Video Lighting Guide Part 1: Different Types of Light

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This piece is part of a series of three articles covering the basics of lighting in the context of videography:

The first article covers the main types of lighting used in films and video clips
The second article looks at lamps and light accessories in greater detail
The third article covers different types of lighting setups from 1-point lighting to 4-point lighting

Choosing the right light type when shooting a video or a film can have a big impact on its quality.

If artists use paint and sound to create emotions, filmmakers use a combination of lights and shadows for the same purpose.

There are numerous types of lighting types frequently used by filmmakers such as natural lighting, hard light, soft light, mixed lighting, etc.

Each of those lights gives a different nuance of white (some warmer, others cooler) and is more suitable for specific scenes during the filmmaking process.

The purpose of this article is to give you more information on light types, lighting accessories and how/when to use them to achieve your purpose.

Whether you’re looking to post your videos on YouTube, you’re an aspiring filmmaker, documentary or short film producer, this comprehensive article will help you have a better understanding on light types used in video clips.

Ultimately, this article helps you do your job better!

Make sure you check these articles out the get a broader understanding of video lighting.

Without further ado, let’s dive right into it and learn about the most common lighting types.

Lightning types

There are several important lightning types filmmakers can choose from.

For example:

  • Natural lighting
  • Hard lightning
  • Soft lighting
  • Colored lightning
  • Mixed lightning

Each of these types has its own pros and cons and can be utilized for various scenes when shooting a film or video.

Natural lighting

Just as the name implies, natural lightning refers to the light which comes naturally from the sun.

Filming in natural light is pretty common and provides excellent results.

Many western movies used natural lightning to shoot outdoor scenes. This keeps costs down (since there isn’t a need for artificial lighting) and the resulting video looks beautiful and clear.

This type of lightning is also used today, but sometimes it’s helped by additional lighting sources to keep the overall lightning setup consistent.

For example, a slightly cloudy day might alter the visual effect of a scene which should have been filmed outdoors in broad daylight.

That’s why filmmakers use extra lamps to create a consistent color tint across all the filmed scenes.

Blue hour

Blue hour example
Blue hour in Southern Spain © Jan Sørup

The natural light can be slightly different at various moments of the day.

That’s why you’ll frequently encounter terms such as Blue Hour and Golden Hour.

A blue hour usually happens 30 minutes before sunrise

Blue hour also happens after the sun has set. You need to wait until the sun is below the line of the horizon to take advantage of this moment of the day.

It is the moment when the sky has a blue to dark blue color range.

At this moment of the day, the light is soft enough to expose dark areas without needing additional light sources.

Blue hour is highly popular among photographers and videographers. It usually lasts approximately 30-40 minutes.

Golden Hour

Golden Hour photo example
Golden hour at the local lake © Jan Sørup

The Golden hour is when the sky offers a wide range of warm colors such as yellow, orange and red.

This moment of the day starts immediately after sunrise and usually lasts for an hour. Golden hour is also visible during the last hour of daytime before the sun sets below the horizon.

You’ll love this moment of the day because it provides a beautiful, diffuse soft light which is ideal for capturing pictures and videos of landscapes, people or animals.

How to take advantage of blue and golden hours

Professional photographers and videographers love to shoot city landscapes or beautiful beaches during the Blue hour because this moment of the day offers a broad color spectrum.

You can also capture beautiful pictures of the Moon and get an enormous amount of detail in your shot.

As for the Golden hour, there are several ways you can use this time of the day for videos and pictures.

For example, you can go for a “silhouette” shot when you have a completely black subject in front of a bright background.

This works perfectly for objects, humans and animals.

You can also arrange the camera to get a “sun flare” in your shot which adds personality to the resulting picture or video.

Front-lighting is another way to shoot pictures during the Golden Hour. In this scenario, your subject is facing the sun directly and you can capture a lot of details in your picture.

Tip: make it a lot easier to shoot during the Golden or Blue hours by utilizing an app which lets you know when it’s the perfect moment of the day!

How to deal with the harsh midday sun when filming

As you probably figured it out, the best moments for shooting videos or pictures is around sunrise and sunset.

This is when the light is soft and a digital camera can capture the most details.

However, sometimes you might have to shoot videos during the daytime.

If you’re a wedding videographer, you can’t possibly tell your clients to have their wedding at sunrise or sunset, so that you have a better picture quality.

Why is the midday sun a problem when shooting videos and photos?

Because the excessive brightness creates a big contrast between light and shadow, so you don’t get many details in the picture.

At the same time, the colors of the images might not be sufficiently accurate.

It’s true that digital cameras are getting better and better every day, but you can also do your part in ensuring a high-quality photo or video in broad daylight.

Here are a few ways you can go around this problem.

  • Put your subject in a shady place – if it is possible, try to find a place with a lot of shadows and position your subject there. Make sure it still gets enough light to capture details, but not too much to make the image look washed out
  • Make the back of the subject face the sun – if you’re picturing people, have them face you when you take the shot. This is good because they don’t have to squint the eyes and you can capture a lot of details on their faces.
  • Use a diffuser – a diffuser is made from a translucent piece of fabric and looks similar to an umbrella. It can be used to cast a soft white light over your subject when you are shooting during the harsh midday sun

Since we mentioned diffusers, let’s talk about a few accessories which can be used when shooting in natural light.

Accessories and techniques to improve your videos shot in natural light

The diffuser is just one common accessory, but there are many others.

For example, you can use reflectors and scrims which are very similar in nature.

A reflector is a piece of metal or glass used to reflect the light in a certain direction. It is used to improve the lighting options when filming indoors or outdoors.

A scrim is similar to a diffuser and it’s made from cloth or a piece of fabric.

It is usually placed over a lamp or light source to create a diffuse lightning setup. This accessory comes in various shapes and sizes and is essential for creating the correct lighting conditions when filming.

Movies which use natural lightning

To have a better understanding of natural light, you might want to see a couple of examples of movies which made the most of it.

For example, “Barry Lyndon” (1975) made by Stanley Kubrick is a famous example. It uses natural light and the movie is based on a novel written by William Makepeace in 1844.

Another good example is “The Tree of Life” (2011), a film by Terrence Malick.

This movie used a broad combination of old-school visual effects such as paints, liquids, smoke, CO2, fluorescent dyes and natural light to create a stunning film.

“The Revenant” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio has also been filmed using plenty of natural sunlight. This is the movie which brought Leonardo an Oscar for the Best Actor Award!

Hard lighting

Another type of light used in video production is hard light (or hard lighting).

This is the opposite of soft light which will be covered later in the article.

Hard light casts deep, definitive shadows on your subject. These shadows usually appear very dark.

You can achieve this effect by having a powerful, yet small light source directed towards your subject.

This lightning option will make your subject very bright and any shadows cast will be very dark, to the point of absolute blackness resulting in a high contrast picture

Imagine being in a completely dark room, turning on a flashlight and aiming it at your chin.

This hard light creates a dark shadow of your chin on your neck.

On the other hand, if the lightning source is larger and the light is dispersed in multiple directions (not focused on a small area) then the shadows won’t be very dark.

The distance between the light and the subject also influence the “hardness” of the light and the darkness of the shadows.

When is hard light used for video?

Hard light is ideal for creating dramatic and even scary scenes.

The “blacker” a shadow is, the more drama and intensity it adds to the scene.

You might also want to use hard light to emphasize a subject’s edges or silhouette. It is usually associated with male subjects, but female ones can also be emphasized using hard light.

This type of lightning can also be used to build suspense or to make the viewer “guess” the appearance of a subject.

That’s because hard light doesn’t reveal a lot of details the object, person or animal you’re filming.

You’ll frequently see hard lights in movies featuring prison cells, mysterious places or tree branches.

How to create hard light

Creating hard light is not difficult. You just need a relatively small light source such as a flashlight or lamp which aims the light directly at your subject.

Moving the light source further away from your subject also increases the “hardness” of the light.

Spotlights are usually used to create hard lights. Video makers also use different types of lenses to make the light rays parallel and pointing directly at a subject.

Fresnel lights or Fresnel lanterns are also used to create hard light as well as Open Face lamps and HMI lights.

Movies which use hard lightning

Any Film Noir film uses hard lighting such as “L.A. Confidential” (1997), “Sunset Boulevard” (1960) and “Double Indemnity” (1944).

“Sin City” (2005) is another good example of a movie which uses hard light in plenty of scenes. This movie is known as a neo-noir crime film and features famous actors such as Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke.

“Blade Runner 2049” (2017), a movie featuring Ryan Gosling also uses hard light in a couple of scenes.

Both Sin City and Blade Runner 2049 can be characterized as neo-noir.

If you want to read a more in-depth article on low-key hard-contrast lighting we recommend you read our article How To Use Low-Key Lighting For Dramatic Effect.

Soft lighting

Soft lighting is complementary to hard lighting.

If hard lighting creates high contrast between black and white, soft lighting creates a softer image in terms of contrast.

It is used in photography and videography because it “wraps” around the subject, casting diffuse shadows.

It is one of the most popular types of light used in movies and it helps to create beautiful, eye-catching scenes.

This type of lightning gives the impression of a warm, welcoming setting and the closer you move a light source to your subject, the softer the light will be.

Soft light is frequently used in interview videos as well as commercials and Hollywood movies.

When is soft light used for video?

Soft light is used in modern cinematography for numerous reasons.

First of all, it is used to reduce the number and depth of shadows behind a subject. This basically reduces image contrast and makes the resulting photo or video more visually appealing.

Soft light can also be used to hide imperfect textures or details around or behind the subject.

When it comes to shooting videos or photos of models, soft light can hide fine wrinkles, skin imperfections and other visual artifacts.

Soft light is frequently used as fill light because it doesn’t cast clear shadows.

For example, in most movie scenes there’s key light and fill light. The key light illuminates the subject while fill light (soft light) is used to create the ambiance without casting additional, clearly visible shadows.

Find out more about key light and fill light here and here.

How to create soft light for video

Soft light can be created by utilizing a large light source.

For example, an LED panel featuring multiple LEDs can be used to create soft lights.

If you don’t have a large light source, you can create one using a diffuser or scrim. Simply cover the light source with a diffuser and the light cast will be much softer and gentler, not a harsh, direct one.

Soft lights can also be created using softboxes.

Softbox

These are simple “box-like” accessories made from paper or translucent material. They have different sizes and are used to cover a light source.

The larger the box, the softer the light.

Soft lights can also be created using umbrellas.

Umbrellas

The filmmaker uses a special type of umbrella to diffuse the light.

The umbrella disperses the light and bathes the subject in a warm, glowing soft light which casts gentle shadows in the background.

Lastly, you can also create soft lights using China balls.

Have you ever played with a Chinese lantern? Well, the China ball is very similar and can be used to cast soft lights with different color temperatures on a subject, depending on the light bulb inside.

The size of the China ball dictates the amount of soft light produced.

Movies which use soft lightning

There are numerous movie examples which utilize soft light.

Remember that this lightning type is one of the most popular out there and frequently used by cinematographers in combination with other lighting techniques such as hot light, fill, light, etc.

For example, Janusz Kaminski is known to be one of the best filmmakers in the world and he beautifully used soft lighting throughout the “Schindler’s List” movie.

Similarly, James Cameron used soft light with different color temperatures when he shot the famous “Terminator 2” movie.

Colored Lighting

Colored lighting refers to the color temperature of the light.

Color has a huge visual impact when shooting videos and photos because it can directly influence the viewer’s mood.

For example, did you know that the Harry Potter series became increasingly darker in color in each movie?

In other words, the last movie had an overall darker color scheme than the 6th installment which had a darker color scheme than the 5th one, etc.

This was done on purpose to emphasize Harry’s increasing emotional struggle and sadness as he was preparing to fight Voldemort.

Color temperature on video lights

Color temperature guide

Color temperature can begin at 1000 K which is the light given by the flame of a candle. This is a reddish type of light.

Fluorescent light has a color temperature of around 4500 K and is usually bright yellow. The light coming from the sun has a color temperature of 6500 K and you’ll see it as bright white, etc.

Colored lightning also implies modifying the color of the light to create certain moods or visual effects.

It can be done easily using special types of gels or filters. These accessories feature a broad range of colors, from red, green and yellow to purple, blue and black.

Gels for video lighting
Gels

The gels come as colored sheets of paper (also known as filters) and they cover the spotlight or other light sources.

The light cast by the source might be white in nature, but the applied color gel (let’s say a red one) gives it a reddish tint.

As you can probably imagine, you can have a lot of fun playing with different colored gels to achieve various visual effects!

Some lamps – like a lot of LED-panels – offer the opportunity to change the color temperature of the light very precisely by dialing in the exact color temperature you want.

Keep in mind, that if you dampen the intensity of e.g. a tungsten Redhead the color temperature will also change. To avoid this you could apply a ND-filter to your lens instead.

When is colored lighting used?

Let’s take our last example with the red-colored gel covering a spotlight.

The filmmaker might want to use this setup to shoot a video which is supposed to happen on Mars, for example.

Mars is a pretty hot planet with red/dark orange rocks and dust spread all over the place. The red-colored gel easily achieves this effect.

You might also want to use colored lighting to emphasize a party/club scene which features numerous lights and lasers.

Filming a romantic scene?

You might want to use an orange or red color gel to create a warm, welcoming and romantic ambiance in a restaurant or living room.

There are numerous ways you can use colored lighting in your videos.

How to create colored lighting

Apart from applying colored gels on top of spotlights, you can also create colored lighting using special types of lamps.

These lamps naturally give light in certain color temperature.

For example, a tungsten lamp has a color temperature of 3200 K which is ideal for filming scenes which are supposed to happen early in the morning or just after the sun sets.

Certain LEDs can also be used to give light in different color temperatures, ranging from warm red and orange (around 2000 K) up bright and cool (around 8000 K and beyond).

Although some of these LEDs can get very expensive (some costing around a thousand dollars), you can definitely find a few less expensive ones to be used while filming your videos.

Colored lighting can also be created by playing with your camera’s settings. For example, you can use daylight white balance in shady conditions to make the image look more blueish.

The overall color and tone of the video can also be adjusted in post-production using color grading techniques.

Movies which use colored lighting

There are many good examples of clever color usage in movies.

For example, the movie “Skyfall” uses bright colors to create a broad range of emotions and visual effects. It was shot in London and makes great use of color lighting, particularly neon lighting.

A couple of scenes in the popular movie “Ex Machina” also used color lighting, emphasizing the color red which usually symbolizes anger, aggression, violence or romance.

Mixed lighting

Mixed lighting refers to the moment when there are multiple lighting sources in a single scene.

Having many different lights in a single shot can be problematic sometimes.

For example, you might get natural, bright light from outside through a window, but also have tungsten light coming from a nearby lamp.

This can create color inconsistencies, making the overall white balance look out of place.

Ideally, you want the whites to be consistent across the scene, either going for a cool tint (blueish in nature) or a warmer tone (white orange tint).

In photography and filmmaking, color temperatures over 5000 K are considered to be “cool” (have a blueish tint) while color temperatures under 5000 K are considered to be warm (have an orange/yellow tint).

If you’re shooting indoors, you might want to adjust the white balance of your camera to warm white and if you’re shooting outside, cool white is the ideal option.

Most cameras do this automatically, but an experienced video maker can also make manual adjustments.

In fact, you can learn a lot about white balance by watching YouTube videos and reading articles online.

This topic might seem difficult at first, but you’ll soon discover how interesting it is and how creative you can get with white balance.

Difficulties when shooting in mixed lighting and how to avoid them

As mentioned earlier, color inconsistencies can appear when shooting in mixed lighting, resulting in unrealistic white balance and other chromatic problems.

In a typical indoor scene, light coming from a window can make highlights have a cool tint on one part of your subject and a warm tint on the other.

There are several ways you can go around this problem.

Block the light

First of all, try to eliminate the additional lighting sources, if possible. For example, you might want to make the subject move into a different spot in the room, far away from the window.

This reduces the amount of sunlight hitting your subject and you can keep a consistent white balance.

If it is not possible to move the subjects, you could try blocking/gelling a window.

There are various types of black curtains available on the market, which block most if not all the sunlight.

Blocking the sunlight coming from a window leaves you with just the indoor lighting sources, ensuring consistent color temperature.

Gel the windows

You can also gel the window to create consistency when it comes to white balance.

For example, you can use large sheets of orange gel (usually available from video supply stores). These gels can mask the entire window and make the sunlight match the halogen lights frequently used in movies.

You should gel the window from outside if it is possible. This is great if the window will not appear in the shot or if it will be out of focus.

Gel the lights

Sometimes it is not the sunlight which is the problematic light source, but a very bright spotlight.

For example, you want to create a scene with light sources coming mostly from fire and/or candles. The color temperature of such a scene usually is around 2000-2500 K.

If you have a light source with halogen lights with a color temperature of around 3200 K then you’ll need to lower it for color consistency.

In this case, you get a heat resistant gel sheet and wrap it around the spotlight.

This will “dim” the light, making it suitable for a scene where just candles or fireplaces are used.

Replace the light bulbs

In other cases, it’s easier simply to replace the light bulbs instead of gelling the light sources.

For example, you can replace tungsten lights (3200 K) with fluorescent lights (4500 K) if you want a brighter, “whiter” light.

It usually takes as much time to replace lights as to gel them, so go for whatever option you think it’s more suitable in your particular case.

The more experience you get by playing with light sources and color temperatures, the better you’ll become at matching light nuances and creating spectacular videos and photos.

When is mixed lighting used?

Mixed lighting can be used in numerous circumstances, depending on the preferences of the video maker as well as the circumstances.

For example, mixed lighting is used for filming indoor scenes as well as outdoor scenes.

Indoor scenes might use mixed lighting when there isn’t a sufficient amount of sunlight coming from the windows.

In this case, the video maker utilizes artificial lighting (with matching color temperatures) to make sure the subjects are well-lit and clearly visible.

Mixed lighting can also be used outdoors.

Objects, trees, people or animals can block some of the sunlight, resulting in excessive shadowing.

Artificial lighting is used to illuminate parts of the subjects (such as people’s faces) as well as background areas.

Mixed lighting can also be observed during scenes in which subjects stand next to windows.

In this case, they are illuminated by sunlight as well as interior lights which usually have a warmer color temperature.

Movies which use mixed lighting

Believe it or not, almost every scene in every movie use mixed lighting. The movie “Amelie” is a good example in this case because the director Jean Pierre Jeunet cleverly used a combination of light sources, reflectors, diffusers, colored gels and sunlight to create moods and emotions.

LED panels might be used to illuminate the subject from the front. Soft, dimmer light can be used in the background to create a warm, pleasing ambiance.

James Cameron also used mixed lighting and different color temperatures for multiple scenes in the “terminator 2” movie from 1991.

Next time you’re watching a movie, try to pay attention to the lights used and you’ll see examples of mixed lighting almost everywhere!

Conclusion

As you can see, there are lots of things to take into consideration when it comes to light types, light sources and how to manipulate them correctly to achieve the correct results.

It’s all about experimenting and imagination.

Once you learn the ropes, it will be much easier for you to create stunning videos and photos by playing with lights/shadows and lighting setups.

Now that you know more about lighting types used in cinema and photography, let’s talk about lighting accessories and setups next.


About the author
Nick Gold is a content writer for hire specializing in health and tech topics. He writes regularly on multiple websites including DiscountedLabs and ExcelMale. In his spare time, Nick takes care of his cat, Zorro, and occasionally enjoys a pizza, his favorite cheat meal.
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