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Movies are shadows. Everything the audience sees on the screen is light and shadow.

Lighting terminology

SUBJECT: The subject is the thing, person, or area that is the prime focus of the shot.

ACTUAL LIGHTING SOURCE: Where the light actually comes from. Usually, the lighting is set up in studio and feature films. In documentaries, it may be ambient, coming from the available sources, the sun or actual interior lighting.

PERCEIVED LIGHTING SOURCE: Where in the frame the light is understood by the viewer to be coming from. It may be a streetlight or the moon, or a candle reflection in a pond. In reality, the lighting is provided by studio instruments. Often, foil reflectors or “umbrellas” are used to soften shadows and direct light.

AVAILABLE LIGHTING: Using the natural (or artificial) light of the location without special instruments. Often, foil reflectors or “umbrellas” are used to soften shadows and direct light.

SHADOWS: Essential to defining the scene, but must be regulated and controlled for artistic effect.

CHIAROSCURO: The use of contrast between light and shadow to create depth and meaning in a frame.

HIGH KEY LIGHTING: Bright lighting used to create energy and strong focus.

LOW KEY LIGHTING: Dimmer lighting. Creates darker mood, can be mysterious or dangerous.

CHIAROSCURO: Extreme low key lighting with strong contrasts and deep shadows.

LIGHTING STYLE: On a spectrum between “naturalism” and “expressionism”. Naturalistic lighting does not call attention to itself. It looks and feels like the real world. Expressionistic lighting creates deliberate emotional effects and comments on the subject. It uses more extreme chiaroscuro, deep shadows, pools of light, reflections, smoke and mirrors.

FILM NOIR: A particularly powerful expressionistic style developed in Germanyin the 1930’s and used extensively by Hollywood in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Noir uses this style to make movies with dark, powerful themes of evil and criminality.

BLACK AND WHITE: In black and white film, lighting is more expressive and noticeable than in color films. In B+W, audiences are more apt to notice patterns of light.

COLOR: For a long time, color film stock was less sensitive than black and white, so cinematographers had to use high-key lighting. In color film, the eye goes to details rather than notice the pattern. A red flower will stand out against a yellow background.

PALETTE: The colors that are used in the frame. There is even a palate of black and white, based on contrast.

SOFT-FOCUS: Putting the camera slightly out of focus to create a dream-like effect. Often used to create a glamorous “aura” around a beautiful woman.


   KEY LIGHT: The most intense light. It highlights the form and identity of the subject

FILL LIGHT: Softens the shadows made by the KL

BACK LIGHT: Separates subject from background.

(HAIR LIGHT): Creates effect on subject’s hair.


Expressionist lighting can often portray extreme psychological states like madness. It is often subjective in its point of view. It makes strong use of shadows, distortion, creating a dream world of mystery and threat.





Danger, mystery, eroticism,    criminality, obscurity, ambiguity.

The “authority” of the space is  destroyed.


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