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The Basics Of Film Lighting

The technology of film lighting is in a constant, thrilling, and sometimes overwhelming state of change as artists and engineers push the boundaries of the medium. At first, film lighting might seem tricky to grasp, but take heart. The core principles of lighting have remained consistent over decades. Once you’ve understood those, you are well on your way. Let this article serve as a starting point as you take up the challenge of modern film lighting.

You’ll learn how professionals think and execute film lighting. And you’ll find these concepts easily translatable to your own work — whether your work is in film, television, commercial, or event video production.

A black and white painting of film lighting professionals that is hanging inside the Rosco office in Los Angeles.


History Of Film Lighting


The first filmmakers used as their primary lighting source (or key light), the brightest star in our sky: the sun. Later on, arc lights and mercury vapor lights and then incandescent lights provided sources of directional artificial light for film production.

Today, lighting types from LED to HMI, Tungsten, and Fluorescent are employed, with LED technology quickly becoming the dominant form of film lighting technology. The advancements in film lighting now include the extensive use of LED lights, known for their efficiency and versatility.

Fear not, we’ll define these terms and more in the following section on film lighting terms and vocabulary.

So get ready to dive into the vast world of film lighting as we learn more about how light enhances storytelling in the movies you know and love.


Film Lighting Vocabulary

Crews on film sets around the world have a shorthand to communicate everything from tools to style, to execution, to the quality of light. Let’s break down a few common terms you’ll hear on set.

Three Point Lighting

Key light, fill light, and hair light/backlight are the three types of lights for filming. This three-point lighting configuration is the basic cinema lights setup used in most film shoots. Of the three – the key light is the most important lights for filming because it is the primary source of light in a scene.

A diagram of a three-point lighting setup.


Lighting Ratio

A comparison between the output of the key light and the output of a fill light. A higher ratio will lead to an image with more contrast. A lower ratio leads to an image with less contrast.


Low Key Lighting

Produces shadows for a more dramatic look. In a scene, the key light is often significantly brighter than the fill light. This is a common style in dramas and horror films.


High Key Lighting

A lighting concept resulting in fewer shadows and a lighting ratio between key and fill closer to 1:1 (see next entry). Commonly used in comedic films or three-camera sitcom projects.


Fill Light

A source that is placed on the opposite side of the key light to “fill” in shadows.


Backlight/Hair Light

A backlight is used to separate the subject in the shot from the background. A hair light, as its name implies, accents the subject’s hair, which can also help separate the subject from the background.


Inverse Square Law

Light intensity decreases as the square of distance. Said another way, a subject passing in front of a lighting fixture a few feet from the source will clear the light beam in a shorter amount of time than if they walk through the beam at a point further away from the source.

This is an important concept to consider when actor blocking contains movement. When an actor moves closer to a lighting fixture, the image will become brighter. To adjust for this, exposure changes may be necessary when setting up the lights on the camera.


A diagram illustrating the Inverse Square Law of Illumination.

Remember the inverse square law when an actor moves through a beam of light parallel to the source. They might need to be lit for their line of dialogue and not lit for a dramatic exit. To allow for that moment, knowing where to place the lighting instrument is crucial.


Hard and Soft Light

Soft light, common in mediums like fashion films, is a wrapping and flattering light source. Hard light is clearly directional and casts harsher shadows onto the subject. Understanding how the light hits your subject helps you choose how to make the light softer or harder for creative effects. It’s easy to make a hard light soft using different modifiers, but it is difficult to make a soft light hard.


Butterfly Light

A soft or hard key light placed directly above a subject and angled down for a dramatic and sculpted effect on closeups. Do not confuse this with a butterfly frame that can hold diffusion to manage overhead light.


Ambient Light

Any form of light not added to a scene by a cinematographer or gaffer. Ambient light may be natural light coming in through a window. It could also refer to the light naturally present on location. For example, a city street.


Eye Light or Catch Light (A.K.A. “Obies”)

A light source that casts a small ping of light in the eye of a subject. Usually created by mounting a small light close to the camera such as a Rosco DMG DASH Light with its DOT Round Diffuser accessory.

A film crew uses a Rosco DMG DASH light with a DOT Round Diffuser in their lighting setup to create eye light.

A Rosco DMG DASH with a DOT Round Diffuser provides eye light for a scene.


Book Light

A book light is often used to make harsh light softer. This is done by bouncing light off a reflective surface and then diffusing it before it reaches the subject.


Practical Light

A light that is visible in the scene being filmed (examples: a lamp, a candle, or a television monitor). Practical lights may be provided by the art department. In the case of lamps, it’s not unusual for a gaffer to swap a consumer bulb for a higher quality bulb.


Motivated Lighting

A lighting source that, to the audience, reads as having come from a realistic source within a scene. For example, a lighting fixture balanced to daylight and hidden just outside the frame over a window might read to an audience as the sun cascading through a window. A fixture balanced to 3200K and bouncing soft light mounted over a practical bed lamp may read to the audience as light emitting only from a bed lamp.



This adjective refers to the direction or source of a light fixture which is interpreted in a certain way by the audience. A sourcey light might refer to a hard fresnel light casting shadows through a window. That light would be considered “sourcey” as the viewer of the film might assume this artificial light fixture is the sun. If a light fixture is too sourcey, it might read as false if the audience is unclear what is emitting the light.


CRI or Color Rendition Index

A measurement of a light source's ability to render an object’s color accurately. Often compared to natural lighting sources. Most modern lighting instruments exhibit a CRI rating of over 90 out of a possible 100.

CRI is measured using a device called a spectrometer. We’ll discuss CRI later in the section on evaluating lights.


Color Temperature

The primary unit of heat measurement in the international system of units. In film lighting, we use Kelvin to express CCT or correlated color temperature. CCT gauges how warm or cool a light source is. A candle, for example, has a color temperature of 2700K, while daylight, depending on the time of day, typically has a color temperature of 5600K.


A diagram of the Kelvin Color Temperature Scale.


In this context, output is how bright a lighting fixture is. Output is expressed in lumens, foot candles, or lux (each a unit of measuring light).


Light Meter

A tool used to measure proper exposure. Most light meters are reflective or incident-based with an incident meter measuring all light on a subject and a reflective meter measuring light bouncing back from a subject.



Most modern LED fixtures can dim their output using built-in dimmers, but dimmers are sometimes separate devices connected between a fixture power supply and the power source such as a wall socket or other type of generator or external battery. It’s important to pay attention to wattage requirements. Also, be aware some fixtures are not designed to be dimmed.



An acronym that refers to a standardized digital communication method for controlling lighting fixtures. DMX control can be wired or wireless.


Negative Fill

A black material that serves to absorb or reduce the amount of light being reflected back onto a subject. Very useful in situations where bright natural ambient lighting is present like daytime sunny exteriors. Negative fill can be created with fabric flags & floppies, Blackwrap, or Rosco E276 Blackout.


Golden Hour

This is typically the best time to shoot, either right after sunrise or just before sunset. When the sun is near the horizon, it is shining through more particulates in the air, which creates a soft and warm-toned light that is flattering on most skin tones.



This is considered by most filmmakers to be the absolute worst time of day to shoot exterior scenes. If there’s no other option, modifiers like bounces, negative fill, and overhead diffusion must be employed to give the sunlight some directionality.


Projections & Gobos

Often used to create everything from simple shadows to complex moving textured light that moves across actors and set pieces. Simple projections using gobos inside ellipsoidal fixtures (like the ETC Source 4) are an excellent way to add simple shadows or texture the light in a scene. A perfect example of this using a venetian blind gobo to create the recognizable noir lighting effect.

Using moving lights like the Rosco X-Effects LED Projector can add motion into your projections. This film lighting technique is excellent for creating spectacular lighting effects in a scene.

An image that demonstrates five different kinds of lighting texture created by projected gobos.

Five examples of how gobo projections can create color and texture in film lighting setups.


Multiple Shadows

Viewers might recognize a single set of shadows all moving in the same direction as being cast by the sun or a streetlight. Multiple shadows often read as false or as a mistake, and great care should be taken when placing instruments in a way that casts multiple shadows throughout a scene.


Rear Projection & LED Walls

Whether it's a video projector projecting onto an RP screen, or digital projections being created on an LED wall inside an LED volume - the light emanated from these sources must be accounted for when shooting virtual production. While it is often beneficial to have their practical light adding color and reflections on the set, their output is rarely enough to completely illuminate a scene. You will need additional lighting tools for shooting with LED walls and RP screens that can supplement the glow from these indirect light sources.


Directions: Lamp Left & Right, Camera Left & Right, Stand Up & Stand Down

“Lamp left & right” is a method for communicating direction instructions to a crew member moving a lighting fixture. Simply put, “lamp left” or “lamp right” is left or right from the perspective of the back of the lighting fixture. “Camera left” or “camera right” communicates direction from the perspective of the camera. Another popular command is “stand up” or “stand down”, which means lower or raise the stand the fixture is mounted on.


Gaffer, Best Boy, Key Grip

The gaffer is the crew member most responsible for executing the lighting plan on a production. The gaffer often works hand in hand with a cinematographer and a variety of other crew members, including a best boy (called “sparks” in the UK or even “juicers”). The best boy is second to the gaffer and is responsible for the electrical operation of on-set fixtures. A key grip is responsible for safely mounting fixtures to film equipment or set/location architecture.



Beams of light are invisible to the eye (and to the camera) unless there is some sort of particulate in the air. Adding some sort of "atmosphere" into the scene - usually by using theatrical haze of fog - enables filmmakers to add color and texture into their film lighting setup. Various types of atmosphere can lower lighting contrast and can illustrate mood or dramatic moments.

Theatrical haze is a long-lasting, semi-translucent effect that is perfect for catching light beams. Fog or smoke is often more opaque initially, but will eventually dissipate into a haze effect. While atmosphere is often created on set using theatrical haze and fog, smoke, morning mist or naturally occurring environmental dust can also create similar atmospheric effects in a scene.

An image that demonstrates four different ways that using haze or fog to create atmosphere can enhance the film lighting on set.

Four examples of how atmosphere from a Rosco V-Hazer enhanced the film lighting in a scene.

Film Lighting Fixtures

Using a variety of lighting fixtures is common when lighting a film. Some fixtures come from the theater world; others have been around for decades. Power requirement, size, mobility, price, and output vary depending on the fixture. To the touch, some fixtures feel cooler, others hotter. Some fixtures even emit low levels of UV radiation. Each fixture creates a certain quality of light.

Let’s explore the most common lighting fixtures and see how each plays a part.



LED stands for light-emitting diode. A current travels through a small electrical chip and that chip emits light. LED lights are directional and tend to draw less power, create less heat, and have a relatively long lifespan. Common LED colors are red, green, and blue and are often expressed as RGB. LED technology is now the dominant lighting in film production. Currently, the output of LED lighting is bested at the high end by HMI fixtures, but that output gap has been closing as LED technology improved. LED lights can be modified within the fixture or the lamp head to be soft or hard. Further modification is also possible in a variety of ways to create different lighting characteristics.

rev DMG MAXI amber web

A Rosco DMG MAXI LED soft light.


LED Tape

A strand or multiple strands of LED diodes arranged in any configuration and in any length. Mostly commonly used as environmental lighting or built into existing art elements. Like most LED instruments, the LED tape can be made of color diodes or single Kelvin temperature diodes.



Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide is a type of lighting fixture characterized by an impressive light output and large power draw. Developed in the late 1960s, the HMI fixture is still commonly used on film sets where daylight balanced high-output lighting fixtures are needed. HMI fixtures emit light by passing an electrical current between two electrodes within a bulb, thus exciting mercury vapor and metal halides in a pressurized environment. As of 2022, LED technology doesn’t produce the same output as HMI lights. HMI fixtures tend to create a hard and directional light source.



An electrical current passes through a mercury vapor, which energizes a phosphor coating on a bulb or tube, causing it to glow. Until recently, fluorescent was a very popular type of lighting used to create a soft and flattering light source. However, in many of the current major film markets, LED lighting has replaced fluorescent.



A warm light source that uses tungsten-halogen bulbs to create a light that hovers around 3200K. Tungsten fixtures tend to be hot and heat-resistant gloves are strongly recommended when handling them. These fixtures have a very appealing price-to-lumen ratio, but draw lots of power in exchange for that level of output.



A common type of light characterized by a soft-edged beam of light, the Fresnel lens was originally developed by a French physicist for lighthouses. That lens was then integrated into film lights. It can be used as a floodlight or as a spotlight and certain brands allow for a variable Fresnel beam that can move between spot and flood, allowing for narrowing or widening beams of light.

The DMG LION - a 13" LED fresnel.

The DMG LION - a 13" LED fresnel.



A fixture that uses an ellipsoidal-shaped reflector to collect and direct the light through a lens, which allows the light to be focused on a surface. These lights often feature shutters that allow for sharp cuts to the beam. The focusable optics also enable the fixtures to accept gobos – metal or glass discs that can cast shadows, texture the light beam, or project photo-quality imagery.


Space Light

An overhead light that features a cylindrical diffusion shroud for soft light output. These fixtures are usually used in large groups and are intended to light large areas.


Lantern or China Ball

These modifiers are usually mounted overhead. They act to spread and soften a light source over a medium-sized area. They’re very useful for creating a flattering top light in scenes where ground mounted lighting fixtures are difficult to hide from the camera.


Film Lighting Modifiers and How To Use Them

Lighting modifiers are pieces of equipment that can alter or improve a lighting source. Modifiers are not only used for artificial lighting. They can also be used to bounce, soften, or flag (i.e. block) sources like the sun.


Barn Doors

This modifier attaches to the front of an instrument and is usually matte black metal to prevent heat damage and unwanted reflection. Barn doors can direct and shape a beam of light.

A DMG MINI with Barn Doors installed to control light bleed and shape the beam of light from the fixture.

A Rosco DMG MINI LED soft light with Barn Doors attached.

Soft Box

A heat-resistant “box” that affixes to a fixture to soften the light emitted using diffusive fabrics. A soft box will soften the beam more or less depending on the type of diffusion materials used.


Grid, Egg Crates, or LCDs

Modifiers that are mounted directly to the front of a light fixture or a grip frame to narrow the beam of light and prevent light spilling into the shot.



Most often made from thin heat-resistant plastics, a gel can color a beam or be used for color correction. It's possible to create an overall color aesthetic with gels. They are denoted by name and sometimes a number designation from brands like Rosco. Gels were originally made from gelatin until the late 70s, and the “gels” nickname has stuck to this day.


The Rosco Color Effects Filter Kit - a collection of 15 popular Rosco gels.The Rosco Color Correction Filter Kit - a collection of 15 popular Rosco color correction gels.The Rosco Diffusion Filter Kit - a collection of 15 popular Rosco diffusion gels.

Rosco Filter Kits are an excellent way to introduce gels into your film lighting setup.


Neutral Density (aka ND) Gels

Similar in concept to neutral density camera filters, these gel filters are used to dim down the light of windows, so they aren’t over-exposed and aren’t blown out in the shot. These grey gels come in a variety of different densities that lower the amount of light from ½ stop (very light) to 4 stops (very dark). 



Heat-resistant materials that are placed between the light source and the subject to scatter the beam to change the look, feel, and character of a lighting source. They soften the light beam, usually at the cost of intensity. Diffusion materials include plastic gels that can be cut and affixed to the barn doors of a light or onto a grip frame, as well as fabric materials that can be sewn together, or viny materials that can be welded together, to form large diffusion panels.


Butterflies and Overheads

Butterflies are diffusion panels that are mounted vertically to standard grip frames. Typical frame sizes are 6’ x 6’, 8’ x 8’, and 12'x12'. Overheads are much larger panels of diffusion that have been sewn together to cover a large area. Some overheads are big enough to cover the entire ceiling of a sound stage.


rev butterfly-natural-muslin_1_web_size

 A 6’x6’ diffusion Butterfly mounted to a grip frame and a pair of C-Stands.


Flags, Floppies and Frames

Flags are made out of various fabrics and are often mounted on a stand to block light or create shadows in a shot. Floppies are opaque flags that have extra lengths of fabric that can “flop” down when needed, or be attached to itself via velcro when not. Frames provide a location for cut pieces of gels or diffusion to be mounted. The size of both flags and frames can range from just a few inches to large rigs mounted from cranes over talent.

rev flags-nets-group2_web_size

White Net and Black Net Flags can be used to lower the output of film lights.


Topper, Bottomer, Sider

Set speak for a flag that is placed close to the lighting source to remove light from part of the shot and reduce spill from a given side.



The term derives from GO – Between – Optics. It’s a metal or glass pattern that can project shapes, shadows, textures, and images when placed inside a focusable fixture like an ellipsoidal. Often used on set to project blind shadows, custom logos, or the outline of foliage.

Using a Gobo to cast venetian blind shadows into the scene is just one example of how to use gobos in your film lighting setup.

Using a Gobo to cast venetian blind shadows into the scene is just one example of how to use gobos in your film lighting setup.


A large pattern, usually carved out of wood, that is placed at a distance from an artificial hard light source that can create similar gobo shadow effects, but needs additional grip rigging.



Also known as “Cinefoil” or “Photofoil,” this useful matte black aluminum foil can be placed on a light (usually on the barn doors) to cut and shape the light. Available in 12”, 24”, 36”, or 48” wide rolls, It can also work as negative fill in some lighting setups. 

Rosco Blackwrap is available in 12”x50’, 24”x25’, 36”x25’ and 48”x25’ rolls.

Rosco Blackwrap is available in 12”x50’, 24”x25’, 36”x25’ and 48”x25’ rolls.

Bounce or Reflector

The purpose of a bounce or a reflector is to soften the light source. Bounces can be made of foam core materials, silver and gold reflective materials, or from the filming environment itself. Bounced light is difficult to control as it widens a beam substantially, but the effect on a subject can be very flattering. Keep in mind that the light beam may change color temperature after interacting.

rev Reflector Lame Plata F_hi res


A 6’x6’ reflector Butterfly mounted to a grip frame and a pair of C-Stands.

How To Evaluate Film Lighting Fixtures

We live in the golden age of lighting. More fixtures with more features at lower price points are giving filmmakers something they crave most: the option to choose the light that serves the story and fits the pace of the project.

Which light is right for your project? A few things to consider:


Does your project require a variety of colors? Should an RGB LED panel be used or perhaps colorful gels?

A filmmaker used purpled colored Gels on their film lights to create a stylized nighttime scene for a horror movie.

A filmmaker used purpled colored Gels on their film lights to create a stylized nighttime scene for a horror movie.

Kelvin and Color Accuracy

Does the light replicate colors well? Is the Kelvin setting on the light what is actually being emitted? Is the fixture reading as too green or too magenta? Does it have +/- magenta control allowing you to compensate for a green or magenta shift, or will you need to rely on physical color correcting gels?


Daylight or Bi-Color

Daylight-only fixtures tend to have a higher output that, at times, can compete with the sun itself. Do you need that level of output or can you work with the added flexibility of bi-color lights that allow for a larger Kelvin range.


Overall Output

Is this a nighttime scene where you do not need to compete with ambient lighting and you’re using a light sensitive camera? Perhaps you don’t need a higher output fixture and you can work with a lower-output, cheaper fixture instead.


Power Draw

Do you have access to a generator or studio circuits, or will you be relying on house power in an urban apartment? Will you trip a breaker if you use anything over 1500 Watts?



Do the lights and the modifiers needed to use that light fit through the door of your location? Is the fixture so heavy that it requires a larger crew than you may have initially considered?


Two Rosco DMG MAXI fixtures mounted on a Double MAXI Yoke can create a voluminous amount of light on set while remaining relatively lightweight and portable.

Two Rosco DMG MAXI fixtures mounted on a Double MAXI Yoke can create a voluminous amount of light on set while remaining relatively lightweight and portable.


Is it easy to control the light manually? Does the fixture have Bluetooth, wired or wireless DMX control?


Price Point

Of course we can’t leave price point out of the conversation. Does it make sense to purchase for long-term use or rent for a single production?


Accessory Ecosystem

Does the lighting fixture have accessories and modifiers available, or will your team need to consider creating custom options?


Build Quality

Can the light fixture hold up to the physical demands of the shoot? Can it withstand impact or dust and sand? Does it have large exterior vents that could allow particles to impede the delicate internal electronics? Is it waterproof or water resistant?

A lighting plot can be as simple as a 3-point interview setup (key, hair, and fill) or as complex as lighting a large multi-level soundstage to play as daylight with multiple triggered effects over DMX and a high powered HMI or multi-unit LED hard light acting as the sun. The most complex setups can involve literally hundreds of lights and many days of pre-lighting before a single second is put to film or memory card.

Note that a high CRI or TLCI average (Television Lighting Consistency Index) can be an indicator of a quality light source capable of accurately emitting colors, but many factors must be taken into account when judging the quality and potential of a lighting instrument.

All lighting fixtures are not created equal, and securing and understanding the right tools for your film lighting project is critical. Considering the points above will help you make the right decision.



What is the purpose of light in film?

Lighting is a critical element for film and television production because without light – there is nothing for the camera to see and record. Lighting also utilizes color and contrast to tell the viewer where to look and create the visual mood and atmosphere of a scene.


What are film lights?

Traditional lighting fixtures used in film & television production include fresnels, soft lights, PAR lights, and ellipsoidal LEKO lights. These fixtures can be lamped with tungsten, HMI, fluorescent or LED sources.


What is the most common type of lighting in film?

A three-point lighting setup is the most basic lighting configuration when lighting for film & TV. Using a key light from the front, a fill light from the side, and a hair light from the back helps define your subject and sets them apart from the background.


What are the three lights in film?

  1. Key Light: The primary source of light in a scene.

  2. Fill Light: A source placed on the side of the key light to “fill” in shadows.

  3. Back/Hair Light: lights the subject from behind to separate them from the background.


What are the basics of film lighting?

Exposure – Making sure that the proper amount of light is present to illuminate the scene.

Contrast – Using shadows & highlights and color to accentuate the details in a scene.

Texture – Determining what quality of light (hard/soft/dappled) makes sense in a scene.


What are LED lights in film?

Most modern film lights use LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) to illuminate a scene. Some are bi-color white lights that switch from warm to cool, While others are color-mixing fixtures that combine red, green, blue, and other LEDs to create a multitude of colors in addition to warm and cool white light.


Can you film with LED lights?

Yes – Thanks to their low power consumption, their ease of use, and their low heat output, LED film lights have become the most popular illumination source on set. One thing to consider is that some LED lights may flicker on camera due to low-quality dimming systems – especially at higher frame-rates.