Learn How to Tell Stories by Directing Light and Controlling Shadows

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.

'The Godfather' (1972)
'The Master' (2012)
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.      

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Your Comment


Very helpful! Thanks for posting! I struggle with lighting all the time. it's the last thing I think about and often the thing that gets rushed. I just finished shooting in what's supposed to be a dark room. I used the 45 degree light and side light quite often to cast lots of shadows on the faces of the actors. I also used back lighting to differentiate the actors from the dark backgrounds.

December 3, 2016 at 11:11PM, Edited December 3, 11:11PM

Anton Doiron

I utilized the 45 degree light and side light frequently to make bets of shadows on the characteristics of the performers. I likewise utilized backdrop illumination to separate the performing artists from the dull foundations. http://wpexpertwebs.weebly.com/

December 4, 2016 at 11:16PM, Edited December 4, 11:16PM

You voted '+1'.
John walker
Project Manager

Lighting is IMPORTANT and is covered well in this video - but don't forget great casting, great locations, great art direction, great camera angles and lens, etc, etc, etc. They ALL contribute to your storytelling, of course.

July 11, 2017 at 10:51AM

Greg Green