Lighting in video: a guide to cinematic lighting techniques

Different lighting techniques can be used to give scenes a specific look and help to tell your story. Here, we explain the key lighting setups for video production.
Two people sit together in front of a Canon Cinema camera on a shoot set, one person with their arm around the other from the back.

"My lighting style is changing all the time," says DoP Juhana Simelius, who cites celebrated cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins as an inspiration. "A couple of years ago, I wanted all of my work to look bright and candy-coloured, but nowadays I'm trying to light videos in a moodier way." © Simelius Simelius

Lighting choices can make or break a video. Beyond its role in exposure, the lighting design plays a fundamental role in the artistry of a film.

There are countless techniques for lighting in video. "I always want to try something new, play with the light, and find new possibilities," says DoP and Canon Ambassador Juhana Simelius. "But the basic principles of lighting are always the same."

Juhana and his wife Nana head up creative Finnish video and photography production studio Simelius Simelius, which works primarily with clients in music, fashion and advertising. Juhana has a background in stills photography and confesses that the move to cinematic lighting was challenging to begin with. "I learned to shape light for still photos, and then tried to apply those principles to cinematography," he says. "With a still photo, you're often lighting a single subject, but with cinematic lighting, everything happens on a much bigger scale."

A woman in a white dress sits on some sand on a set while an open window lets light into the room.

Working as a stills photographer taught Juhana how to use light to create atmosphere in his imagery. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS (now succeeded by the Canon EOS R5) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 58mm, 1/125 sec, f/8 and ISO 320. © Simelius Simelius

What is cinematic lighting?

Cinematic lighting techniques enable you to form a specific look and capture evocative moments. Lighting for video is both functional and creative, enabling you to not only achieve the required exposure, but also to add depth to scenes, direct the viewer's attention towards a subject and augment your film's story.

Essential lighting techniques for video

There are many different types of lighting setups for film and television production, often used in conjunction with each other. Here, we look at the main techniques used by professional cinematographers and how you can incorporate them into your own projects.

Three-point lighting for video

"Three-point lighting – a key light, a fill light and a backlight – is a really good base to build from, in both cinematography and still photography," Juhana says. The key light is the primary source of illumination for your subject, with a lower powered fill light placed on the opposite side of the subject to reduce the shadows created by the key light. The backlight adds a rim light to the subject's outline.

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A woman in a white dress stands next to an open window which lets light into a room with a green wall and sand on the floor.

The shadows bring drama to this still image, accentuating the light from the window. Don't be afraid of shadows when shooting video, says Juhana. "You can achieve a lot with one key light, a few practical lamps and a bounce card." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 40mm, 1/125 sec, f/8 and ISO 320. © Simelius Simelius

Key lighting for video

The key light is the main light in a video lighting plan. Once its position is finalised, you can build the rest of your lighting scheme from there. Key lighting doesn't have to come from directly in front of the subject. You could position the key light to the side or behind the subject, and perhaps use reflected light or the fill light to open up the shadows.

If you're shooting outdoors in daylight then the Sun can act as the key light, although on clear days you may need to reach for reflectors and bounce cards to reduce contrast.

Fill lighting for video

A single key light will create shadows across a subject. While this can be used to reveal texture, shape and form, fill lighting can produce a more balanced result. A fill light is positioned opposite the key light with the power dialled down so that it brightens the shadows without removing them completely.

Fill lighting can be provided by light that's reflected or bounced from the key light, but a dedicated fill light will provide more control.

A person squatting in front of a Canon camera against a red background can be seen on a screen in the foreground.

"We mainly use 300-watt LEDs in our studio, but I also still have a few tungsten lights that I really love and two HMIs – not the big boys, just 1200-watt lamps," says Juhana. "For the LEDs I have softboxes and big octas, and I have many flags and scrims to shape the light." © Simelius Simelius

Backlighting versus side lighting for video

Backlighting is the final light in a traditional three-point lighting setup. Aimed at the back of the subject from a slightly raised position, it provides a halo that helps to separate the subject from the background. You can leave the backlight bare to provide a hotter rim light or diffuse it to soften and spread it over a wider area. Backlighting can also be used as a video lighting technique on its own to create a silhouette.

Like backlighting, side lighting adds dimension, provides separation and creates drama. Positioned parallel to the subject, side lighting can be used to achieve the chiaroscuro 'light-dark' painting effect.

Soft light versus hard light for video

The main difference between soft light and hard light is size. The larger the light source and the closer it is to a subject, the softer the light becomes. Hard light is generated by a point light source, such as the Sun or a bare bulb.

Soft lighting creates softer shadows and more flattering skin tones. Hard lighting increases contrast with bright highlights and sharp shadows, so is best reserved for moments where you want to emphasise texture, create a silhouette or ramp up tension.

Lights can be softened in inexpensive ways, such as using silks or diffusion gels, or by simply bouncing the light. Some lights generate high levels of heat, which you should consider when choosing the type of diffusion.

Bounce lighting for video

Bouncing the light off a large surface rather than aiming it directly at the subject or scene spreads the light over a wider area, softening it at the same time.

There are numerous ways that you can use bounce lighting, including lighting the subject from behind and using a bounce board to reflect the light back towards them, or firing the key light at a wall or the ceiling. White surfaces are best for this technique as coloured paint can add a cast across the scene.

Changing the angle and distance of either the lights or the bounce surface can have a dramatic effect on the softness of the light and where the shadows fall.

Two fencers sparring in a room lit dimly with fluorescent lighting, one wearing a black mask, the other a silver one.

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A woman in a blue dress and a woman in a pink dress stand holding hands in a room. One half of the room is pink while the other half is blue.

"Initially it was really hard for me to achieve a moody look for videos, because my background is commercial stills photography where everything must always be brightly lit with the product or subject clearly visible," says Juhana. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 42mm, 1/125 sec, f/8 and ISO 640. © Simelius Simelius

High-key versus low-key lighting for video

High-key and low-key are effective lighting techniques for influencing the emotional tone of a scene or film. High-key lighting lowers the contrast between dark and bright areas. By reducing the key-to-fill light ratio, the image takes on a clean and airy look with minimal shadows. This bright, soft lighting suits comedies, commercials and productions that need an upbeat, positive feel.

"I'd typically use high-key lighting for a beauty video shoot, with two symmetrical back lights and a beauty dish in front to give a nice, soft look to the model's face," says Juhana.

Unlike high-key, low-key lighting emphasises shadows. It uses little – if any – fill light, allowing hard shadows and dark tones to fill the frame. The high-contrast look is often used to underscore the drama and mystery of thrillers and horror films.

A man wearing a tan jacket with long fringes looks across and down at a pile of rubbish, smoke billowing behind him.

This still is taken from a music video created for Finnish musician Reino Nordin, which was directed and scripted by Nana with Juhana as the cinematographer. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/100 sec, f/5 and ISO 200. © Simelius Simelius

A man wearing glasses holds a Canon Cinema camera while surrounded by green plants.

"Sometimes I rent fast lenses if I need them for a project, but the Canon EOS C500 Mark II that I use is awesome because you can really take advantage of the ISO," Juhana says. © Simelius Simelius

Ambient lighting for video

Ambient lighting is created by any light source that hasn't been added by the cinematographer or gaffer. Ambient or available light can include natural light and practical lights that already exist at a location, such as the overhead lights in a room. Documentary filmmakers and hybrid shooters typically have no option other than to use ambient lighting when filming on the fly.

Natural lighting for video

You can react more quickly if you don't have to set up and power artificial lights. Natural lighting is also free – although scrims, reflectors, flags and other video lighting accessories may be required to manage the highlights and shadows.

Time of day is crucial for filming with natural lighting, with the warm light at dawn and dusk, or the cool hues of the blue hour enabling the creation of evocative cinematic images.

A shirtless man lies on the ground, the lower half of his body covered with a piece of cloth, while he's surrounded by TV remotes, wires and other electronic devices.

"We were commissioned to shoot a music video with a dark and moody feel," Juhana explains of this video still, "but it was midsummer in Finland, when the Sun hardly sets. We only had an hour to shoot when it was a little bit darker, so I put an ND on the lens, closed the iris and positioned an 18K HMI light that I'd rented (along with a generator) close to the talent. That allowed us to overpower the daylight and simulate a night scene for almost the whole shoot." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 50mm, 1/100 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 200. © Simelius Simelius

Practical lighting for video

'Practicals' are sources of light that the audience sees on screen, such as table lamps, television sets, car headlights and candles.

As well as providing a source of illumination, practical lights help to build the cinematic world of the film and immerse the viewer in the story. They can be a prop, such as torches held by the characters in a horror film, or simple background details that add depth and visual interest to the frame.

"I really like to include practical lamps in a scene where possible, and then put a diffusion filter on the lens to add a glow to the highlights for a moody look," says Juhana. "Having a few practical lamps can provide the motivation for off-screen lighting as well."

Motivated lighting for video

Motivated lighting is used off-camera to imitate and accentuate existing light sources that appear in the frame. As the name suggests, motivated lighting needs a logical reason to be there. It should make sense to a viewer and not leave them questioning what the source of the light is.

To create a cohesive look, colour correction gels can be used on the motivated light sources to match the colour temperature of the lights in-shot. Diffusers and other light modifiers can be used to soften and shape the motivated lighting as well.

"I sometimes use LEDs to supplement the natural light of blue hour as it's easy to change the colour and adjust the power to make the light blend in," adds Juhana.

Essential camera and lens features for cinematic lighting

EOS R System and Canon Cinema EOS cameras and RF lenses offer a wealth of practical functions that enable you to make the most of your lighting scheme in the studio or on location.

A camera with a wide dynamic range, such as the EOS R6 Mark II, EOS R8 or even the EOS C70, which also adds built-in ND filters, will provide more control of the exposure of your footage. A fast lens is ideal for working in low light, as is a camera which has low noise at high ISOs, such as the EOS R3, EOS R6 Mark II, EOS C300 Mark III or EOS C500 Mark II.

The Canon EOS R5 C combines the best of Cinema EOS with all the advantages of the EOS R System, including 8K cinematic full-frame video, while other EOS R System cameras such as the EOS R6 Mark II and EOS R7 are formidable hybrid cameras that offer access to Canon RF lenses as well as In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS).

Recent EOS R System cameras also feature a multi-function shoe which provides power to compatible accessories. The OC-E4A off camera shoe cord, which is compatible with the Canon EOS R5 C, EOS R3, EOS R6 Mark II, EOS R7, EOS R8, EOS R10 and EOS R50, can provide power from the shoe to off-camera accessories such as flashes, enabling more creative lighting design. The cable is also compatible with older flashes via the Multi-Function Shoe Adapter AD-E1, as well as with the Canon RF 5.2mm F2.8L Dual Fisheye lens.

Capturing footage in Canon Log, which is available on most EOS R System and cinema EOS cameras, captures a wide dynamic range and is easily matched with other Log footage during a colour grade. If you want to take it a step further, shooting in Cinema RAW Light provides maximum flexibility in post-production to refine exposure, contrast and colours.

Of course, just as motivated lighting and practical lighting go hand-in-hand, many of the other lighting techniques we've covered above can be combined. By blending natural light with artificial light, adding practicals and motivational lighting, and experimenting with lighting accessories, you can build layered lighting schemes that give your videos a truly cinematic feel.

Marcus Hawkins

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