Lighting is one of those things that can feel very daunting to a new filmmaker, but is essential in making your film or series look cinematic. I’m a cinematographer who has been working on low-budget productions for a few years now and have learned a lot about lighting with what you have. You can definitely make your image pleasing and not have to buy all new lighting equipment to do so.
Before you start, make sure your in-camera settings are correct and suited to what you are shooting. I won’t go into too much detail on this, since it could be its own article, but use your settings wisely! White balance can make a big difference in making your shot look cooler or warmer and a wider aperture will give you a great depth of field and give your image more light. Even if you’re filming on your phone, there are apps like Filmic Pro that give you control over this. I highly recommend watching this video and this video by DSLRGuide, which both give great tips on lighting, using your camera correctly and how to achieve an all-around cinematic look on a budget.
Using things you have around the house:
Everyone assumes you have to have expensive equipment to make scenes look cinematic, but it’s really so simple to use what you already have, such as:
This is from a short film I directed. We didn’t have any lighting equipment, so all the lighting in the film came from natural lighting and a 3-bulb floor lamp my cinematographer could move and change the direction of.
Windows are one of my more preferred light sources, because they provide warm, natural light. They are also a great source to bounce light from and I love the pretty effect outside light gives. Be careful with this though, as the sun is constantly moving. I use an app called Sun Seeker that tells me where the sun is in the sky at all times, so if I’m relying on it as my light source, I know where it will be when I plan to film my scene. Below are some stills and images where I just used window light, aka the sun.
Similar to window lighting, sunlight is great since it is such a huge lighting source. The main thing to be careful with here is to shoot early in the morning or a few hours before sunset so you don’t have harsh shadows on your subject’s face. The stills below are from a few different films I shot and used only sunlight.
This is more of a last resort, but it can work if you have nothing else. Overhead lighting really works when you can combine it with a window, so it doesn’t become your main light source and give a lot of shadows. When we shot the office scenes in The Cate Morland Chronicles, we used only overhead lighting and windows and for the most part it worked out pretty well.
White or black sheets
Hang these up with tape, with string or on two light stands to help bounce and diffuse light
When you’re in a pinch, using the light on your phone can be a good way to put some light on your subject’s face and minimize shadows. When we filmed the shot below, the subject’s face was pretty dark and shadowed due to all the bright overhead lights above. It was at a convention so we didn’t really have control over lighting, so I turned my phone flashlight on and lit her face during the video. There were still some shadows but it minimized them and also put a light in her eyes.
Aluminum foil or a reflector attached to a light stand or tripod
This is explained more below, but you probably have some aluminum foil lying around and this is a great way to bounce light and make it more even across your subject’s face.
People often have these around, or you can buy one from Home Depot for about $25 for a pretty powerful LED light source.
If your light is too strong and creating shadows by pointing it directly at your subject, you need diffusion, which will make the light softer. You can diffuse your light by doing a few different things:
Point your light at the ceiling to have control over your lighting temperature and don’t have to use the overheads. This will also give the light a wider source (though it will be softer and less bright).
Point the light at the wall behind the camera and then have it bounce back onto your subject.
If you are getting shadows below your subject’s eyes and nose, you can put a white sheet on the ground and it will bounce any light that is pointing down, up into your subject’s face.
Use a reflector, or if you don’t have one, aluminum foil, to bounce light from. This video gives a great tutorial of how to achieve this.
Hang a white sheet in front of the light to make it softer.
If you have one light, even if it’s a work light or a floor lamp, here are some lighting methods for using only one light.
Chances are that even if you do have one external light source, you probably have other things around that can help. Windows, lamps, overhead lighting can all help you to create a pleasing image.
Things to avoid:
Don’t put windows or anything bright in the background because then it’s very hard to compete with that and lighten your subject enough that the windows won’t be washed out in your frame. I tried to make this work on a series I shot and the windows ended up being very washed out.
Don’t point the light directly at your subject’s face unless you have a soft box on it or something diffusing the light so your subject doesn’t have harsh shadows (unless that is the look you are going for, which it totally could be depending on the mood).
If you want to get a beginning lighting kit:
I would recommend these. These are less than $200 and can give you several options because they are dimmable, color-temperature adjustable and have barn doors. I have some of these and they have come very in handy.
Some more of my favorite youtube videos that give great lighting tutorials on how to light without a lighting kit.
Lighting is one of my favorite things to practice because it consistently requires you to be creative and resourceful. Every environment is different and lighting it will always depend on the mood you want to convey in your scene. Have fun with it and don’t be afraid to try new things to give your image the right look.