We all know the importance of three-point lighting setups in narrative work. At times, we may see creatives using more lights to cover a whole scene. But what can creatives do with just one light?

Again, the common rule in lighting is using three lights. A key light to illuminate your subject, a fill light to control your contrast, and a backlight to give separation. 

However, there are moments on set where this kind of setup takes more time than you have. Or maybe there’s a more creative choice to be made that the three-point lighting concept just can’t deliver. Maybe you’re a filmmaker who can’t afford more than one light!

You may think that using just one light isn’t enough, but Hollywood films have a myriad of scenes that are just light with a single light source. Yes, some of them are also using practicals found on location, but they only have one additional light. 

If you think it’ll be a huge balloon or something super expensive, you’d be wrong. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest movies from the last decade to see how talented cinematographers handle a scene with a single light. 

First Man with One Light

Directed by Damien Chazelle with cinematography by Linus Sandgren, First Man is the first project we’re taking a look at. 

In a scene between Claire Foy and Ryan Gosling, they have an argument inside the house of Neil Armstrong. When they both walk into the office, the entire scene is lit with practicals, or light already found on location, and a single tube light taped to the top of the ceiling. 

The First Man - Behind The Scenes'First Man'Credit: Universal Pictures

As you can see in the photo above, there aren’t any other additional lights used within that room beyond the practicals. For a filmmaker on a budget, achieving this kind of look is effortless and looks incredible.  Check out the entire scene in this clip below:

One thing to consider, though, is how celluloid film reacts differently to light than digital sensors. While film can handle highlights better, digital sensors are more adept at managing shadows. It's a lot more complicated and nuanced than that, but that's a conversation for a different day. 

A Ring Light on Prisoners

Another incredible film to look at is Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot by Roger Deakins. One scene to look out for is an exterior where Terrence Howard walks a suburban street. Beyond the practicals of the environment, Deakins brought one additional light to illuminate his subject. 

A simple ring light. 

Prisoners - Behind The Scenes'Prisoners'Credit: Alcon Entertainment

In the picture above, we see Howard separated from the background by the practicals, which act as a backlight. But in the BTS photos on the right, we see that the key light is nothing more than a self-built ring light that Deakins is holding in his hands. 

Something as simple as a few lightbulbs in a circle can be a powerful tool for filmmakers on a budget. The tungsten bulbs are incredibly color-accurate and can be a very versatile piece of kit. You can use them in a ring light, or use them as practicals around your set.

You can even build your own for a few hundred bucks by going to any hardware store. Just make sure you get a cord that can handle the wattage. Or you can replace the tungsten lights with LED bulbs for added versatility.

Here’s a tutorial from Shutterstock Tutorials to get you on your way.

Soft Light in Knives Out

Finally, we land on Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson and shot by Steven Yedlin. If that second name sounds familiar, we covered his amazing work on resolution in this article.

In Knives Out, the main portion of the film takes place in a giant room. In a dialogue scene between Jamie Lee Curtis and Lakeith Stanfield, Yedlin used one powerful light with diffusion to accentuate the practicals all around the room. Take a look below:

Knives Out BTS'Knives Out'Credit: Lionsgate

While the above lighting setup can look a little daunting to budget filmmakers, the same look can be achieved with a white shower curtain and an Aputure 600D. At $1,890 a pop, the 600D is a nice budget option when compared to other high-powered production lights. 

Aputure LS 600d Pro Light Storm Daylight LED Light (V-Mount)

One Light!
  • Color: 5600K, CRI/TLCI: 96
  • Beam Angle with 55° Reflector
  • Wireless DMX, Bluetooth Control
  • 4 Dimming Modes, Wireless Range: 328'
  • Comparable to a 1200W HMI
  • 8 Built-In Lighting Effects
  • AC 100-240V, 50/60Hz

If you want to dive deeper into Knives Out and a few other films, check out this video from the lads at Epic Light Media.

Lighting on a Budget

The above examples show us how easy and financially viable it is for creatives to achieve their vision. With a single light, a few rolls of gaff tape, and some cheap diffusion material, you can start to make Hollywood magic. 

Yes, one light can be a limitation, but from what we’ve seen, a little bit of ingenuity can go a long way. Filmmakers don’t need a full grip truck to light their scenes anymore. 

So grab your camera, get yourself a single light, and start shooting.