How to Light a Movie Scene Using Only Two Lights

Achieving a compelling cinematic look is not as easy and simple task as it may seem. Every experienced DP will tell you that good lighting takes time. As a cinematographer or director of photography, you are the main person responsible for everything that your audience will see in the frame.  That’s the main reason you should be even more careful and reasonable while composing and lighting your scenes.

As a rule of thumb, you should avoid flat looking images unless this is something that serves your story and you want to achieve it intentionally. Visually appealing scenes usually provide more depth and contrast, there is a good balance between shadows and highlights, and colours as well. Even the most minimalistic setup may give you excellent results as long as you know well what you are doing.

How To Create A Cinematic Look Using Only Two Lights from New Creature Entertainment on Vimeo.

As we can see from the above example, one can achieve a natural cinematic look even by using only two light sources. In this particular case, the first light is the Key Light that illuminates the talent and creates more contrast across her face, and the second one is used to add more texture while livening up the background at the same time.

It’s also important to avoid mixing lights with different colour temperatures for better consistent results. Many cinematographers employ different natural lighting techniques for their scenes. These are the scenes where one has the feeling that the shot isn’t lit at all.


We can also see that even with an outdated DSLR such as the Canon 7D one can achieve a decent looking images when the job is done correctly. This is why it’s paramount to know well your camera and use the right settings for different scenes. In general, you should use the native ISO of your camera or set values that are as close as possible to it.

This approach is important to avoid the introduction of digital noise and unwanted artefacts, which usually happen when you bump up or lower down too much your ISO. It’s better to close down the aperture of your lens instead while the scene gets underexposed a little bit and then add the light sources to draw audience’s attention to the main subject in the frame.

Mastering the art of lighting may take many years, even a whole life to be crafted to perfection (and it rarely is). However, it’s essential to learn and practice as much as possible if you want to shoot stunningly beautiful, cinematic footage and become a remarkable visual storyteller. Crafting the power of light and being able to use it, is one of the secret ingredients to creating powerful and moving images. It is a paramount concept to every filmmaker and cinematographer.

[source New Creature Entertainment, via Wolf Crow]

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