Film Techniques: Lighting

In this article, we learn the different types of lighting used in films, how to analyse lighting and go through an example of lighting.

Written by:
Matrix English Team

Many students simply overlook lighting when they are examining films. However, it is an extremely important aspect that not only shapes the mood of the scene but can also be used symbolically. So, let’s learn how to analyse lighting!


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Film Techniques: Lighting

In this article, we’ll discuss,


What is lighting in film?

Film lighting refers to the direction, quality, source, or colour of light.

These different elements work together to guide our attention, create texture or visual impact, and create an atmosphere.

The direction of light refers to the path where the light source comes from and where it lands. For example, top light or backlighting.

Quality refers to the intensity of the light. For example, hard or soft light.

Source refers to the role of the lighting. For example, key light or fill light.

Colour refers to the colour of the lighting. For example, white light or warm lighting.


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Different types of lighting and their effects

Now that we know what film lighting is, let’s see the different types of lighting and how they are used in films.


Direction of lighting

The names for different directions of lighting is very self-explanatory. It refers to the location that the light source is placed in relation to the subject.

Frontal lightingThe light source is placed in front of the subjectIt is a neutral lighting that diffuses shadows on the face. You will find it is mostly used for portraits or to emphasise an object or subject. Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-films-frontal-lighting
SidelightThe light source is placed on either side of the subject (right or left)Sidelight creates a shadow on one half of the subject and sculpts the subject’s features. The contrast between light and shadow creates a sense of mystery blog-english-how-to-analyse-lighting-sidelight
BacklightingThe light source is placed behind the subjectBacklighting creates silhouettes and a glowing effect on the subject. This is used to create a dramatic effect and emphasise the subject in a mysterious way. You may see directors use backlighting to introduce a superior character without revealing their identity.Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-films-back-lighting 
UnderlightingLight source is placed underneath the subject and shines upwardsUnderlighting can either be used as a monumental lighting (light up a statue) or distort the subject’s features (ghost stories around the campfire). It creates feelings of fear, curiosity or awe.Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-films-under-lighting 
Top lightingThe light source is placed above the subject and shines downwardsTop lighting tends to glamourise the subject. It places the subject in a divine light. As such, we usually feel awe, pride to dominance. Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-films-top-lighting


Take a look at this video to see what the human face looks like under different types of lighting. Pay attention to how it makes you feel.



Quality of lighting

Hard/harsh lightingHard lighting has clear, crisp shadows and contrast. It creates a dramatic and intense atmosphere. Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-films-hard-lighting
Soft/diffused lighting Soft light has very little to no shadows and low contrast.It creates a romantic, dreamlike or magical atmosphere. Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-soft-lighting


Source of lighting

High-key lightHigh-key lighting creates low contrast. Nearly everything in the shot is lit. This is created by fill light and backlighting to achieve this effect.High key lighting has a very neutral effect. You usually see it in beauty shots. However, extreme uses of high-key lighting can create a very sterile atmosphere (think hospitals) or peaceful atmosphere (think heaven scenes) Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-films-high-keylighting-1
Low-key lightingLow-key lighting creates stronger contrasts… like chiaroscuro. Usually, only one lighting source is used. Low-key lighting creates a sense of mystery and drama. how-to-analyse-film-11-12-side-lighting
Key lightingKey lighting refers to the main source of light. It is usually the brightest and creates shadows.Key lighting is used to emphasise the subject. blog-english-how-to-analyse-lighting-keylight
Fill lightFill light is used to ‘fill in’ the shadows in a shot. It is secondary to the key light.Fill light softens the shadows in a shot to create less contrast. It is often used as a neutraliser. However, it can also be used to create a soft, dreamlike effect. Beginners-guide-to-acing-hsc-english-how-to-analyse-films-fill-lighting

Note: Chiaroscuro refers to the strong contrast between shadows and light.



Warm lightingWarm lighting creates yellow or orange tones. Think, warm, sunny day by the beach.Warm lighting creates a warmer and happy 
Cool lightingCool lighting creates blue tones. Think, cold and lonely night sky.Cool lighting creates a cold, gloomy and lonely atmosphere. It can also feel quite spooky. blog-english-how-to-analyse-lighting-cool-lighting
White lighting White lighting uses white light. There are no coloured tones. White lighting is neutral and doesn’t evoke strong emotions. However, overuse of white light can seem overpowering and confronting. blog-english-how-to-analyse-lighting-white-lighting
Coloured lightingDirectors usually tint the lighting with different colours.Film directors use different coloured lighting to set a mood. For example, red lighting can make the scene seem romantic or dangerous, whereas green exudes sickness or evilness. blog-english-how-to-analyse-lighting-colour



How to analyse lighting

We know that learning how to analyse lighting can get quite difficult. So, we broke down the process into easy steps for you to follow!

Let’s see what they are:

  1. Identify the lighting elements in the scene:
    1. Direction of lighting
    2. Quality of lighting
    3. Source of lighting
    4. Colour of lighting
  2. Identify the general effect of the element
    1. Recall the above table
    2. Link it to the atmosphere
  3. Add context to the general effect (some are more important than others)
    1. Identify the film’s main themes
    2. Figure out what is happening in the scene
    3. Figure out how the lighting adds meaning based on your previous findings.
  4. Discuss in TEEL paragraph



Step 1. Identify lighting elements

The first step to analyse lighting is to identify the different elements of lighting prevalent in the scene.

To make this easier, you can pause the scene at critical moments, or take a few screengrabs.

Then, go through the 4 elements of lighting (direction, quality, source and colour) and identify which lighting technique is used. Refer to the above tables to help you with this.

Remember, not all the elements are significant enough to analyse. So, use your critical thinking skills to select the important elements.


Step 2. Identify the general effect of the element

Now that you’ve figured out which elements you will be analysing, it is time to figure out their general effect.

Each type of lighting tend to create similar effects each time.

So, to figure this out, you need to:

  • Figure the atmosphere of the scene
  • Recall the general effect of each element from the tables or your general knowledge
  • Link this to the atmosphere.

This is your basic analysis. However, it is not specific enough to the film. So, let’s take a look at Step 3.


Step 3. Ground your general effect in the context of the film

Adding context will give your analysis the depth and sophistication that markers seek.

Also, directors can always subvert lighting conventions. So, it is important that you aren’t just simply relying on the general effect to analyse lighting.

You must always think about the context that the lighting is used.

To figure this out:

  • Identify the themes of the film
  • Know what is happening in the scene
  • Next, figure out how the lighting emphasises the meaning in this scene (based on your above findings).

This is your filmic analysis!


4. Discuss in TEEL paragraph

Now, we have all the necessary ingredients to put together a T.E.E.L paragraph.

T.E.E.L stands for:

  • Technique: The technique used in the example
  • Example: The example
  • Effect: Your explanation of the effect of this technique and how it develops meaning
  • Link: An explanation of how this example supports your argument.

You can find a more detailed explanation of using T.E.E.L in our post on paragraph structure (this post is part of our series on Essay Writing and shows you the methods Matrix English Students learn to write Band 6 essays in the Matrix Holiday and Term courses).




Example of lighting – step-by-step analysis

Now that you know how to analyse lighting, let’s go through it with an example scene from George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck.

To provide a little context, the film is set during the Cold War, where Communists overtaking America was a real threat. The film follows a broadcast journalist’, Edward Murrow’s (played by David Strathairn), search for truth. He questions McCarthy’s unfair trials of ‘Communists’ and ‘Communist sympathisers’.


1. Identify the lighting elements in the scene

To help us better identify the elements in this scene, let’s take a look at these 2 screengrabs; a midshot and close up shot of Edward Murrow.


1. Direction of lighting: Sidelighting that partly covers Murrow’s face in the shadows

2. Quality of lighting: Hard/harsh lighting that focuses on Murrow

3. Source of lighting: Lowkey lighting that creates lot’s of shadows – chiaroscuro

4. Colour of lighting: Unknown, since the film is graded in black-and-white

We won’t be focusing on the final element because it is irrelevant. So, in this scene, Clooney uses harsh, low-key side-lighting.


2. Identify the general effect of the elements

Now, let’s figure out the general effect of the elements.

1. Identify the atmosphere

The atmosphere of this scene is simultaneously empowering, but mysterious.

2. Recall the above table and connect to atmosphere

Lighting elementsGeneral effect
SidelightCreates a sense of mystery
Hard lightingCreates a dramatic and intense atmosphere
Low-key lightingCreates mystery and drama

From this, we can conclude that the combination of these elements creates a mysterious, intense and dramatic atmosphere.


3. Ground your general effect in the context of the film

Now, we need to give your analyse more depth and meaning by grounding it in the context of the film.

1. Identify the film’s main themes

The main themes in Good Night and Good Luck are:

  • Truth
  • Corruption
  • Media responsibility

2. Figure out what is happening in the scene

Murrow is defending himself from allegations of being a Communist on his live broadcast show. He is attempting to stay truthful and transparent to convince his audience that he is not a Communist.

3. Figure out how the lighting adds meaning based on your previous findings

The light shines directly on Murrow’s face to highlight that he is speaking the truth. However, the side-lighting creates very hard shadows that covers a part of Murrow.

As, such, this symbolises how part of the truth will always be hidden, even when one attempts to be transparent.

We can either link this to media organisations, political figures or simple human nature.


3. Discuss in TEEL paragraph

Now, let’s put out findings into a TEEL paragraph.

George Clooney explores how media organisations may claim to report the absolute truth, but in reality, a part of the truth will always be hidden. We see this in the scene where Ed Murrow defends himself from the Senator’s claims that he is a Communist sympathiser. Here, the hard lighting shining directly on Murrow’s face signifies his attempt to be transparent about the media. This transparency draws the audience’s attention and earns their trust. However, Clooney simultaneously warns the audience about fully trusting Murrow through the symbolic use of side-lighting. This side lighting creates deep shadows covering part of Murrow’s face. This creates a sense of mystery, representing how the truth is always partly hidden despite attempts to seem transparent. As such, Clooney compels audiences to always question the media’s truth.

Written by Matrix English Team

The Matrix English Team are tutors and teachers with a passion for English and a dedication to seeing Matrix Students achieving their academic goals.

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