10 Things to Consider before Lighting your Scene

I wish if lighting up a scene can be done in a flash. It is such a tedious process that it tests your patience. But, Lighting is integral to cinematography, and your scenes will look crap if you compromise on it. Though Lighting comes under your cinematographer’s scheme of things, a smart filmmaker as you are can guide or lead your man to the following considerations to ensure a quick and productive flow to your filmmaking. It not only saves time and keeps your focus on the performances but also it saves you a lot of money.

01- Review the Scene:

For a camera, a scene has many facets like the tonality, the mood, the action, the emotion and much more. You and your cameraman know the scene and have discussed it on how to go about it. But, if you read the scene few times before the shoot, both will get more clarity in their mind and will have a deeper understanding of lighting the scene.

Usually, cinematographers try their best to light the scene in the way they want. But most of the times, it may not blend with the scene, and when you sit on the edit table, you scratch your head over it. It may not be your fault, but a little thing like revisiting the script before the shoot will clear the clouds of confusion and both can visualize the same movie.

For that matter, I will suggest reading the previous scenes as well. It gives clarity to the mood and tone of the scene. I also recommend going through the earlier scenes that occurred in the same location. It will allow you to approach the lighting differently from the past ones.

Always break down the scenes into setups at the script level. It saves tons of time and money if you plan and prepare beforehand.

02- Location & Time Break up :

You can set up lights in a location in many ways. It all depends on the place, and the time of the day the scene is played out in the script. Lighting the outdoors and indoors have their challenges. You are in better control with the indoors than the outdoors.

Outdoor location recce cannot forecast the real intricacies that can spring up on the shooting day.  So, to avoid that, if you do some preliminary research on the location, it can help you a lot. You should strive for information on the weather and the nature of the sunlight in that area during the season.

The sunrise and the sunset timings are crucial as this is the prime time for capturing some great visuals. You get the best available light presented by nature. Also, the temperature or the intensity of the light during the day varies from location to location. If you take note of these small details, your road to outdoor lighting a day scene becomes smoother. You can then decide on your diffusers and reflectors.

Similarly, for shooting a night scene list down your light requirements. Lighting a night in a city will be different to that of a jungle. Nowadays, the digital cameras capture the cityscapes with almost no lights. But for forests and places, where the light sources are scarce, you have to simulate the light sources like the moonlight.

The lighting of a night scene also depends on the expanse of the coverage. If it is a wide angle shot, you need to light a lot. So, the planning is critical here to minimize the time of lighting. One of the better options is shooting day for night or processing it in the post.

Indoor lighting can be done in studios or real locations. Studio lighting is quite convenient as the movement and logistics are in place. But, in actual places, you may be cramped for spaces or have difficulty in maneuvering the lights, unlike the studios. Sometimes carrying big generators can be a problem. So, chalk out the foreseen issues and address them quickly.

03- Deciding on the Color, Style, and Texture:

As decided during the pre-production phase, your lighting should follow the color, style, and texture of the film. It is a creative choice of the filmmaker. The style can be from Noir to a psychedelic fantasy. The lighting should also stick to the palette.

Lighting of a Noir is very different to fantasy. For the colors, you should know how the temperatures react and change the behavior of the colors. Always test your lights beforehand so that you don’t have to hustle in the shoot.

The texture is no different. You should not depend on the color correction while shooting your movie. Your lighting should be right for your genre and maintain the consistency.

04- Costume Consideration:

For a newbie, lighting should not be about putting a light on a spot and start rolling. Lights interact with its environment and can create something magical. It will come with experience.

Lights can affect or get affected by the players’ costumes. So test it out before you shoot as some outfits may burn or hit back at the lens. Blues may look green, or poor lighting may not bring out the intricate details of the fabric and may just look dull and soft.

Costumes bounce off lights to the environment so you have to be ready to cut the luminance from spreading. You can smartly use the suits to light up the frame. Some great cinematographers cunningly use costumes of the actors for diffused lighting. But they can become tricky when the actors move in the frame.

05- Background Lighting:

To give proper separation or blend to the foreground, lighting the background becomes imperative. Shooting on pale or white walls make the frame dull and boring. Exciting backgrounds can be created with colored and textured walls or interesting props. You can use the extras as background and also decide on depth of field or play with lights and shadows.

The primary purpose of background lighting is to stress on the drama subconsciously. The background visuals are a secondary support for your frame.

If the production designer can provide the concept art of the scene, lighting becomes convenient as all the crew will be on the same page.The Art director will choose the correct props and costumers will find the right fix taking into account the backgrounds.

06- Staging of the actors:

Please take prior notes on the staging of the actors. It is essential because the actors can move away from lights or come close to them. The scene may demand to light the subject continuously when he or she is walking. If you consider these in your planning stage rather than on the shoot where you are inventing the movements, you will delay and create confusion.

The communication between the director and the cinematographer is mandatory before working on staging the scene. The director has his ideas which may conflict with the lighting process, or the cinematographer may lack in resources to light what the director demands.

If these things are preplanned, you can place the lights according to the movements of the camera and the actor. Rather than laying tracks for a moving scene, you can probably arrange them in such a way that the rails can help move the lights faster for static shots as well.

07- Camera blocking and Movements:

First, decide on blocking your camera before you think of placing the lights. Also, if the camera moves, you should be wary of not exposing your lights or its stands in the frame. It applies to the glares too. Finalize your lenses quickly as it can change the position of your lighting.

For dynamic shots, put a rough route map on the paper. The camera may also rotate or tilt. So, you have to position your lights smartly so that it doesn’t appear in the frame. Lighting becomes tricky if the camera moves candidly or swings a full 360 degree. The more you plan and rehearse the shot, the better your shots will come out.

Magnification, lensing and aspect ratio play critical roles in the decision to place your lights. Also, note down the lighting details of the master shot because if you are doing a coverage few days or months later, you need to maintain the consistency of the lighting the close-ups or mid shots. Consistency is vital in doing coverage shots.

08- Logistics of lighting:

Once you have fixed your lights in a scene, the next thing is to check the logistics. You should quickly do a recheck of the checklists. Your head counts of assistants, lightmen, number of lights, power, backups, etc.

Utilization of the inventories in cramped spaces is key. Prioritize your needs and stock them accordingly as the scene requirements. For example, if a scene requires four lights, you should probably not keep the lights that are unused in the shooting arena. Or, you have power sources available, you don’t need to keep a backup generator there. You can store them outside the shooting area.

Removing unnecessary equipment gives space for movements and efficiency of the shoot improves. The results of these mini habits may be intangible but can save a ton of time and money in the long run, which you can utilize on things you can’t afford or undertake.

09- Budget and Economics :

You can illuminate a scene in hundred ways. Choosing the most efficient one under a budgetary constraint is critical. Budgets are known to hinder creativity. But, cribbing over it every time is also not done.

For newbies, high budgets are a luxury. It rarely happens. It is where your smart filmmaking skills have to manifest and find out right alternatives without compromising on your craft. Always have your back up plans, for disasters on the set are bound to happen. Decision making and proper administration are the skills every newbie filmmaker or cinematographer should inculcate to handle unnatural mishaps.

How will you find out a way without compromising on the content and yet compromising on the lights is a rare talent to have. If you can deliver in those extreme conditions, you will be a rockstar soon. Budgetary constraints will always be there as filmmaking is expensive and a tediously long process. A small 5 percent tilt can catapult to an expense of thousands of dollars.

Lighting itself is always considered the villain of the filmmaking process. No filmmaker loves this period in the set as his mind runs faster than the process. You may run out of patience too but if you get to light perfectly under your budget; you are a blessed soul.


10- Post processing and Visual Effects:

Lighting a shot for visual effects is tricky, and many cinematographers are at sea. They have to do what they can’t fathom how the output will turn out. I have seen many camera operators either goofing it up or ending up fighting with the visual effects supervisor.

Lighting of the chroma background needs right consistency in its chrominance. Over it, the source lights don’t matter to supervisors as they focus on their mattes more than the lighting. You can color correct the visuals according to the source lights on the post. It creates confusion for the cinematographers. It is like shooting in the dark. But, what the supervisor wants here becomes sacrosanct.

So, as a newbie, you should test small and stick to the lighting under the supervision of the visual effects department. If you are doing the effects on your own, then you may indeed know a thing or two about the lighting.


Lighting is a massive study, but for a newbie to learn or know about lighting, it is better to start with still photography. Grab your digital camera and do some tests on lights for your film stills. It will give you a decent know-how about things you may face. Then, coordinate with your cameraman. You can also take help from experienced cinematographers or photographers to guide you in lighting. Just respect the process of setting up the lights as it may make your film look either cinematic or corny. The decision is yours.

If you have faced any other issues or have different points to add, feel free to do so by commenting below. I will appreciate it. Thanks.


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