear as three-dimensional as possible—to give it depth, shape, and perspective and make the story come alive. Lighting is crucial to achieving this, and that is why flat lighting is frequently the culprit. Flat lighting comes from near the camera, just like the flash mounted on a consumer still camera. And by effect, it flatly illuminates the subject consistently. It negates the natural three-dimensional quality of the subject.
Comparable to shape, light from the axis of the lens (flat lighting) tends to obscure surface texture of materials. The reason is simple: we know the texture of the subject from the shadows. The light that comes from near the camera creates no shadows. So, the more light comes from the side, the more it creates shadows, revealing texture. Texture also can be present in the lighting itself.
Mood and Tone
The term cinematic is understood to express all the tools, techniques, and methods we use to add layers of meaning, emotion, mood, and tone to content. Any good cameraman or cinematographer can take a particular scene and make it look beautiful, scary, or whatever the story needs, in conjunction with the lens and the camera. Then there are tools that affect the mood and tone of a scene: framing, color, use of the lens, frame rate, and handheld or mounted camera. Certainly, everything we can do with a camera or lighting will affect the audience’s perception of the scene; therefore, keeping this and the main objective in mind is crucial.
Exposure and Balance
It is important to remember that exposure is more than “it’s too light” or “it’s too dark,” but proper exposure and camera settings are critical to color saturation and achieving a full range of grayscale tones. There are two main ways to think of exposure: one, the overall exposure of the scale, which is controlled by the iris, the shutter speed, grain, and neutral density filters. All of this manages exposure for the entire frame. The other is the aspect of balance within the frame of a set brightness range. Keeping the brightness range within the limits of your particular film is not only technical but boils down to lighting.
With these objectives in mind and the particular story, creators can attain good lighting and a more engrossing story.