What Is the Role of Lighting in Cinematography?

G. Wiesen

The role of lighting in cinematography is often an important one, as lighting can affect how a scene is captured on film or video in a number of different ways. In general, the director of photography on a production works with both camera operators and the lighting crew to ensure an overall cohesive vision is achieved. Lighting can work in a number of different ways, often reinforcing the action of a scene by demonstrating, visually, what is important and what is unimportant. There are also ways in which lighting can reinforce the story, by visually representing or reinforcing emotions in a scene.

Almost every production has a lighting director who is tasked with making achieving the lighting effects the director requires.
Almost every production has a lighting director who is tasked with making achieving the lighting effects the director requires.

Lighting in cinematography is the use of various lights on a set or location to give a scene a particular appearance once it is captured on film or video. While lighting is usually done on a production by a crew, the director of photography is often the one responsible for overseeing this work. Since the director of photography is also responsible for the camera crew, this allows him or her to oversee lighting and ensure that it coincides with how a scene is going to be filmed. Lighting is, therefore, essential to the overall feel of a scene and how it appears on the screen.

Lighting is important in cinematography, because it greatly affects the images the camera can record.
Lighting is important in cinematography, because it greatly affects the images the camera can record.

One of the primary ways in which lighting in cinematography can be used is to reinforce or underscore the action of a scene. Lighting can be used to make certain actions or objects in a scene stand out among various other elements. If someone is going to reach for a gun that is lying on a table at the end of a scene, for example, then lighting can be used to highlight that gun throughout the scene. This allows the audience to see the gun prior to its importance, ensuring that viewers understand where it came from at the conclusion of the scene, and allowing observant watchers to predict the importance it may have in the scene.

Lighting in cinematography can also be used to help reinforce the emotional content of a scene. Harsh lighting, for example, can often make a scene feel more direct or eventful, while softer lighting is often used for more romantic or emotional scenes. If lighting in cinematography is used inappropriately, then a scene may feel jarring or not play properly to the audience. An emotional love scene lit with strong and harsh lights may feel strange or inappropriate, while a powerfully dramatic scene that is lit softly may betray the events in the scene and ultimately feel weak or unimpressive.

Lighting can impact the emotion being conveyed in a scene.
Lighting can impact the emotion being conveyed in a scene.

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Discussion Comments

backdraft

It is easy to watch a movie and be oblivious to how carefully it has been lit but every single source of light in a shot has been considered and most often they are man made. Even outdoor daytime shots will use additional lights or will try to reflect or refract light to change its quality.

truman12

I worked as a director of cinematography on a few very low budget straight to video releases. Even on these very cheap, very slap dash films, we gave a lot of consideration to the light. It was both our best friend and worst enemy.

In some shots we had no make do with insufficient lighting, or lighting that did not accomplish exactly what we wanted. This was because we could not afford more lights and nicer equipment. But in other scenes we were able to use simple lighting effects to highlight the tension and mystery and create an atmosphere that many Hollywood directors turn to special effects to achieve.

gravois

Lighting is key for cinematography. In fact, I have heard several cinematographers refers to themselves as artists, or even wranglers of light.

Light and film are like petulant siblings. They are in constant conflict but they can work together to revel a world more deeper than we would realize. So every cinematographer is conscious of light. It illuminates the subject of their labor.

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