In cinematography, light performs 3 functions:

1. Allow the sensor to record a clear, readable image

Once the illumination of a scene is brought to the right level of intensity, the sensor can work at the optimal sensitivity, producing images with the required legibility and not damaged by digital noise.

2. Lead the observer

In accordance with the shots and camera movements, the light directs the viewer’s attention to certain parts of the image rather than to others.

3. Give the image three-dimensionality

The light-shadow transitions, the use of different levels of lighting to emphasize the different planes of the image, the grazing lights to highlight the textures of the surfaces… are all solutions that create an illusion of depth within a media two-dimensional.

The types of light

The light hitting a subject can be hard or soft, directional or diffuse, direct or reflected.

The possible combinations to describe a type of light as a whole are therefore:

  • Hard and directional
  • Soft and directional
  • Soft and diffused

In each of these cases the lights can be direct or reflected.

Hard Light : Produces hard shadows, i.e. with sharp edges.

Soft Light : Produces soft shadows, i.e. shadows with soft edges.

The softness of a light is determined by its relative size, i.e. how big it is in relation to the illuminated subject, from the point of view of the subject itself.

The sun is a huge source of light in absolute terms, but being 150 million kilometers from the earth it appears to us to be very small; therefore, here on earth, it produces harsh shadows.

To make a light softer, it can be diffused or reflected on a larger surface, making the diffusion or reflection support the new and largest light source.

Even reducing the distance between the subject and the light source leads to obtaining a softer, more enveloping light, as it increases its relative size compared to the subject itself.

The only way to make a soft light hard is to reduce its size by partially obscuring it or by reflecting it on a small surface, such as a hand mirror.

Directional light : the origin of the light beam is immediately deducible from the shadows produced.

Diffused light : the origin of the light is less identifiable, the shadows are minimized or eliminated.

Direct Light : Light shines directly on the subject.

Reflected Light : Light hits a surface that reflects it onto the subject. The reflecting surface becomes the new light source and it is the size of its illuminated part that determines its softness.

The main types of lighting


The contrast levels are natural and the viewer can easily trace the lights he sees on stage to a diegetic source.


The image has a high contrast, there are cuts of light and dark shadows. The motivation of the lights is often subordinated to the atmosphere.

High Key Lighting

The environment is much clearer than the subjects.

Medium Key Lighting / Normal Key Lighting

The environment has more or less the same brightness as the subjects.

In practice, the term Medium Key or Normal Key is rarely used.

Low Key Lighting

The environment is decidedly darker than the subjects.

For both a High Key and Low Key effect, the contribution of scenography, costumes and make-up is crucial.

In the field of still photography, the terms High Key and Low Key are used differently, they are directly related to the overall levels of brightness and contrast of the image rather than to the relationship between background and subjects in the scene. A very bright image is called high-key, while a very dark image is called low-key.

Silhouette Lighting

The subjects are dark silhouettes on a bright or illuminated background.

The light points

Key light / Key light

It is the main light, the one responsible for making the subjects on stage visible.

Fill light / Fill light / Fill light

It is the light used to lighten the shadows created by the key light. It can also be generated by the key light itself, perhaps reflected by a panel or simply by a wall. When made by reflecting lights already in the field, the fill is defined as passive ; when it is produced by a dedicated light source, it is said to be active.

Backlight / Backlight

Illuminate the subject from behind to highlight its outlines and accentuate its separation from the background.

Sometimes the backlight, especially if it is wide or particularly decentralized with respect to the subject, is called kicker, rim light or, more rarely, edge light. When there are 2 or more lights in the backlight aimed at a single subject, it is not uncommon for only the central one to be defined as backlight and for the others to take on the title of kicker, rim or edge light right/left.

A backlight focused only on an actor’s hair is often called a hair light.

Background light / Background light / Backlight light

It has the task of making the background or a part of it legible, in case the other lights do not already perform this task. It can be useful to give more depth to the image or to detach a dark subject from the background, increasing the brightness of the latter. It can therefore perform the function of the backlight.

Catch light / Eye light

These expressions indicate both the point of light in the eyes of the actors and a light placed specifically to produce it. Very often the key light or fill light creates the catch light.

The shape of the catch light is important because it reveals the type of light hitting the subject. It is for this reason that there are two types of softboxes: the rectangular one, whose reflection is similar to that of a window, and the one with eight or more sides, which produces a round catch light, designed to simulate the reflection of the sun or a lamp.

Techniques, schemes and tools

Reverse Key Lighting / Upstage Lighting / Short Lighting / Far Side Lighting / Smart Side Lighting

In this case, the key light is placed slightly behind the subject rather than in front. Hence the term reverse. To make the actors’ faces more legible when working in reverse key lighting, a reflective support is often used in the opposite position to the key light or a slight fill light in reflected light, in order to lighten the shadows without denouncing the presence of an additional light source.

The term upstage refers to the directions of the theater stage in English terminology:

With short, in opposition to broad, we indicate the less visible part of a subject from the point of view of the camera. For example, observing the close-up of an actor looking to the left of the camera we notice that the left side of his face is more visible and therefore wide ( broad ) while the right side is more hidden and therefore narrow; in short lighting the light is then directed to the less visible side of the actor, while in broad lighting the opposite happens.

Another way of looking at this technique is to think about the room. In reverse key lighting the camera is placed on the shadow side of the subject, in key lighting on the light side.

The equivalent of short lighting and broad lighting when the distance from the camera of two opposite sides of a subject is taken as a reference are far side lighting and near side lighting. In the previous example, a far side light would be placed on the right of the subject, to illuminate the side of his face farthest from the camera and therefore less visible; a light in the short side would be placed to the left of the subject, to illuminate its side facing the camera and therefore more visible. Other synonyms for key lighting and reverse key lighting are smart side lighting and dumb side lighting.

The synonyms are therefore:

  • Key lighting, downstage lighting, broad lighting, near side lighting and dumb side lighting
  • Reverse key lighting, upstage lighting, short lighting, far side lighting and smart side lighting

When referring to the lighting of a scene, the placement of a light or the positioning of a subject, using these expressions it is common to omit the term lighting. So: “place an upstage light “, ” turn in key” etc. etc.

Since light-shadow transitions enhance the three-dimensionality of subjects, the basic rule for avoiding flat images is to make these transitions visible. Consequently, it is almost always advisable to place the camera and cinema lens in an angled position with respect to the key light and never parallel to it. Also for this reason the reverse key is much more widespread than the key, in the cinema field.

Top Lighting

The top light is a light perpendicular to the ground placed above the subject.

It is often used to grant the actors and the camera maximum freedom of movement, as it can avoid the use of stands on the ground and therefore the danger of them being filmed.

Not infrequently, diegetic lights, called practical or functional, are used for the light schemes in top lighting, so that the camera can move at 360 °.

Neons are certainly the most used diegetic illuminators for this type of applications because they are rather large illuminating surfaces and can be easily integrated into environments, even in large numbers, without compromising their likelihood; these factors help to mitigate the main problem of the top light, that is the extreme directionality. A face lit from above in a perpendicular direction has sharp, dramatic and unflattering shadows, which often completely hide the eyes in two black puddles, producing an effect called panda eyes or skull eyes. By increasing the surface and / or the number of emitters, the light becomes more enveloping and the shadows open up, but obviously it is more difficult to obtain a good contrast. In this sense it is useful to have several light sources, each of which can be switched on, off or dimmed individually according to the shot. For close-ups, we often intervene by bringing on stage other lights, diffusions, flags and ND jellies.

In top lighting, it is not uncommon to add diegetic lights positioned much lower than the key light, such as lampshades, to the scene to lighten the shadows in the wide fields as much as necessary and justify the presence of more intense highlights on the foregrounds, made with off-stage projectors.

Eastern faces, especially for less sunken eyes, lend themselves much better to top light than western faces.

Bottom Lighting

The bottom light is a light that illuminates the subjects from below. It is the light that usually has the least natural effect, least flattering to the actors and most disturbing. It is the quintessential horror light. It is often created by reflecting one or more top lights from the bottom up; in this practice it is almost always a diegetic element, such as a prop, a piece of furniture or even the floor, which is used as a reflective surface.


Very often when you place a light in front of an actor you tend to position it with respect to him at an angle of 45 ° both vertically and horizontally, so as to produce what is called Rembrandt light, that is a light that illuminates one half of the face and create an illuminated triangle on the shadow side below the eye, while creating a catch light in both eyes. This type of light, although rather frontal, manages to confer three-dimensionality and richness of shades to the faces. Since a Rembrant alone tends to be quite dramatic, it’s not uncommon for it to be accompanied by some kind of brightening to open up the shadows.

Paramount / Butterfly

It became famous in the days of black and white cinema, when in the films of Paramount Pictures it was systematically used to illuminate the close-ups of female stars. It is a light inclined of about 60 ° that illuminates the subject from above, positioned in line with the center of his face. A shadow is created under her nose that resembles the shape of a butterfly and does not reach her upper lip; the cheekbones and the curve of the chin are enhanced, drawn by the shadow cast on the neck. Also in this case the morphology of the oriental faces helps as it favors the creation of a catch light and a good exposure of the eye sockets. The Beauty lightit is an evolution of the Paramount, from which it is distinguished by the presence of a fill from the bottom used to open the shadows of the face and create an almost uniform lighting.

Split Light

In split light the subject is equally divided between light and shadow vertically. In the portrait the part in light does not exude beyond the shadow line that follows the axis of the nose and the nose does not cast a shadow on the part in light. To achieve this effect, the light must be positioned to the side of the subject and slightly upstage.

Wedge Light / Book Light

It is a light that reaches the subject after being first reflected and then diffused. The name derives from the fact that to create it a reflective support and a diffusion support are used, placed in a wedge, with the light in the middle.

Cove Light

It is usually created using one or more reflective surfaces arranged in a 180 ° arc around the subject. One or more illuminators are aimed at these surfaces in order to create a wide and enveloping light source. In order not to flatten the contrasts, the illuminators can be directed mostly on one of the two halves of the reflecting arch or illuminators of different power can be used.

Light Gag

It is a moving light. Generally its purpose is to recreate the effect of a light source known to the public, such as the flickering of the television, the approaching of the headlights of a car or the rapid alternation of shadows, lights and colors of the carousel of a Moon. Park. The term light gag also generally indicates the instrument that generates this light; for example, there are numerous TV light gags, Fireplace gags, Lightning gags and so on.

The Cucoloris

A cucoloris, also known as a cookie, is a device that stands between the light and the subject in order to cast abstract shadows or that recall the presence of recognizable elements. They are basically large gobos. Cookies generally have a rectangular or square shape and have sides ranging from half a meter to over a meter.

A cucoloris can be easily made from commonly used materials, such as a piece of cardboard. It can also be replaced by elements available directly on location, such as branches or strips of gaffa tape stretched between two stands. In these do-it -yourself cases, the definition of cucoloris is replaced by the term breaker, derived from the expression breaking the light, which indicates the technique of interrupting the light beam at various points in order to create shadows. This technique is particularly useful for removing flatness from uniform backgrounds and for giving naturalness to artificial light beams.


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