Understanding these 7 lighting positions will help you tell better stories and create better characters.
"Direction of light" is an a very important lighting concept to learn. Essentially, it deals with where a light is positioned in regards to a subject, and on a technical level, it's pretty straightforward—you put a light in front of, behind, above, below, or on the side of your subject. However, it get more complicated (and interesting) when you have to consider what effect the shadows you create have on your audience's perception of what's being lit. In this video, RocketJump Film School breaks down different light positions and how each of them emotionally impact a viewer differently.
Here are 7 basic lighting postions commonly used in filmmaking:
- Front light
- Top light
- Under light
- 45-degree light
- Side light
- Edge light
- Back light
Each of these directions of light produce shadows that have a wide range of effects on not only your subjects, but also on your audience's perception of them. For example, top lighting, or placing your light source directly above your subject, is often used to obscure a person's face, particularly their eyes. Francis Ford Coppola and DP Gordon Willis famously used this type of lighting in The Godfather to give Don Corleone and other characters a mysterious, even untrustworthy look. (Some even considered it a lighting mistake.) Using a top light, as well as low-key lighting techniques, creates deep shadows that obscure not only much of the frame, but also many of the facial features viewers typically seek out to read the emotions of others. Paul Thomas Anderson and DP Mihai Malaimare Jr. used a similar technique in The Master.
However, these are not hard and fast rules with definitive meanings. Think of these lighting effects as ingredients—yes, these lighting effects tend to "taste" similar to most viewers (e.g. most people think under lighting makes faces look scary), but if you add other elements into the mix, like colors, camera angle, wardrobe, etc., you can produce effects that make your narrative more dynamic and complex.