Explainer: film lighting

Light levels in film have markedly declined from 1935. Mirjaleed Biteng

Lighting is a fundamental property of cinema. So called “writing in light”, photographed images, whether live-action or cell animation, need illumination. It is the most essential part of a cinematographer’s job to design and implement that illumination – in England and Australia the term “lighting cameraman” is equivalent to “director of photography”.

Films are light. – Federico Fellini

But if lighting is an eternal, omnipresent concern, then techniques, uses, and styles of lighting have varied enormously over time.

Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita showing Marcello Mastroianni kissing Anita Ekberg. EPA/ Blue Box Toys/ HO

Figure lighting

In cinema’s beginnings, lighting was almost entirely natural, filming largely executed in glass studios (one reason American companies moved to California was its brighter, year-round sunlight).

By the mid-1910s, however, lighting was mostly artificial, with cinematographers turning to mercury vapour tubes for overall, soft illumination, and carbon-arc spotlights for dramatic effects.

By the 1920s, most of the basic dramatic techniques and functions of lighting used today were acknowledged in craft discourses. In 1931, cinematographer James Wong Howe wrote:

With the early films, lighting merely meant getting enough light upon the actors to permit photography; today it means laying a visual, emotional foundation upon which the director and his players must build.

Standard three-point lighting. Wikimedia Commons

Figure lighting is used to highlight and model the principal actors in a scene. The most common approach to this is “three-point lighting” (above): a “key light” that provides the main illumination; a “fill light” that fills in shadows on the performer’s face and background; and a backlight to separate the performer from the backdrop (less critical in colour filming).

Three-point lighting is such a prevalent convention in narrative cinema that it is virtually a rule. This will often be supplemented with an eye-light to heighten actors’ expressions. Another aspect of this is “glamour lighting”, designed to enhance the attractiveness of the leading, especially female, performers, and heavily influenced by portrait and fashion photography.

The high point of this technique arguably continues to be the lighting used on Marlene Dietrich in Josef Von Sternberg’s films, images so stylised that the story seems to come to a halt to contemplate the actress purely as an icon.

Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932), directed by Josef von Sternberg. Wikimedia Commons

‘Practical’ lighting

Effects lighting indicates the use of lighting to create the illusion of light sources emanating from within the story-world. Chiefly, this involves “practical” lighting, made to seem as if emanating from a lamp or window visible in the shot.

Practical lighting is one way cinematographers can shape colour in a scene, using coloured gels over sources in the frame to bathe the entire scene in colour as in the use of the stained glass in All That Heaven Allows (1955), hyperbolising the angst of the mother-daughter dialogue, or to provide splashes of colour for atmosphere and visual density, as in the neon-soaked Blade Runner (1982).

Blade Runner.

If effects lighting is driven by verisimilitude, the use of practical sources is often motivated as much by dramatic concerns, and so may be more or less central depending on overall lighting aesthetics.

High-key and low-key lighting

Through the 1930s, comedies, musicals, and many dramas were dominated by high-key lighting – a high ratio of fill to key light. This was typically a form of low-contrast soft lighting (dominant in the 1920s and 30s), providing a diffuse, even brightness (below).

The Thin Man (1934).

Horror films and particular scenes in crime films often made use of high-contrast low-key lighting, with a low ratio of fill to key. This was hard lighting (itself increasingly common from the 1940s), the frame dominated by deep, clearly defined shadows, suiting the dramatic moods of those films, and creating a sense of mystery and suspense through concealment (below).

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). Wikimedia Commons

By the late 1940s, low-key lighting was pursued much more widely, seen to be an aspect of realism (in life, no-one is always evenly illuminated). But the technique is still particularly associated with the film noir, wherein it suggests not just a sense of dread, but also the duality of the characters and the world they inhabit, a pervasive moral darkness eating them from within and without.

Superseding attempts at realism that drove many cinematographers in the 1970s to aim for an illusion of muted, natural light, low-key lighting has been increasingly central from the 1980s across a range of genres (below).

The West Wing (2003). Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, a recent study from Cornell University has found that light levels in film have markedly declined from 1935. This can be attributed realism, storytelling, and mood, but it also speaks to an under-acknowledged fact of lighting, its impact on actors.

Arc lights in early filmmaking caused “Klieg eyes” from the intensity of their ultraviolet radiation. With the development of more sensitive film stock, incandescent, tungsten, and halogen lamps largely eliminated this.

In the decades since, as film stock has become more and more sensitive, light levels on set have declined consistently to ease the physical burden on actors and allow them to concentrate on performance; as with glamour lighting, this is a way cinematography serves their interests.

With the rise of digital cinematography today, lighting can be more minimal than ever, while allowing filmmakers to achieve effects, as in night shooting, that will provide grist for exciting innovations for years to come.


Correction: based on a study of film technology, this article initially stated that Klieg eyes were caused by carbon dust from arc lights. However, sources from the archives of the Journal of the American Medical Association clearly state that ultraviolet radiation was to blame.