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A sample lesson from our Cinematography Course...


Generally, filmmaking techniques change slowly over time. For example, directing practices are pretty much the same now as they were fifty years ago.

Cinematography techniques were equally stable until the 1990s when digital cameras took the industry by storm. Techniques then changed dramatically within in a short period of time.

More recently, there has been a change in lighting technology and aesthetics. Though this happened with little fanfare, it has been significant nonetheless.

Softer, Lower Intensity

In a nutshell, there has been a shift towards softer, lower intensity lighting. The illumination is achieved primarily with Kino Flos, Chinese lanterns, and most recently, LED panels. All of the principles previously discussed still apply (i.e., three point lighting, exposure ratios, etc.).

Chinese Lantern & Kino Flo

This approach is used in both film and DV, small and big budgets. Cinematographer Lance Acord often uses it in his work, including the acclaimed Lost in Translation. In the shot below the lanterns are right in the frame (the bedside lamps).

Lost in Translation

High vs. Low Key

In the past, soft lighting was typically used for high key setups. The current breed of cinematographers use soft lighting for both high and low key setups. In fact, a number of scenes in Lost in Translation are low key:

Low Key Using Soft Lighting

The trick to avoiding the flat look usually associated with soft light is to use side lighting. This results in shadow areas which serve to model the subject. Of course, the precise angle of the light depends on the look you are trying to achieve.


To create side lighting, the Kinos and Chinese lanterns are placed at strategic points around the perimeter of the set, usually at eye level. 

On locations where you want to preserve the natural light, the existing light sources are used as a guide for placement. The Kinos and Chinese lanterns will then serve to enhance the natural light. This approach is often used for documentaries and productions with tight schedules.

Whether you use Kinos or Chinese Lanterns (or both) is a matter of personal choice. The quality of the light is similar, but the fixtures are radically different. Some cinematographers favor Kinos, while others favor the simplicity of the Chinese lanterns.

Fill Light

From previous lessons you know that fill light is important in creating the key level (mood) of the shot by increasing or decreasing shadows. This principle still holds true here, but with an interesting twist as to how the fill is achieved.

Kinos and Chinese lanterns are low intensity lights. They are so low, in fact, that ambient light on the set is usually enough to act as fill. In other words, in most cases, you will not need a dedicated fill light.

If the ambient fill light is not adequate, you can:

  • use a reflector board to bounce light into the shadow areas

  • use an additional fixture (bounced) to raise the ambient light of the set

Exposure Metering

The principles of exposure and contrast previously discussed still apply, too. The catch is that using an exposure meter at such low light levels becomes increasingly difficult.

Film stocks are becoming faster and DV cameras are approaching the sensitivity of the human eye. It makes sense, then, that your eyes are your best tool in judging exposure and contrast.

Consequently, when light levels are too low for the proper use of a meter, the best approach is to make the lighting look as natural as possible to your eye. Do the final tweaking by checking the shot against a video monitor, particularly highlights and shadows.

Lighting Control

Lite Panels, Kino Flo Lighting, and other brands have their own accessories for lighting control, including louvers and dimmers. Louvers are used to control directionality and spillage:

Kino Flo Louver

Chinese lanterns are a bit tricky because you must improvise. A black skirt made of Duvetyn can be used to direct the light and control spill. Professional Chinese lanterns like those made by Chimera Lighting have their own accessories for lighting control:

Chimera Lantern

One of 300 lessons found in Film School Online!

Cinematography Course Topics

If you are interested in learning more about the movies used  in this
 lesson, click on the title or picture (courtesy 20th Century Fox,
MCA/Universal, Paramount, TCM, and Warner Brothers).

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