What are the best 13 cinematic lighting techniques in the film industry?

Film lighting can make or break a scene. So, of course, it’s vital that you know the lighting techniques used in the film industry. You don’t want your scene to be too dark or bright or focus on the wrong element.

Luckily for you, we’re taking you through 13 cinematic lighting techniques so your footage can look top-notch. Lights at the ready!

What Is Cinematic Lighting?

There’s a standard three-point lighting technique to light any scene, but cinematic lighting is much more than that. Mood, depth, drama, and emotions are all things you can portray through cinematic lighting. It’s not just about lighting someone’s face so we can see them.

So instead of just pointing three lights around the actor, cinematic lighting introduces techniques such as using natural light sources, bouncing and diffusing light, and adding or removing shadows.

Of course, this makes things a lot more interesting. You can create a particular mood, such as suspense or joy, and you can express your style through cinematic lighting.

Why Is Cinematic Lighting Important?

Cinematic lighting is so important because it denotes the atmosphere and overall meaning for the audience.

For example, if your protagonist delivers a heartfelt speech, where do you want the lighting to draw the eye? The train passing by in the background? Of course not! So, lighting tells the audience where to look and which part of the scene is important.

Cinematic lighting is also vital to portray the emotions of the characters. You can tell the audience a lot about the character on screen with your choice of lighting. A large amount of bright white light portrays happiness and an upbeat moment. However, using a small amount of deep red light, for example, portrays the opposite.

Finally, the genre of your movie will affect the film lighting. The genre that immediately comes to mind when talking about lighting techniques is film noir. This genre contrasts light and dark dramatically. But film noir lighting for a kid’s movie wouldn’t be the way to go.

So that’s why film lighting is important – there is so much information it can convey about your characters and story. Get it wrong, and… well, let’s not go there. Instead, let’s explore the lighting techniques you can use to ensure you get it right.

film lighting techniques


13 Best Film Lighting Techniques

Don’t get overwhelmed by this list. You don’t need to use all of these to achieve cinematic lighting. What you do need is to know about these lighting techniques to give you the best shot (pun intended) of achieving your desired look.

1. Key Lighting

Key lighting is the main and strongest source of light. Use this light to draw attention to something or someone specific.

2. Fill Lighting

Fill lighting fills in the dark areas your key light creates. Use this technique to remove shadows and brighten your scene.

3. Backlighting

Do you want your scene to look flat? We didn’t think so. Backlighting, which you can probably guess, is used behind a subject. Use backlighting to create dimension by defining your actor’s features and distinguishing them from the background.

4. Side Lighting

Like backlighting, this one is quite obvious – side lighting is used to the side to give a sense of depth. Use side lighting when you want to create edges and contours, and make a subject seem further away than it is.

5. Practical Lighting

Lamps, televisions, candles – anything that emits light within the scene is practical lighting. Use this lighting technique if it’s part of the scene. For example, your character turns on a bedside lamp.

6. Hard Lighting

Back to that film noir reference – hard lighting is the technique used in this genre. Hard lighting draws your attention by creating harsh shadows. Use hard lighting to create an intense look.

7. Soft Lighting

Maybe you don’t want harsh shadows, in which case, you’d use soft lighting. Use this to create the opposite effect of hard lighting – a bright shot with few intense shadows. Soft lighting is also great at making people look more airbrushed and beautiful.

8. High-key Lighting

Want an intense bright aesthetic? The high-key lighting technique creates no shadows. Use high-key lighting for dreamy sequences or if you’re shooting a sitcom.

9. Low-key Lighting

Maybe shadows are all you want from your scene. Low-key lighting creates plenty of them! Use this lighting technique for night scenes and to evoke suspense.

10. Natural Lighting

Like most of these lighting techniques, natural lighting is self-explanatory; it uses natural light at the scene’s location. Use natural light to gain a more authentic and natural look.

11. Motivated Lighting

Motivated lighting imitates a natural light source, such as the sun. Use this cinematic lighting to recreate a specific light source within a scene.

12. Bounce Lighting

When you use bounce lighting, you bounce light using a reflector to soften and spread the light. Use bounce lighting to create a soft, ambient light.

13. Diffused Overhead Lighting

If you’re looking to soften a light source and reduce shadows, look no further than diffusion materials or a Chinese lantern. Use diffused overhead lighting when you’re shooting close-ups.


Lighting a scene isn’t easy. If you’ve ever tried to do it, you know this is a hard fact. But it gets even harder when you want to get creative, evoke emotion, and stamp your signature style on a video.

However, we’ve now introduced you to 13 lighting techniques and when to use them. But learning about film lighting is only the first step. Practicing and experimenting with these techniques is where you learn what does and doesn’t work.

So, whether you work with a video production company or are a solo filmmaker, get out there and start playing with cinematic lighting.