Cinematic Lighting for Photography

So much goes into the making of a great film.  There is the script, the acting and the directing of course; but there are also all the great technical factors – the costumes and make-up, the set design, the special effects, and the often-overlooked lighting effects.

We may not think much about lighting in film, after all when it’s done right it appears effortless.  But when you watch a movie closely enough, you cannot miss how great lighting techniques add to the overall quality of a good movie.

Since photography is often referred to as painting with light, it seems only natural that we can apply the same techniques to still images that we use in moving pictures to produce the same dramatic effects.  Here’s a look at a few of those lighting techniques and how to apply them in your next photo shoot.

Photo 139099172 © Krisana Antharith –

Understand your light

First, it is important to understand the different kinds of light.  The main differentiator for light is hard vs. soft lighting.

Hard light, also called direct light, it light directly from a source that strikes the subject unfiltered – think of a light from a flash, or a bright glaring sunlight.  This light produces sharp shadows and contrasts.  Hard light is useful to produce stark conditions like the blazing sun in a desert, or to create dramatic shadows to emphasize facial features roughened with time.  This type of light is generally more challenging to work with, but there are several online resources such as that provide tips on how to successfully shoot with tough lighting.

Soft light, or diffused light, is light that has been scattered before it reaches the subject – like sunlight filtered through clouds or a light bounced off a reflective white surface.  This light produces less contrast and fewer harsh shadows.  Soft light is more appropriate for romantic scenes, or in creating an angelic setting or tone.

Focus in on the subject

Use light to emphasize the subject of the photo.  Viewers eyes will naturally be drawn to the best lit areas of an image first.  Use your strongest, main light to highlight the element or elements of a scene you want to have the most emphasis.

Accent lights for depth

Next add fill lights to help achieve a 3-dimensional effect in a 2-dimensional medium.  Add lights to elements in the foreground, middle ground and background to differentiate the three planes.  Add edge lighting to elements to help separate them from other objects in the scene.

Photo 57980969 © Safa Illustration Design  –

Go low and high key

Light can also induce a mood or tone in a picture.

High key lighting is a technique to reduce the lighting ratio – or the amount of contrast from bright to dim of the lights used – resulting in the loss of shadows and a smoothly lit scene.  The use of high key lighting produces an upbeat, angelic, or other worldliness feel.

Low key lighting is the opposite.  This lighting technique produces strong contrasts between the light and shadows with a sharp drop off around the subject.  In a scene, this producing a dark and foreboding effect.  Or use this technique to produce a dramatic or tension filled environment.

Light the scene elements

Make scenes more realistic by adding lights to elements outside of the main subject that would naturally be a light source.  Light the candles on the back table, or turn the desk lamps on to create a richer and more visually textured scene.  Add light points to a forest scene to simulate lightning bugs on a warm summer evening.  Your use of light elements is limited only by your imagination – and the more you include the more magical it will be for the viewer.

Photo 74385907 © Kiosea39 –

Light using the right light

Imitating natural light sources – like sunlight, moonlight, or street lamps – produces a more real-life scene for your images.  A soft warm light source bounce off white reflectors will give the appearance of sunlight, while adding a blue gel and turning down the intensity will feel more like a magical moonlit evening.  Shine a light through the diner window to simulate a streetlamp at night.

Make use of colors

All light has a color tint.  Natural sunlight is warm and causes a yellow or orange tint.  Florescent and tungsten artificial lights are cold and will produce a blue tint.  And any light can be transformed with the use of gels.  Adding contrasting colors on various elements of a scene will make them more visually differential and interesting, and will help to draw attention to them.

Add dramatic textures

Add texture to your lights by shooting through interesting shapes to add complex light and shadow patterns.  Add vertical slats over your light to imitate widow blinds, add tree branches in your forest scenes, or shoot through a mesh grid when simulating an institution or prison scene.

Use the shadows

While we often look into the light for the subject of a scene, making shadows a great place to hide things in plain sight.  Tuck your hidden messages or demons into the shadows and challenge the viewer to find your secrets.  Shoot the dark side of a subject by capturing the shadows at play as opposed to the brightly lit side.

Try these techniques the next time you are looking to add a cinematic feel to your images and take your pictures to the movies.

Author Bio

Karen Foley is a freelance photographer,  videographer and writer who loves to share her passion for her art with others and contributes often to the photography community.  See more of her work at