January 25, 2016 at 5:48PM


How to get pro with lighting

We discuss cameras, lenses and other gear a lot and someone always mentions that it’s not about the camera, but about the lighting. Arguments like “You can shoot crap on an Alexa if you don’t light it well” and so on..

It seems to be the broad opinion that it’s “Good lighting that separates the pros from the amateurs by a wide, wide margin.” and while I do think this is true, I am having trouble finding quality information about how to light.

I know it’s a big question, but how do you learn lighting? Can any of you recommend specific videos, websites and such?

I specifically found these two informative: http://nofilmschool.com/2015/09/case-study-making-your-lighting-soft-bea...


Lighting is a tool used to emphasize or de-emphasize pieces of a composition. Allow an analogy with DoF -- in focus is important, out of focus not so much (naturally there are exceptions).

Film Noir is good at illustrating bare bones use of this tool where its usage is always unapologetic. Consider:



In all of the instances light very clearly emphasizes the important pieces of a frame.

How do you learn? Just like you learn juggling -- by doing it. I personally learned through photography because the turnaround is much quicker. Get a model, get three lights, shoot and repeat. Overtime your eyes will start noticing patterns and mistakes you make. I'd say on your fifth shoot you are bound to "get" how the light works.

January 25, 2016 at 8:48PM

Alex Zakrividoroga

The fastest way of learning anything is to find some good examples, study them as much as possible, and then try and duplicate the look with your own equipment.

So start with any scene from a movie, a tv commercial, an Indie short, that you really love how it was lit. Choose something that would be possible for you to duplicate, and do just that, try and duplicate the lighting. When you are first starting out it might take 5-6 attempts to start to get close to the look of the original footage. You should see that your work is getting closer to the original, every time you try and duplicate the scene.

I was lucky in that I learned lighting from an extremely good advertising photographer in London, England. Sure it was for large format still photos, but the lighting principles are exactly the same for film.

The most important thing I learned about lighting while working in England was this...

" If you can't see it with your own eyes, the camera will NEVER see it "

...So if you put your eye right up to where the lens is and look at your set and how it is lit, if you can't see the look you are after, then the camera won't see it either. So the set isn't ready to shoot until you can see it with your own eyes.

Cameras simply record the scene you put in front of it, so you will have to create that scene ( through composition, lighting, etc... ) in order to get that look on film.

January 25, 2016 at 9:55PM

Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer

Not to be that guy, I'm saying this in a joking matter but the A7s does see things your eyes wont :)

Carsten Weizer

January 27, 2016 at 9:44AM

Thanks a lot guys! I really appreciate your help!

I am already studying movies, commercials and so on and it clearly helps developing my sense of what good lighting is. I was hoping that is was possible to learn as much as possible by just looking at behind the scenes, lighting diagrams and tutorials but I’ll probably just have to get my hand on some lighting equipment and start experimenting as you say.

Do you have any recommendations on a proper light kit to start out with and grow with? All the stuff I have looked at is pretty expensive (like 5k per light) and there’s so many choices: HMI, tungsten, led or fluorescent and open face or Fresnel?

January 26, 2016 at 7:02AM, Edited January 26, 7:02AM


Pro lights are called "instruments", which is appropriate for your question. When learning to play a musical instrument, one does not usually start with the most expensive and rarest example of the craft, but one also avoids trying to learn on a toy. There are a lot of toys for sale offered as lighting instruments.

I would offer that you can learn a lot with a set of three ARRI 300W fresnels. They have enough power to light a small scene, and once you have mastered them, you can move up to larger/more expensive/more exotic lights. Here's a three-light kit for less than $2000: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/541086-REG/Arri_571969_Compact_Fre...

LEDs certainly burn cooler, but cheaper ones don't have a lot of throw, and their color rendering may cause you to doubt your own technique before understanding how to correctly compensate for the source. By learning with halogen fresnels, you'll understand how to make LEDs do what you want them to do, or kick them to the curb when they are not up to the task. If you start with LEDs, you may well always doubt yourself rather than the instruments, which is not good.

HMIs are awesome, but they are expensive, powerful, and not best for beginners.

January 26, 2016 at 9:11AM


Good advice, but buy as Arri lights on eBay, save yourself a lot. Just check reviews, not all as Arri are the same. The casing and fixture on mine is exactly like an Arri 300w. The plug and switch will need to be replaced, a high quality set would be about $10 and 10 minutes of time. This type of work fixing it is known as best boy work, it is very useful for any gaffer.


January 27, 2016 at 11:23AM

>>>Do you have any recommendations on a proper light kit to start out with and grow with?

If you can afford it, I would start with a basic Lowel tungsten kit like this...

Lowel Pro-light Two-Light Kit with Case : $350

Which has two 250 watt Pro lights with barn-doors, stands, umbrellas ( which can be used as standard or shoot-through ) and a case to transport everything. You can often find used Lowel lights on Craig's List or eBay, which I would only buy if they look like they were well taken care of.

The Lowel Pro light is a 250 watt fresnel light that is compact and quite flexible in terms of how you use it, and it's definitely bright enough for any current camera.

I own six Lowel Pro lights and four Lowel Tota-Lights that I use when I need to match tungsten balanced environments or when there are no windows in the room. ( to make your Lowel lights last you need to pack them properly when transporting them to and from a location, otherwise they will get beat up and start to fall apart within a year of owning them )

For daylight environments I use LED lights which cost 3-5 times as much as the Lowel lights, but they are very convenient to shoot with.

Daylight balanced fluorescent lights can be quite cheap, but they tend to produce a fairly soft light which you don't always want. ( you can always make a "hard" light "soft", but it's very difficult to make a "soft" light "hard" )

Along with the lights you are going to want to add reflectors and scrims ( white, black, silver, translucent, etc... ) to modify the output from your lights.

January 26, 2016 at 1:05PM, Edited January 26, 1:06PM

Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer

That kit looks very much like the thing I've been looking for. I've been considering LEDs but i'm glad to hear your opinion on them and i'm now sure that i won't get LEDs.

Can you mix the 3200k tungsten lights with daylight?

January 26, 2016 at 1:23PM


>>>Can you mix the 3200k tungsten lights with daylight?

Yes, but you have to filter your lights if you want them to match daylight. Daylight conversion filters eat up 1 2/3 F-stops, so your 250 watt tungsten light becomes an 80 watt light when it's filtered to daylight balance. ( this is why people use fluorescent or LED lights for daylight use, they are much brighter than filtered tungsten )

January 26, 2016 at 1:31PM

Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer

Just to clarify: the Arri kit is what i will probably be looking in to. Your comment hadn't ticked in yet when i answered.

Allright, sound like an awful lot of light loss.. I was under the impression that it's most common to use daylight balanced light. What do you find yourself using most often?

January 26, 2016 at 2:16PM


>>>What do you find yourself using most often?

I use daylight balanced 1x1 LED lights because they are bright enough, compact, and affordable. But my lights are 3 years old and they have a CRI rating in the low 80's, so I have to be careful when shooting with them to get good color.

I eventually want to replace my lights with Aputure LightStorm LS-1 LED lights, that cost about $600 each, are 2-3 times brighter than my 1x1 LED lights, have a CRI rating of 95+, so colors should be close to a perfect match without any work in post.

I am also interested in these new LED lights from CAME-TV...

CAME-TV Ultra Slim LED : $288

They have a CRI rating of 95 and are very compact, and they are probably brighter than the 1x1 LED lights I am using right now.

January 26, 2016 at 4:30PM, Edited January 26, 4:30PM

Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer

David, there is also another alternative philosophy about choosing the lights to get. If you see yourself being a one man crew shooting non-studio including outdoors and car interiors then battery-based LEDs might be the thing for you.

I've gone through sets of lights until I finally settled with nine battery-powered LEDs. Consider the following pieces that I shot that would not be possible (given one-man band mobility restrictions) without LEDs:



Do you even for a second say -- aww, the CRI is off? :) I would doubt that very much. What matters though is having the lights altogether.

Here is what the lights look like when sitting in the camera case -- there are 9 of them here:


They are $70 at Amazon US:


And finally with suction mounts you can light your talent inside of a car:


So, before getting a kit do at least ask yourself if mobility and small size are important criteria for your filmwork.

January 26, 2016 at 7:03PM

Alex Zakrividoroga

Nice work. You would never guess they were lit with such small LED lights.

Aputure make a small low cost LED light with a CRI 95+ rating for $50 US. No idea how they compare to the Yongnuo lights. ( I own two of these small Aputure lights to use for on-camera interviews )

Aputure Amaran AL-H160 CRI 95+ 160 LED Video Lights : $50

Guy McLoughlin

January 26, 2016 at 8:16PM

Guys, thanks for the lead!

Alex Zakrividoroga

January 26, 2016 at 8:43PM

If you want to learn how to light, don't look on this website, do you see how fast your question transitioned from how to light to what lights to buy. This is rarely a site to discuss craft, its more so a buying recommendation site. Try these two sites, people talk about their approach to lighting on a per project basis so theres plenty to learn there



January 27, 2016 at 8:25AM

Indie Guy

I am a big believer in learning hands on, making your own mistakes, and through experience getting better at what you do.

Sure working on a film set would be the best way to learn, but not everybody will have this opportunity, so working with your own gear is a great way to learn the basics and to train your own eyes on how to evaluate what you see in front of you.

Also, everyone has their own way of working. I personally hate the traditional 3-point lighting set-up because it looks so fake and artificial, but I still see it used all of the time for corporate and broadcast interviews.

The websites you mention are great resources for information ( especially the cinematographydb.com site ), but you may not know what to do with this information if you don't have any first-hand experience with this equipment yourself. There's a big difference between working on a fully budgeted commercial shoot, and working on a low-budget Indie or personal shoot. ( I don't know many Indie shooters that can afford to own or rent HMI lights, so they have to work with things on a much smaller scale, but the main lighting principals are still the same. )

Guy McLoughlin

January 27, 2016 at 1:53PM

Tanks for the links! The Cinematography db is now on my chrome bookmarks

David Draad

January 27, 2016 at 6:53PM

All these comments are great, but no one has mentioned many things related to actual film lighting on a film set.

I would define good lighting as creating a styled hieghted realism. Look at any of roger deakins work, he is amazing at this.

To get good at this, watching all the videos in the world won't do any good.

The only way to learn to be a gaffer is to work on movie sets. There is always a rush, you have to learn to work in this environment.

It's also about seeing the lighting through the cameras eye and not your own. This is a common mistake beginners make, they look at the scene with their eyes from the wrong angle and think it looks great. In film, DPs used handheld filters to judge contrast, now you have a monitor. Use these tools to get the look you want.

Lighting Filter "gels" are key like guy mentioned. In film we mostly use CTB and CTO gels to get the right color temperature. These come in mostly quater increments, a 1/2 CTB would cut half a stop of light from your light and so on. You can stack these to get your desired effect.

Learn the principles of the four light setup, key light backlight, background light and fill light, everything in cinema light stems from here. You can only use one of these lights to get the look you want, or you may need many more.

LEDs are great for certain things, but they are hard to shape. Learning to light with fresnel lights with barndoors is key to shaping light.

No one mentioned you need a light meter. With digital you don't need it for exposure, but you still need it to find your lighting ratios. Sure experience DPs may eye it, but they still know what a 5.1 contrast ratio looks like.

Contrast ratio is the relation of your key light to your fill light. This creates a bright or dark mood, combined with the direction of the key light.

The direction of the key light is also important. 1/4 key lights are traditional, but many dramas are shot with side key lighting.

To learn pro lighting is a long road, I have been on over 200 films sets and am still learning. It's fun but your back will hurt.

Get a set of leather man gloves, c47s, and a sturdy tool/work bag. A nice tool belt for all your lighting essentials(tape, tools, testers)is nice too.

Good luck!

January 27, 2016 at 11:43AM


Again, thanks a lot guys! These are all really good and thorough tips!

Nice pros on the LEDs. In reality I will probably be needing the portability and the low cost of the LEDs. As for now and the next year of time I’ll be shooting mostly corporate stuff and interviews as a one man band. I think I will settle on 2-3 LED panels with proper color or a couple of kinos.

In my heart I would like to be lighting in a much more cinematic way with big HMI’s like the big sets but as this is out of my budget and skill (at least for now ☺) I will stick to the basics in my own work and then try to get onto the bigger sets as NinjaMonkey suggests to learn the more advanced and fun stuff.

I will definitely be looking into more of Roger Deakins work, ratios and those cinematography links!

January 27, 2016 at 6:16PM


Read the Set Lighting Technician's Handbook by Harry Box. Anything you need to know about lighting is in this book, it is my bible.


January 27, 2016 at 7:02PM

Max Ciesynski

David Hobby has a series on lighting. http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/03/lighting-101.html
It's designed for still photographers, but light is light.

January 27, 2016 at 11:39PM


Experiment with the lights you have. The more you do that, the better you will get, do it enough, you can be a pro.

January 28, 2016 at 12:07PM


SO much good info going around here. A few of my own thoughts based on my experience gaffing several projects (including a feature film) as well as being behind the camera.

Nothing can stand in for hands-on experience. I was lucky enough to attend a school that had great lighting equipment, and so I was exposed to all the different kinds of lights and how they shape the subject. It doesn't come down to exactly what the lights are as much as general wisdom about source size, modifying the source with diffusions/gels, angle and intensity, distance from subject, etc. Once you get a grip on roughly how different-sized and kinds of lights behave the world becomes much easier to navigate and you can dive into the creative side of things.
So, if possible I would highly recommend getting on some sets as a grip. If you pay attention, you will learn a lot. And who can turn down a volunteer?

If you're not in an area with a lot of production, the next best thing is to pick up a few lights yourself and start playing with them. The Lowell Pro-Light kit mentioned above is a great budget option to help you learn. In addition I would pick up a couple china balls to use as soft lights--those can be had for pennies. And I would also go down to your local home depot and pick up some insulation white foam board to use as a bounce. Suddenly you have all the basics and for about $400!

It's not all about gear, but if you don't have access to any lights or other ways of learning hands on, it's going to be crazy difficult to get a grip on things.

Watching movies with an eye for lighting is also an incredible resource. It is a little more difficult because you can't see what's going on behind the scenes (a $30 subscription to American Cinematographer could really help get a sense for the BTS stuff). But if you have a creative mind and start playing around with the small lights you have, you will quickly start to learn how good lighting is achieved.

Finally, a note on LED's. Someone above said, "Do you even for a second say -- aww, the CRI is off? :) I would doubt that very much." I can tell you first-hand this is totally wrong. I cannot count how many times I have been frustrated on set because the LED sources in our package are killing the skin tones on the talent. And it's not just a matter of grading out the green. Sources with low CRI ratings actually reduce the information you are getting in camera, making it extremely difficult to bring out the proper colors in post simply because the camera couldn't record them. It's a nightmare.
LED lights are quickly evolving and becoming some of the most liberating creative tools in cinematography. I have been shooting with LED's (mostly LitePanel Astra's) almost exclusively for the last 6 months, and it's been incredible how flexible they are and how we can do some things that would have been impossible with traditional sources. However, those Astra's are $1000 a piece, and most LED sources with good color and good intensity will run you about the same. At this point in time, I recommend a much smaller investment (like the package at the very top of this post) and practice with that. Don't invest in bad LEDs. You will only regret it.

January 28, 2016 at 12:37PM

Kenneth Merrill

Also, David. I just checked out your soccer piece. Your compositions are on point. Very good work.

January 28, 2016 at 12:40PM

Kenneth Merrill

Thanks! It means a lot to me that you liked it. The soccer thing was a pretty quick thing though. I cringe when I look back at how I clipped the highlights that much back then, haha – but it’s good to know that I’ve learnt from it.

I will definitely be volunteering and trying to get on sets as soon as I get the time. Also, thanks for the American cinematographer BTS tip. I could need some of that to back up the “front-end” of things. I’m the kind of type who like to suck up all information I can from books and the internet on the topic before I start actually doing it.. It’s something that I’ve just got to cut down on and start getting out there!

About getting lights like the Lowell-pro or some small Arri Fresnel’s: what does the big difference is price cover over? Other than good build quality so you have lights that lasts for years, what is the difference between a 5000 $ 1kW light and a cheaper 1kW light? Can’t you just put the same bulb that’s in the Arri light in the cheap one? Probably a dumb question ☺

I’ve heard the same opinion as yours a lot when it comes to LEDs. I definitely wont be investing in bad LEDs. I was thinking about getting 2x Aputure Lightstorm LS 1s LEDs with CRI 95 as I heard that they have proper color and an output equivalent of a 1kW tungsten source. I could need their portability for the kind of work I am currently doing.

David Draad

January 29, 2016 at 4:28AM

Yeah I've learned a ton of stuff from American Cinematographer. Even having been in the industry a minute, I do get lost sometimes with the gear talk, but overall you learn some great principles. And I'm totally the same way. I have this thing about being perfect at something before I even try it--it's stupid. One of my major focus points this year is just shooting more stuff. Ira Glass says you have to get through a ton of bad work before you start making good stuff.
As for lights. For tungsten sources, I've almost only ever used name brands like Arri or Mole Richardson. I did use an off brand once, a couple 1K fresnels, and one of the bulbs kept shorting, while the mound for the other actually melted. In my experience that's exactly what you're spending money to avoid. Sure there may be a slight "name" premium with Arri stuff, but it's also usually rock solid and reliable. Off-brands are always a gamble. Every once in a while you find a gem, but it's always a gamble--I say read reviews, do a ton of research, and hopefully you'll be guided by common experience that way.
LEDs are great. I love them. If you have the cash and those Aputure lights are as good as the reviews say, then it might be worth it. I would probably get 2x Aputure lights and then still pick up a china ball, but buy one of those fancy new LED bulbs they sell at supermarkets now; so that it's daylight balanced like the LEDs. And making a DIY bounce board would still be awesome. It's going to be more like a $1250 kit instead of $450, but the LEDs will be WAY stronger and way more flexible than the Lowell Pro's. If you're ready to invest that much, go for it! I don't think you will regret it.

Kenneth Merrill

January 31, 2016 at 1:47AM

Rewatch your favourite films. Try to guess why you liked their cinematography. Then try to guess why the cinematography was like that. Finally, find interviews (such as in the American Cinematographer etc) and making-offs of the cinematographers and educate yourself on their mentality, way of thinking and creative decisions. The most difficult and interesting part is the "why" things are done in a certain way.

January 28, 2016 at 5:10PM

Stel Kouk

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