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Styles of Lighting for Digital Video

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 3/15/2010

The way you use light in your digital video project determines the mood and function of the scene. Learn a few lighting styles that will help you portray the content of your video project "in the best light."

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    What is Light?

    Light is what allows us to see the object and color in the world around us. To see an object our eyes have to pick up the light that bounces off the object. Each time we view an object the fashion in which it is lit is then correlated with our experiences and sensibilities to give an emotional connection with the situation. As a filmmaker you are able to manipulate and create situations in an effort to make the audience feel a certain way. The style that you use to light a scene in is one of the ways that we do this as digital video producers.

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    Naturalism

    One of the most common lighting styles is called Naturalism. This concept is for the lighting to be completely unapparent, and the audience should not be able to recognize that there has been a planned lighting scheme. To do this you need to replicate the way that light is produced naturally, which is to say that you should analyze the physical and spatial dimensions of a scene before lighting it. Most light comes from above so this should be kept in mind, as well as the time of day because that determines what angle sunlight is and isn't lighting. No matter what the “mis en scene,” or the elements of the scene, should be maintained.

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    Triangle Lighting

    Triangle lighting, or what is commonly referred to as 3-point lighting, is what is usually used for video interviews. This includes a strong key light on the long side of someone’s face, and weaker fill light on the other side, and a backlight illuminating the back of their head and shoulders. The goal of this set-up is to make the person being interviewed the focus of the frame.

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    Chiaro Scuro

    The use of shadows is also a serious part of the proper use of lighting, mostly because they indicate the surroundings and the mood of the scene. Chiaro Scuro, or “light and dark” lighting, uses very strong attached shadows with a fast fall off to create a more dramatic look. These scenes will have a very strong visual contrast between light and dark, and will give a much more tense and energetic feel. One subset of this lighting style is called Cameo, or “Hamlet”, lighting. This is where you use “black on black” around the part of the image you would like to focus on. For example, if you want to give a “floating head” look you would light the face fully and then wrap the rest of the body in black. This way there is a very dramatic contrast between the face and the rest of the scene.

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    Flat Lighting

    Flat lighting tries to diminish as much contrast between light and dark in the frame as possible. This technique is often used in comedy because you do not want too much omniscience in the visuals of the scene. To do this you would use lots of bright lights, diffused with screens or foil reflectors. What you are trying to do is provide optimum visibility overall.

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    You Control the Mood

    Everything you do in the frame should be on purpose because every aspect of it will be interpreted by the audience in a certain way. The lighting, just like all visual elements, should be thought out ahead of time and you should choose a style that will meet your needs.