September 6, 2014 at 4:29AM


How to Light a Dark Scene?


I am trying to create a dark scene in which only characters are visible and the background is dark. Characters also have minimum light on their faces and a little bright light on their head.

Now the problem is that when i shoot this scene i got much noise because i am using low-voltage lights, and if i use high voltage lights, the scene looks bright and lost the impact.

I want to know how does professionals make dark scenes? Do they use bright lights and then Edit and make it dark during post, or do they use low lights for darker scenes.

I am using Nikon D3200 and its giving me much noise even on ISO 200 if i use low-voltage light.

Kindly give me some advice.


What are your exposure settings? Shutter speed? f stop? Can you post some pictures of examples of your problems?

Shooting brighter and bringing down in post should reduce noise and is a viable option, but regardless of the voltage of the lighting used if you are exposing for the light there, then noise should be a factor of the camera sensor and your settings, and what you are doing to the footage in post.

Or it could be an issue of flagging the lights so less light spills on the background, or changing the physical relationship of your subject to the background. But I can't really say with out specifics. "lighting a dark scene" is too general.

September 6, 2014 at 7:34AM

Michael Markham

Thanks for the Help, My Settings are f-stop 3.5, Shutter Speed 1/30, ISO 200 and Exposure is +1. Do i need to change these settings ? Kindly check the following image to see the result i am getting with these settings..


September 6, 2014 at 1:21PM

Sorry for the delay I was just seeing the response. Is that after the color grade? How much are you bringing the exposure up after you shoot it?

I would go up to ISO 800, and bring the shutter speed up to 1/48 or 1/60. A general rule of thumb is the shutter should be half the frame rate. so 1/48th for 24fps and 1/60th for 30fps.

Actually a quick look online shows me that D3200 has some serious noise issues, as we can see here.

I would use your high voltage lights and then bring the exposue down in the grade. you can leave the highlights and midtones where they are, or bring them down a bit if you need to, then crush the blacks to get those strong shadows you are looking for.

You might also want to look at some "day for night" tutorials online. They can show you how to take brighter footage and make it look like it was shot at night.

Michael Markham

September 9, 2014 at 7:08PM

Thank you so much for the reply...I increased the brightness to 15 in post.
Wouldn't it add more noise in the scene if i increase ISO to 800?
So the only way to avoid noise is to shoot the scene in the bright or daylight and bring down the brightness in the post?


September 11, 2014 at 11:28PM

Pretty much. From what I'm seeing online, with that camera, you just need more light. Get more light and expose as close to what you actually want it to be, and then adjust in post. But remember, if you are bringing the exposure up in post, then you will add noise. If you are bringing it down you will begin to eliminate noise. I would light it as bright as you can without blowing things out, and expose to protect your highlights as much as you can/desire to, and then bring it down in post to get what you want.

Michael Markham

September 15, 2014 at 7:34PM

You have to shape your light by using modifers. Things like snoots and flags and such. This is the art of lighting and its going to take practice. Obviously you're going to want some light in the background otherwise you might as well just be shooting against a black wall. Granted some will spill from the key light on the subjects into the background. But to create some depth you'll want some background lighting, even if just a little bit. You just want the light in the background to not be as intense as the key light on your subjects faces in this case.

Yes you can overlight and then dim it all down in post production by playing with levels and curves. This will help with noise during exposure. But you still want to make sure that the relationship in lighting is what you want it to be, with the foreground subjects lit more than the background.

September 6, 2014 at 8:15AM

Mike Tesh
Pro Video / Indie Filmmaker

Thanks for the Help..This is what i am getting when shooting in low light.. ..
1 Thing i am still unable to understand is that why its giving so much noise at ISO 200..


September 6, 2014 at 1:27PM

I think you'll want to approach the lighting by thinking about contrast. You'll want to create as much exposure contrast in your scene as your camera will allow you to shoot. Run some tests with your camera to discover what the usable dynamic range of the camera is, and then expose the background of you shot to the lowest usable exposure you can.

Once you've captured your shots you can increase that contrast in post, and adjust the exposure to achieve the look you want for the scene.

September 6, 2014 at 9:08AM

Douglas Henderson

Thank You so Much for the Guidance :)


September 6, 2014 at 1:28PM

For you, this comes down to two things:
- Proper Talent exposure
- Proper Background Exposure

For most films with a "natural" looking background, the actors are exposed 2/3-1 stop above the background. This adds separation and stops a scene from looking flat. Best way to do this is, as Mike said, through modifiers like scrims, flags, barn doors, etc.

To exposure your actors, pick your ISO (ideally low) and light your actors until it meters as exposed on your camera (on DLSRs, theres usually a light meter in the photo settings that I'll use to check exposure). From there, work on removing light from your background until it looks dark. You do this with that lighting modification we talked about earlier! As long as your actors are properly exposed (even if it looks bright), you can bring it down in post which will remove noise and help make your background disappear. If you still have too much noise, you can look into using a denoising software such as Neatvideo. It softens the image a little bit, but works wonders on both chrominance and luminance noise. If you don't feel like using a plugin, you could always use a channel separator and slightly blur the luma channel because most noise is actually fluctuations in exposure rather than colour.

Hope this helps!

September 6, 2014 at 12:46PM

Aidan Gray
Director of Photography Assistant Camera | Gaffer

Thank You So Much for the Guidance.. I will try out these things and post the results..Right now i am getting this result.. at f-stop 3.5, Shutter Speed 1/30, ISO 200.


September 6, 2014 at 1:32PM

What you can try, is lighting the actor from the side with a strong light and from the other side with another light to even out the face. This way, the light isn't pointed at the background. If some light still spills onto the background, you can block it with barn doors or flags.

Good luck.

September 7, 2014 at 1:38PM

Samuel Zerbato
Aspiring Filmmaker / DP

Lighting darkness on DSLRs is very hard. Many of them don't perform very well in low-light scenarios. One thing to do is to try to use colder lights and dim them down slightly. Once in post you can darken it even more. But another great thing to do that doesn't take much hard work or time is shooting day-for-night.
You can shoot in broad daylight and then darken it in post. You'll probably want to shoot a little cooler and avoid shooting the sky, as seeing the sun would give it away. Ryan Conolly and the Film Riot team have done a few videos on this, and show the best ways to do it. Here's a link to one of their videos that speaks about this technique:
Hope this helps and good luck.

September 7, 2014 at 7:31PM

Shaia Erlbaum
Director of Photography, Editor, Musician

What's specifically going on in this scene? Mugging in an alleyway? Two cavers exploring an underground tunnel? An outdoor romantic candlelit dinner? Where is the light in the scene presumed to be coming from (ambient light/torches/candles)? Why is the background dark - because you want to draw attention to your characters or because the background doesn't match the rest of your location and you want to get rid of it? What is the significance of the bright light on the subjects heads? Something lighting them from above?

I'm going to take a guess that if you are lighting the faces bright enough to reduce noise on your camera then the lights are illuminating the background and the rest of your actors in ways you don't like. Suggestions:

- physically separate the actors from the background

- have a light pointing from the background towards your actors, to give them an outline and separation from the darkness. You'll have to angle your camera to make sure the light itself isnt in shot. If this light is high, it can form the 'bright light on the head' you are talking about.

- shape the light source you are using so that light isn't falling where you don't want it. Blackwrap is a cheap and effective way of doing this, especially if you're unused to flags /snoots/barndoors. But don't discount those either.

- Make sure your shutter speed matches your frame rate, eg, shooting 25fps, shutter speed = 1/25th of a second. This is the equivalent of a '360 degree shutter' and means that light is falling on your sensor the whole duration of the frame. Maximising light = less noise.

- it is possible to get exactly what you need without fixing it in post, if you get the lighting right. However, overlighting the scene and bringing down the levels/curves in post is an option. Make sure that when you light your scene, you have the shadows where you want them - you can't easily add shadows back in if you haven't captured them in the first place.

Hard to be more specific without knowing what it is you are trying to make this look like, but good luck!

September 9, 2014 at 5:30AM, Edited September 9, 5:30AM

Alia Sheikh

Thank You So Much for the Guidance...I have noted down all the points you mentioned here..I am creating a scene where a character is sitting alone in the room. He is worried and the scene is dark. I have recorded the scene with these settings;

f-stop 3.5, Shutter Speed 1/30, ISO 200 and i am getting this in the output.. .

This image is so noisy. Kindly tell me some way to reduce noise in this type of scene. Is it possible to reduce noise by changing camera settings? or i have to use some more lights.


September 11, 2014 at 11:23PM

Taha: the technical responses here are fantastic... it would be pointless for me to try to add anything substantial. I will add that studying how the masters approach noir lighting will be a crash course, and if you pick apart the scenes of a Hitchcock film, for instance, and really figure out what was done, and why, you will gain insights you will use from then on. My current favorite, for noir lighting, is "Shadow of a Doubt" but rest assured that the worst Hitchcock film is way artsier than the best film of the last 15 years.

September 13, 2014 at 3:57PM

Michael P Ellis
President, Result Films Inc

night lighting is all about the shadows. strong deep shadows. your key light can be as bright as it wants to be - as bright as your lighting during the daytime, but without shadows it will feel flat and false. so yes modifiers. eggcrates on your lights - it's a lot of tweaking and tweaking till it feels honest.

September 15, 2014 at 6:45AM

Ed David
Director of Photography

This thread is exactly why NoFilmSchool is a gift to aspiring filmmakers. Brilliant insights and comments. Can't wait to put these techniques into practice. THANK YOU ALL!

February 6, 2015 at 7:34AM

Darby Powell

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