How to Use Cinematic Lighting Techniques to Make Your Film Subjects Look Great

I’ve just spent the last two days doing something I never (in a trillion years) thought I’d be doing: taking grad portraits.

Yup, those cap and gown pictures that mark a teen’s entrance into the big wide adult world and the end (thank god!) of high school.

Why was I doing this? Well, one of my clients is a school. Since the photo studio, they typically use is closed right now, they wanted to host the grad photos themselves. Side note: it’s actually pretty easy to do physical distancing when you’re using a 100mm lens!

There’s one lesson I’ve confirmed and re-confirmed in the past two days of knocking out portraits that I want to share with you.

Lighting is personal.

Nope. Lighting is exceptionally personal. If you’re actually trying to shape light, your set up will need to change with each subject. You’ll create a lighting set up that makes one person look like Kate Moss.

Filmmaking Techniques


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3 Basic Rules of Visual Storytelling for Filmmaking Explained!


Lately, I can’t stop thinking about this marketing question: What do you want to be known for?

—Really, what do YOU want to be KNOWN for?

So many small businesses and service providers never actually figure out what they want to be known for. Instead they let everyone else decide what is arguably the MOST important thing in a business.

Another random thought: villains would be terrible at SEO.


Why’s that?

Aside from the fact that most villains are impatient and reactionary, they also don’t think about their people’s needs and wants too much (duh-that’s why they’re villains).

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Marketing & Small Biz

It’s 6:24 in the morning on a very weird day.

Normally I avoid the word “very.” But today it’s necessary. I can’t name all the very weird details, but my world has gone topsy-turvy in the last 9 hours.

My main filmmaking gig is for a school that I absolutely love. But let’s just say we’re going through tough times. Well, I guess that’s the case for everyone these days.

I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor, laptop in lap, the music in my headphones giving me a sonic hug, wondering what the hell to write.

My head isn’t in the game.

Distracted by a blur of high-speed motion on the edge of my patio, I glance over quickly. It’s a green and gray hummingbird.

Not once in 8 years of living in this apartment have I had a hummingbird visitor on my patio.

The bird buzzes around my geraniums then pokes her nose into the begonias and flits away. In less than 10 seconds, my mood has been transformed from worried to delighted.

All because of something so SIMPLE.

It works the same way in filmmaking. It’s the simplest things that’ll transform the quality of your work from so-so to professional.

So let’s look at three incredibly simple rules of filmmaking that’ll change the way you think about setting up a shot.

  • 30-degree rule

  • 20 percent rule

  • 180-degree rule

As you can see, in filmmaking, we like to keep the names of our rules simple too.

Three Basic Rules of Filmmaking Explained

Filmmaking Basics

“Got something for you.”

I’m in the breakroom, eating an Ikea cinnamon bun when my boss approaches. He’s got a book in hand, which he reverently passes to me.

“This is for you. Give it a read. I hope you like it.”

That’s all he says. No big build-up. Just…read the book.

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In 1933, Roosevelt gave a speech that has resonated ever since.

It was on the inauguration of his presidency that he said the phrase, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

That quote has gone on to have a life of its own. While the rest of Roosevelt’s speechisn’t usually quoted, he went on to say that fear has a paralyzing effect on people. It makes us unable to take action.

He didn’t say this, but I’ll add that fear robs us of our humanity.

Roosevelt spoke these words during the Great Depression—a time that most of our grandparents (or if you’re seasoned enough, your parents) lived through.

Think for a moment about an elder that made a significant impact on your life.

Although I never met my Great-Grandmother Nattie, her legacy has had an incredible effect on my life. Traditions and values that began with her continue in my family today—including her ridiculously delicious Christmas pie recipe.

She lived through the 1st World War, the Great Depression, and the 2nd World War. Despite struggle and hardship, she was able to thrive. Today, I live just three blocks away from the apartment she bought, right near the Pacific Ocean. But I bet that during the height of the Great Depression, she wasn’t thinking about buying a beach house.

What was she thinking about?

What were any of our elders thinking as they lived through some of the most troubling and challenging times in modern human history?

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I’m walking up our 500-metre driveway singing songs from Aladin to keep the snakes at bay.

(I’m twelve, so I don’t realize rattlesnake aren’t like bears, and can’t hear a damn thing.)

“Sssshssssssshhsssssss….”It’s the middle of summer. Dry grass fills the banks of the driveway.

I can hear the distinctive warning of the Crotalus oreganus, and I’m not keen on running into one. I’ve heard one too many weird stories about farmers sucking the venom out of their arms after getting bitten.

I’ve also found the delicate dusty skin of a many snakes up on the rocky ridge above the vineyard. They shed their skin a few times a year. And each time they do, they gain another ring on their rattle.

This rattle is one of the keys to their survival as it warns off other animals they don’t want to interact with.

Rattlesnakes are introverts, FYI. But what can they teach us about being better at business?

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Marketing & Small Biz

It’s 7:30 in the morning, and my students are bored out of their skulls.

They all look about two minutes away from falling asleep. It’s one of those cold rainy days near the end of term when my students have given up on learning English and just want the class to be over.

I’m teaching a group of young professionals who get up at 5 am every day to go to ESL class before heading off to their corporate jobs in the capital of Ecuador.

At this moment, on this grey day, I had a choice: keep talking about grammar or try something different.

They were depressed because I’d just given them a listening activity that was so hard they’d all failed. It was time for a pep talk. I started telling a story about a former student who had gone from being at the bottom of his class to the very top by doing one thing: listening to American talk-radio.

As I started telling this story, my students’ faces began to change.

Their drooping expressions lifted. Their dull eyes brightened. Their posture changed. I watched them come back to life like house plants that had just needed a splash of water.

That’s when it hit me: storytelling is your purpose.

The words flashed in my mind. Neon, capital letters: TELL STORIES. Three years later, I bought a DSLR camera, and I started teaching myself filmmaking. I wanted to tell stories with moving images. When I first started out, I had no strategy. All I wanted was to learn.

What happened next was incredible: I got paid to learn filmmaking.

So how did I do it?

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Filmmaking Basics

“Aaaaarghaaaaaaaaaahhh!!! It’s burning! It’s burning!!”

I go from being barely awake to excruciatingly present. Scalding hot water has soaked my shirt and pants and is burning my skin. I’m hopping around the living room screaming and ripping my clothes off like a wacky cartoon character.

That cup of scalding hot water really got my attention.

And that’s what we need to talk about today. Attention.

When it comes to online filmmaking these days, it might not be enough to tell a good story or make a technically proficient product. What you’re after is your ideal viewer’s attention.

It’s your job to capture that attention.

There are two things I see a lot of right now online.

  1. Videos made for Facebook that are designed to capture attention but are horribly ugly and don’t create a valuable/enjoyable experience.

  2. Videos that have not considered their audience’s attention span or interest level whatsoever.

That cup of scalding hot water really got my attention.

How to Capture Attention in the First 2 Seconds of a Video

Visual Storytelling

I’ve known about the power of newsletters since I was 10.

My mum had a newsletter that went out a few times a year to our customer list. The point of the newsletter was to sell wine.

I grew up on a 4.5 acre vineyard and winery that my parents started from an alphalfa field and some imported baby vines. There’s no long romantic tradition of winemaking in my family. It’s just something my parents turned into a career thanks to tenacity, good timing, hard work, and a lucky break or two. (There’s no such thing as a success story without luck.)

Every quarter my mum made a newsletter.

How To Start Rocking Your Email Newsletter Already!


I’m lying on a yoga mat doing nothing.

Sound washes over me. Soothing crystal bowl sound waves penetrate my mind, and take me into a profoundly peaceful state.

I have one addiction. Okay, maybe two.

Sound baths.

And probably life experiments. But let’s talk about sound baths.

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Marketing & Small Biz

Discover Your Filmmaker Archetype

Discover Your Filmmaker Archetype

Free Quiz

Have you been dreaming of making films for a long freaking time? Maybe it's time to get started. Take this 2-minute quiz and discover your filmmaker archetype + my tips on how you can get started based on your interests and skills. You'll also get gear advice based on your exact filmmaker archetype. This is great info, so click below to get started.