Quality of Light

So light from different sources has different qualities, we’ve already talked about colour temperatures, but there are other qualities that different light sources can give you. Assessing the qualities, or quality of light available to you is an important part of any shoot.

Light Direction
Hard/Soft Lighting
Lighting Styles

Light Direction

Light direction makes a huge difference in the look of your images. We’ve already talked about how overhead light in the midday sun casts deep shadows in the eye sockets, but light takes on subtle qualities as it is moved and oriented in any direction.

Side Light

Lighting from the side of your subject casts shadows that often reveal texture, this is true of peoples faces, but also of buildings and objects too. Shadows create drama, and they also define your subject. This can be great for gritty textural subjects, like mesh or bricks, and is also typically used for men, or older people to accentuate the pocks and definition of their face. You may choose to avoid side lighting for a more flattering look for people whose skin is textured (Acne scars, unwanted wrinkles etc.).

Back Light

A back light reveals form, this is most obvious with extreme backlighting for silhouette. When you have a subject with a very interesting shape or form, experiment with your back light to really bring them out from the background of your shot.

Front Light

A front light illuminates the key features of your subject, but will often flatten an image. This can be to the detriment of an image, or it can help to mask blemishes on the face. Sometimes too much shadow and definition isn’t appropriate and you can use a front light to soften out those harsh lines.

Above and Below

Light from above or below a subject casts deep long shadows, revealing form in interesting and dramatic ways. Light from above or below is often dramatic, but also sinister. Light from above hides the eyes in shadow, sallows the cheeks and hides the neck in shadow. Light from directly above and below reveals texture in similar ways to sidelight, but is more sinister and unnatural because of its rarity in the everyday (barring of course the direct sunlight at midday).  Light from below accentuates the brow, and is reminiscent of torchlight or campfire moments. Both can be very dramatic and used to great affect, but for your average shoot, you probably want to try and avoid harsh lighting from directly above or below.

Hard/Soft Lighting

Light can be hard or soft, hard light is cast from strong and focused light sources, such as the sun or a Fresnel (A light with a lens inside, used for focusing the light and changing its quality). Soft light is cast from diffused light sources, such as a soft box (a light encompassed in a canvas tent with a fabric front used to diffuse and soften the light) or the outdoors in a shaded area. Telling the difference between the two types of light is fairly easy. Take a look at the shadows in the scene. Are they sharp and defined? Or are they soft and feathered? Sharp strong shadows are a signature of hard light, and feathered shadows that gradually blend into light come from soft or diffused light. You can further add texture to your light by diffusing it through different materials, or scrims, which lend some of their textural qualities to the light.

Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio refers to difference between the light placement and intensity that you are using, and the difference between the shadows and lit portions of your scene or subject. If for example you have a key light  a metre away from your subject and a fill of the same power two metres away, you would have a ratio of a contrast ratio of 2:1. If you moved your fill back another metre, you would have a contrast ratio of 4:1 (See inverse square rule). The difference in intensity and distance of your lights creates differing contrasts that affect the style and emotion conveyed.

Lighting Styles

High Key/Low Key

Low key lighting is lighting that is predominantly dark, with high contrast highlights, often making use of black, while high key uses bright, almost washed out colours and exposures, to create a sense of safety and optimism. Low key is high contrast, with lots of blacks, but also key highlights to accentuate the blacks. High Key on the other hand, is mostly white, and often will not feature deep blacks, lessening the sense of contrast in the image. Low key imagery is fairly synomous with film noir, and this style of filming is also referred to as chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word that translates to ‘light-dark’.

For the project, ‘When Does the Light Turn On?’, I tried to achieve a fairly classic chiaroscuro effect in the interviews. We did this using dramatic side and back lighting, to cast interesting shadows on the faces of our interviewees, and a piece of black fabric as a background. Using the previously mentioned Inverse Square law, we cut as much of the light hitting the fabric as possible, reducing it to uniform black (much easier said than done). The side lighting brought out the texture of our interviewees faces, and cast deep shadows on the opposite side of their faces, while the back light made them ‘pop’ from the black background. This had a very striking effect for some of our interviewees, bringing shape and texture to hair and clothing. In this case our Key light was the side light, and the Back light was, well, our back light.

Photography Lighting

The following three techniques are from photography, and while you will find when filming, your subjects will move and change the quality of light and shadow on their face, it is good to get to know what looks you like, and how to place your subjects and lighting in order to achieve them. Just keep in mind you probably won’t be able to maintain the exact placement of shadows for a whole scene or interview.

Rembrandt Lighting

Rembrandt lighting is originally from photography, but can be achieved in film as well. The painter Rembrandt painted many of his subjects in the same pose and light.

To achieve this look, we set up a light to the side of the subjects face, and just above eye line. The important thing to look out for when using Rembrandt lighting is the diamond or triangle of light cast below and around the eye on the shadowed side of the face.

This type of lighting has some dramatic shadows and can be a very easy and professional style to replicate with one or more lights. It is often used for portraiture, and can be easily replicated using just one light and a reflector to even out the shadows.

Butterfly Light

The butterfly light is a light from almost straight on, placed above the eyeline of the subject. It is so named because of the butterfly shaped shadow cast by the nose just above the upper lip. This can be a very soft and intimate look and again is popular in stills portraiture.

Loop/Closed Loop Lighting

Loop and closed loop lighting are styles focused around the shadow cast by the nose. A light is placed, similarly to Rembrandt lighting, above and slightly to the side. If the tip of the shadow cast by the nose touches the shadow on the short side of the face, near the cheek, it is a ‘closed loop’. If however, the shadow does not connect, then it is a loop.





Recent Project: The Loop

Auteur Lorcan Hopper is a proud disabled man who will stop at nothing to see his semi-autobiographical soap opera brought to life.

The Loop is an absurd journey into disability, authorship and representation. First-time television director Lorcan Hopper twists the world of soap operas to share his experience of disability. But with a documentary team filming Lorcan’s every move, can the cast and crew match the intensity and professionalism he demands? Heartfelt, hilarious, and always unexpected, The Loop is soap opera like you’ve never seen it.


Developed during a series of disability rights awareness and digita... read more


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