Filmmaking Techniques

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

May 15, 2020

What lighting techniques can you use when filmmaking to make sure your subject’s face looks amazing? No weird shadows that ruin a shot. Keep reading! | Picture by Unsplash.com

What lighting techniques can you use when filmmaking to make sure your subject’s face looks amazing? No weird shadows that ruin a shot. Keep reading! | Picture by Unsplash.com

“Mmmm, can we try another one?”

“I think my eyes need to be open more.”

“Yes! I like that one and that one. I can’t decide….which one…”

She’s finally smiling.

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.

But when the next person sits down under the same lights, they look flat and lifeless. 

In a video interview setting, it’s common to throw up two big lights, stick them at a 30-40 degree angle from the subject, angle them downward, and call it a day. You’re just aiming to get a clean wash of light with no ugly shadows.

If you have next to no time, then fair enough. I won’t judge you. Even if you have tons of time, I still won’t judge you. Lighting is difficult. 

But let’s be clear: treating lighting with a one-size-fits-all approach is a bit like saying you can do French cooking with margarine, and nobody will know the difference.

Oh, they’ll know the difference alright!

So, some lighting tips—

Lighting Tips for Film, Video, or Photography

There are four main things to look at when lighting the human face.

1. The subject’s nose.

Make sure the subject has a complementary nose shadow. The number one thing people don’t like about their faces is the schnoz. Lighting can help. Move them and angle them (or the lights) to get a slim nose shadow.

2. The width of the subject’s face.

You can slim the face by using shadows and by filming your subject slightly angled away from the camera. 

3. The hair.

The most annoying thing to look at when video editing is a big hair shadow that you didn’t notice at the moment. Hair can often be so big (in a good way!) that it creates a shadow on the face or neck. (The same thing can happen with big fake eyelashes.)

4. Make sure you’ve got catchlights in the eyes and no reflection in glasses.

How many times have I seen some innocent videographer’s lights reflected in a subject’s glasses? Oh, a lot of times. It’s actually not as distracting as it sounds—depending on the lights. But it’s a lot better to have a clean look for the glasses. That means pulling those lights further to the sides. 

While these four things are absolutely critical to lighting a subject’s face well, they don’t do you much good if you don’t know the basics of lighting.

The Most Basic Elements of Lighting

The subject of lighting for film is vast. So for today, I just want to share a video with you that I made a while ago. It’s about diffusion.

The key to understanding lighting is knowing the difference between soft light and hard light.

Once you understand that difference on a deep Jedi level, your lighting will take off like a hurdler in the Olympics. You’ll go from so-so lighting to incredible lighting.

Soft Lighting

Soft lighting wraps around a subject’s face and body.

It envelops them. Soft light in nature is the sun tucked behind the gauzy diffusion of full cloud coverage. An overcast grey day creates the ultimate soft light. In the studio, you soften a light by adding a softbox, diffusion gel, or shooting through a filmy material called silks.

Hard Lighting

Hard light, in contrast, is all sharp lines and shadows.

Think of that light from the Batman movies. You know…the bat light. Think about the sun at high noon on a sunny day. Think of the long shadows in a Western film. In the studio, hard lights have lenses on them that allow you to focus the light to create a sharp stream of targeted light. 

How To Choose

When approaching a scene in a film, you need to start with this question: Do I need soft light or hard light? 

The answer comes back to the story you’re telling, of course. Are we doing drama or romance? Do you want a cozy feeling or a tense feeling? There’s your answer! Let the lighting suit the story and the mood.

Great, now, take 5 minutes and watch this video.

You’ll learn about diffusion, which is the KEY to creating soft lighting. 

Now remember: lighting matters WAY MORE than your camera.

Don’t obsess over your camera, obsess over your lighting. The difference between a pro and an amateur is an understanding of lighting. 

Why’s that? Because a pro can take a $200 camera and create something beautiful simply because they understand lighting.

Not a pro yet? Don’t worry! You’ll get there!

Keep reading this blog AND sign up to get free filmmaking tips and a 7-part video series that’ll take your videos from MEH to MASTERFUL!


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How I Got Paid to Learn Documentary Filmmaking

➩ The 10 Elements of a Good Story for Filmmaking (and everything else)

The Definitive Guide to Manual Exposure for Photo and Video

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Colette Nichol

—ABOUT THE AUTHOR—Hey, I’m Colette Nichol, a story strategist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur based out of rainy Vancouver. Obsessed with personal development and marketing, you can often find me attempting to read ten books at the same time. Through this website, I help aspiring filmmakers follow their dreams and purpose-driven creatives make more money doing what they love. Join the inbox party: take my free mini course and start building your filmmaking skillset—take your starter filmmaking gear and make the most of it.

I'm Colette, here to give you a filmmaking skillset boost! 

Welcome! I’m a story strategist, filmmaker, and teacher based out of rainy Vancouver, Canada. My mission is to give you the tools and tactics you need to pursue your filmmaking dreams, so you can start making films this year! No more waiting for the right time.  Join the inbox party: take my free mini-course and start building your filmmaking skillset.


ahoy there!