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Tools of the Trade: Studio Lights Give Your Film a “Cinematic Look” on a Budget

When they say “lights, camera, action!” there’s a reason why the lights come first. The art of using studio lights to define a scene is critical to filmmaking, but it is also what holds a lot of talented photographers back from making the jump into film.

Anyone trying to break into the film industry needs their work to look professional, but you don’t have to spend a fortune on cinema cameras and lenses to get that professional cinematic look. A few well-placed lights can give you that cinematic look at a fraction of the cost of pricey equipment.

Lights are what make your indoors shots bright enough to see your actors. Lights are what set the subject apart from the background. Lights are what control the color and mood of the scene. You can’t simply film for one hour a day when “the light is right.” You need to make it happen, and for that, you’re going to need some lights.

Three Studio Lights Are All You Need

The secret to good cinematic lighting isn’t how big or how expensive your lights are. Instead, it’s all about where you put them. A classic lighting setup uses just three lights, but each one serves a specific purpose: the key light, the fill light, and the kicker.

The key light is your main light, but it isn’t there to make your scene brighter. Instead, the purpose of the key light is to create shadows. Shadows make things easier to see, giving definition to details, giving dimensionality to the shot, and giving a specific mood to your scene. A light directly facing your actor will eliminate shadows and give a bright, harsh feeling to the scene, whereas a light coming from the side will leave deep shadows over half their face, creating a moody and mysterious scene.

The fill light comes next, and this is the light that adjusts the overall brightness of the scene. A fill light brightens the dark areas of your shot without changing the shadows. To do this, you generally use a more diffuse light and place it opposite your key light. If your key light is on the left, then put your fill light on the right. Don’t point it directly at your subjects, because it will create a second set of shadows going the other direction, and that looks amateur.

The third light is the “kicker” and it’s more important than you may think. Also known as a “backlight” or a “hair light,” the kicker is the light that kicks up the contrast between your actors and the background. Placed behind the actors, its light catches their hair and highlights their silhouette. When done right, you don’t even know it’s there, but the kicker is one of the most important lights for that “cinematic” look.

Getting Started on a Budget

Some people may tell you it takes money to make money, but those people don’t know the tricks of the trade. If you know where to put them, you don’t need expensive lights. You can also modify lights by bouncing them off different surfaces like a ceiling or blank wall, or by filtering them through something to diffuse the light. You can buy an expensive diffuser, but even a dirty window will do the job in unique and interesting ways.

To get even more creative, you can use colored “gels” to change the color of the light and give a totally different look to the scene. Colored lights create vivid scenes, from deep blue, to menacing red, or calm golden light at any time of the day. Knowing how to work with lights is an indispensable skill for any filmmaker, and it will help you take your work to the next level without needing a next-level budget.

If you are serious about making a career in film and want to learn more about everything from lighting a scene to editing an entire film, consider the BEAU Digital Film specialization. And don’t forget to follow the BEAU blog and check out our YouTube channel.