January 14, 2016

How to Make Your Film Look Cinematic When Your Lighting Setup is Less Than Ideal

One of the most common questions young filmmakers ask is, "How do I make my film look cinematic?" Usually the answer is "good lighting", but what if you don't have access to any?

This is an issue Simon Cade of DSLRguide tackles in one of his newest videos, in which he uses 100% natural light to produce images that have that desired "cinematic" aesthetic. In it he explains what other aspects of filmmaking you can focus on to capture beautiful, professional-looking images if your lighting setup is less than ideal. Check it out below:

Cade also uploaded a video of the images he shot in his tutorial, complete with the different looks they capture:

Pro Tip: There's a lot that goes into making a shot "cinematic". Sure, your camera can do some of the work, but things like lenses, costuming, set design, camera movement, and most importantly, lighting are the true workhorses that produce this look. (Cade used a Canon T3i for the video, by the way.) Here are the 4 things Cade lists that will help you make up for bad, or at least less than special lighting:

  • Locations and sets
  • Color
  • Emotion
  • Senses

The key to each of these things is that they help to create an emotional impact on the viewer. For instance, shooting a scene against a plain white wall won't create as big of an impact as shooting one against a vibrant red wall. Try to find locations that are peculiar, different, and interesting. Use colors overflowing with aesthetic energy that evoke emotions. (We talk a lot of about how to use color for storytelling here.)

This list includes extremely important and helpful things that create better, more powerful images, but it's by no means complete. I'd especially include "composition" and "camera movement", since those two things, if done right, can not only help make your shots more interesting and rich, but they can also help communicate your story/theme/tone to your viewer.

And also, you know, having a great story and dynamic characters don't hurt.

How do you make your shots more dynamic when you don't have access to good lighting equipment? Let us know in the comments below.      

Your Comment

12 Comments

The other important thing that's not converted enough is the lens used. People tend to use 50mm or more but the real cinema is at 28mm. Very understated focal length. Cinematography is not same as portrait photography. Also, when you think about it, a 30mm portrait has a better "story" than a beautiful picture, which is what cinema is all about. :)

January 14, 2016 at 3:10PM

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I use my 28mm all the time on my Black Magic Cinema Camera EF. The crop factor is an issue. This doesn't affect the optical properties of the lens but it does "crop" things. The image ends up looking more like a 60mm lens on a full frame camera unless I setup farther back. I prefer my 50mm 1.7 as it give me nice shallow DOF for my closeups. the 11-16mm is best for wide shots and keeping things stable if handheld.

January 14, 2016 at 8:34PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
673

Well, the viewing angle of a 28mm lens on a Super35 sensor is almost exactly rhe same as the viewing angle of a 50mm lens on a full frame photo camera.
People also use 30mm lenses a lot on APS-C sensors to get the same angle as you would get with a 50mm on full frame. And the 50mm on full frame has always been the lens of choice for great documentary photos (like from Robert Capa)

January 14, 2016 at 8:36PM

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I heard the 28mm wide would create a cinematic look...I have a canon t5 what would be the best lens to use I see the price range on amazon is about 300-500 any suggestions?

January 15, 2016 at 11:40AM

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I always love his videos! He does such a great job of breaking down the process and making it seem so much less overwhelming.

January 14, 2016 at 3:24PM

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Sannah Parker
Producer/Editor
162

I like this guy.

January 14, 2016 at 4:28PM

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Terrell Lamont
Director, Director of Photography
351

Simon Cade is very talented. Love his videos.

January 14, 2016 at 4:31PM

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What if you don't have access to any? Everybody has access to black and white fabric or foamcore, work lights, and duct tape. If you understand light you can achieve just about anything for very little money.

January 14, 2016 at 6:17PM

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He has some good points with this one. Lighting is difficult for those of us who can't afford expensive equipment. Natural light, use of dark, colors in the scene, interesting backgrounds, emotional content, etc. all very useful. What happens to me is I get overwhelmed with all the decisions I have to make as a one person flimmaker so lots of things like background props and well thought out lighting get pushed aside and left to chance. Also we may not have enough time to analyze the location to place the actors in the correct spots for best lighting. I use checklists to help me remember this stuff when I'm shooting but sometimes I like the randomness.

January 14, 2016 at 8:51PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
673

Simon, great video! I will note two things: (1) you *did* use lighting for your direct address to the camera. No two ways about it...sometimes you just have to light1 And (2) a meta-point you make very clearly is that when you are very intentional about the elements you *do* use, that translates as a compelling shot. Thus, those who avoid using lights because it's just too much work are most likely cutting other corners that lead to ugly video.

Once you prove to yourself that you can shoot both ways--with only natural light, and with motivated, sensible lighting, then of course you have the choice to use the best technique for the job, which will lead to the best job being done.

January 15, 2016 at 4:32AM

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Biggest two things I've found that make a difference is pay attention to lighting and background. Even with subpar light, if I have an interesting background, I can always create a compelling image.
Just behind those two, I think, is making bold choices with focal length and framing.

January 15, 2016 at 4:23PM

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William Hellmuth
Director/Cinematographer/Editor
81

Great advice, thank you. Advice for you, stop with the apples.

January 17, 2016 at 11:28AM, Edited January 17, 11:28AM

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Vladimir Miketa
Cinematographer & Editor
245

He is brilliant, thanks for the video.

November 25, 2017 at 1:51AM

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Samuel Jane
Short Film Director
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