When we think about our work we tend to visit an imaginary land where  conditions are perfect, we get to do things exactly as we want and our every whim is met with instant gratification.  Since that never happens in reality, I thought it would be smart to briefly dissect the factors that influence how we light a scene.  Just being aware of them will help you manage things more efficiently.  And that will also prepare you for success – long before you step foot on set.

            There are ten points in all; be sure to come back next Tuesday for the second five!

1. The size and shape of your location…

Plainly, the demands of lighting a phone booth are different from those of lighting Yankee Stadium.  So keep in mind that despite any plans you might make, the space in which you’re working will always make decisions for you – both good and bad.  Whether or not your set or location has windows will also have a strong influence on how you’ll choose to light.  If you’re in a practical location, the question becomes: to what extent can you control the ambience?

2. Staging of the actors…

Months of planning can be scotched in an instant when a performer decides to do the opposite of what you anticipated on the day you’re shooting a particular scene.

In those cases you can appeal to your director, but it’s often better to stay loose and not get too attached to any one way of doing things.  Adaptability and a willingness to think on your feet are two traits that will serve you well!

3. The mood you’re aiming for…

This point requires the context of a script.  The standard approach to horror film photography is dark and moody.  But who’s to say that you can’t create fearful emotions in a high-key environment?  This way of thinking – turning all the choices around in your mind – applies across the board.  The director’s interpretation of story will tell you how to go about mechanically building the look.

4. Time, crew and equipment…

Regardless of budget, there’s never enough time, crew or equipment to do things exactly the way you want.  Being able to work within parameters is as important to your success as a cinematographer as your ability to light with good taste – and it will govern everything you do!

5. ISO rating of your sensor\negative…

In general, higher ISO’s imply fewer and smaller lighting units while lower ISO’s demand more and larger units.  This is a law of nature.  Ignore it at your peril!



  1. Very true, especially regarding the point number 3: the comedy “Manhattan” was shot with the dark, moody feeling that only Gordon Willis was able to create, while “Midsommar” has an upbeat and colorful palette, while remaining a deeply disturbing horror movie.
    The genre doesn’t dictate your lights, the story define your lights.

  2. I would imagine climatic conditions have a huge bearing
    on the outdoor filming. Winter versus summer, cloudy versus
    sunshine. Snow or no snow. A rainy gloomy day may be what
    you’re looking for.

  3. Shooting low budget indies on an ultra-quick schedule highlighted #4 really well for me personally. #4 tends to be my “Come to Jesus” moment when my imagination is not going to meet reality. Lots to unpack with #4.
    Thank You Richard

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