Always Ask Yourself These 12 Questions Before Lighting Any Scene

Lighting Questions
Great cinematography is all about preparation, and few aspects of the craft require as much preparation as lighting.

Not only is lighting an incredibly technical process with a host of unique and complex technical obstacles that must be overcome in order to craft great looking images, but lighting is also a critically important aspect of how the audience interprets your scene on an emotional level. As we've seen, light can make all the difference in how your scene feels, particularly when it comes to our perception of the human face. All of this is to say that you should be spending a good deal of time planning out your lighting decisions.

If you're wondering how exactly you should go about this extensive preparation phase, Ryan E. Walters over at Indie Cinema Academy just released a video that should make the process much more straightforward. In it, he shares 12 simple questions that cinematographers should ask themselves before lighting any scene. Each question is designed to coax out key pieces of information that will inform each and every lighting decision that you make. 

In case you're not able to watch the video, or you just want to copy the list so that you can refer back to it later, here are each of the 12 questions written out:

  1. What is the mood and tone of the scene?
  2. Does the time of day affect the scene?
  3. Are you establishing your lighting style, or are you matching other content?
  4. How many people are in the scene?
  5. Where does the action happen in the scene?
  6. Do people move around in the scene?
  7. Will we see the floor or the ceiling?
  8. Are there any practical effects in the shot?
  9. Do we need to balance the light levels of the interior to the exterior?
  10. What ISO will we be shooting at?
  11. What is the slowest lens we'll be shooting with?
  12. Will we be doing any high speed or macro work?

Like Ryan mentions in the video, that first question really is the most important because your answer to it will inform how you answer every other question on the list. Unfortunately, this question is also the most complex of the bunch. While questions 2-12 have relatively easy answers that largely deal with hammering out the technical details of your lighting plan, that first question inherently deals with the emotional content and subtext of the scene. For that reason, getting the best answer requires really delving into and understanding your script and characters

What questions do you ask yourselves before lighting a scene, and how do you use your answers to those questions to make informed lighting decisions? Let us know down in the comments!     

Your Comment


Nice, short and to the point! One thing it made me consider I didn't think about before is that having a high performance low-light camera makes you spend/need less on the lights, weather purchasing or renting them. I have always thought about good high ISO performance cameras were mainly for documentary style/available light..

September 19, 2015 at 10:45AM

Filippo Rezzadore

Almost any camera is good once your set is lit, as you are rarely going to go over 800 ISO. ( i.e. you don't need a low-light monster unless you're shooting exteriors at night, and even then fast lenses and additional lighting can still be enough for the shot )

September 19, 2015 at 6:01PM

Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer

I wish more people realized this.
Most of the time if you're shooting at night 800 or 1600 is more than enough. If you need higher than that, learn to light more efficiently, even with using available light.

Blasting a sensor to see in the dark won't make the lighting better.

September 21, 2015 at 12:13PM


Awesome. Very informative with no fluff.

September 19, 2015 at 11:32AM

Dantly Wyatt
Writer, Director, Content Creator.

There's one question missing that I seem to always be asking...

How much do we have in the budget for lights? :)

September 19, 2015 at 1:18PM


Great list. Good to have around.

September 19, 2015 at 5:58PM

Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer

This website looks legit! Good Stuff

September 20, 2015 at 3:25PM

Kyle Lamar
Director Producer DP

Quality video thanks for sharing.

September 20, 2015 at 5:07PM, Edited September 20, 5:07PM

Dean Butler
Writer Director Shooter Editor

13) Does the boom op need to move around the mic without make any shadow in order to have a great dialogue recorded for our great film? So, I think we should put this question on the list too!

September 24, 2015 at 1:10PM


Great stuff. Lighting can make or break a project.

September 26, 2015 at 7:22PM

Vince Bowman
Indie Producer, Website Managing Director

Very interesting. I am starting out as a filmmaker. I have a working knowledge of basic shots and cuts, but lighting is something that I've failed to understand so far. I am planning to shoot an indie film soon. What do I need to know before I begin? Any books I can read? Any tutorials I can watch? Thanks!

September 27, 2015 at 12:43AM

Abhijith Ramesh
Writer, Director

The best reading you can make is the reading of natural light. Observe and look around, then ask yourself what it will take to reproduce that light. Experience with direct Hard light, and difuse light. You don't need big gear to do so, a white bed sheet will allows you to experiment with diffusion of light, Bouncing of light and a black piece of fabric will help you "Block" the light. To start your learning and understanding of lighting You need a small light source. I've been using the little VIP Pro from Lowel for years, not expensive and with that only light you will be able to learn all your basic. Don't try to make big setup, start small with small objects in tabletop, then moove to human. You have been living with light around you for years, just look at it. -Bruno

January 4, 2018 at 6:12AM

Bruno DesRosiers
Director / Director of photography / Editor

what LED lights are those? cheers

September 27, 2015 at 1:11PM


Thanks for sharing. This is very informative and useful.

November 5, 2015 at 10:44PM

Ephrem Abebe
Director and Cinematographer

I would consider asking if the scene requires a low or a high contrast look. It defines a kick to the shot.

November 17, 2015 at 9:44PM