Production film set camera and lighting on set

By Nicole W. Solomon

No matter how great your actors, how enthralling the story, or how brilliant your set design, it won’t look very impressive if the lighting is off. Whether too dim, too hard, or too flat, the wrong design and techniques can show your film in the entirely wrong…light. Thankfully, professional quality lighting that boosts production value does not have to cost a fortune, and can even be accomplished using everyday items you may already have. Here are some key tricks for creatively making the most of what you’ve got, so your film can really shine.

Want to learn more about lighting? Register today for the Fundamentals of Lighting for Film. 

Master the art of lighting and create captivating visual content for any media platform. These workshops cover the fundamental principles of lighting, including how to work with natural light, set up a lighting kit, adjust white balance, and use dramatic lighting techniques. Whether you're a photographer, videographer, or content creator, this course will help you create stunning visuals that stand out in today's competitive media landscape.

Register today!

Harness the power of natural light

The sun can be a fabulous key light, if you know how to work with it. While the sun itself is obviously beyond your control, how you position your subject and camera in relation to it is not. Experienced Directors of Photography will have a lot of ideas for working with natural light, but even a beginning, low budget filmmaker without a team of seasoned grips and gaffers can do a lot with a few basic principles.

For starters, pay attention to where the sun is in the sky. Which direction is it shining? Position your actors or subjects so the rays shine directly onto their faces from the front if you want a flat effect, or have the light hit at a bit of an angle for more dimension. You may want to try this in the morning or after mid-afternoon, when the sun is lower in the sky -- around noon the sun is directly overhead and likely to cast shadows on actors’ eyes.

You can also use the sun as a rim light which creates a kind of halo effect by placing your subject in front of it, so the light is coming from behind. Use a reflector or bounce board (more on those in a minute) to reflect some of the light back onto the face.

You’ll also want to pay attention to your schedule and location -- which hours will give you sunlight you can use? Plan carefully so you’re shooting when the sun is most cooperative. Are there trees or architecture that will cast unwanted shadows during part of the day? Avoid that. For indoor shoots, think about when the sun will be hitting the correct side of the building to come through the windows you want. Also assess the quality of light -- is it bright and harsh, or is it a cloudy day with a gentler and more diffused look? Whatever the case, interiors or exteriors, there are additional steps you can take to shape and control whatever the sun is giving you.

Bounce that light around

Bounce boards are the unsung heroes of light design and help you do much more with whatever lights you have, natural or otherwise. Using white foam board or silver reflectors (or even a mirror, or just  the ceiling!), you can bounce your light sources to create different effects and solve problems. Bounce boards are an extremely versatile and inexpensive way to help augment highlights, fill in shadows, or create a softer, lower-contrast look. 

Need to shoot around noon and concerned about face shadows? Angle a reflector to blast away unwanted eye shadows created by the sun hitting an actor’s brow. Want a more creative lighting design? See how it looks to bounce the light coming through a window onto a subject or surface -- and you can try this same technique with any light source, natural or not. Aim an electrical light at the ceiling instead of your subject, angled so it reflects back down for a gentler and more flattering effect than a more direct approach would provide. Bounce cards and reflectors multiply the potential of whatever lights you have, and the possibilities are almost endless.

While any remotely reflective surface can be used to bounce and shape light, you’ll want to be mindful of what materials will best serve your purposes. Whether working with purchased, professional reflectors or something a little more DIY, different surfaces will create different effects. A silver surface -- even if it’s just aluminum foil-wrapped cardboard -- will produce a brighter, higher contrast look than a white surface such as foam board, which creates a softer look. It’s always a good idea to experiment.

Think negative

In addition to reflecting light to augment it, you may want to explore negative fill to block or absorb light in some areas of your frame. Duvetyne is an extremely opaque velvety twill fabric with a matte finish that can be used to control light spill and create different effects (the original Star Trek famously shot Duvetyne with glitter on it for “outer space”). When a scene is brighter than you want it to be, you can use it  to remove some light. Similarly, a range of flags and black foam boards can serve as versatile and low-cost additions to your kit that will go a long way towards enabling you to both solve problems and create more compelling and dramatic shots.

Make the most of practicals

A practical light is just any light that is on camera as part of a shot -- think bedside lamps, fireplaces, and streetlights. Using light that is clearly motivated by something on screen can help cultivate an air of realism in the look of your movie, as well as add depth to the lighting design and generally make things more visually interesting. As with natural light, you’ll want to think about the direction and position of practicals in relation to your subjects (as well as all objects in the scene), but unlike the sun you’ll usually find these lights fairly easy to move around and reposition as needed. You can also adjust the brightness more directly, though use of different bulbs, shades, or attaching a dimmer. Gels and flags are relatively cheap accessories that will also go a long way towards helping you adjust the effects created by practical lights. You’ll want to be careful to coordinate practicals with your other light sources, whether natural or artificial, so you don’t end up with mixed color temperatures.

Consider other inexpensive light sources

If you have access to proper  film or video lights, that’s great! You’ll probably want to use them! But there are also tons of less conventional (and less expensive) options out there for artificial lights you can use on set without maxing out your credit card. 

Work lamps of the sort used in construction can provide a powerful blast that won’t break the bank. Both daylight balanced and tungsten bulbs are available for these, so you can control the color temperature and make sure it compliments your scene. Because of the strength of these lights, they are invaluable for night shoots or anytime you need a powerful light source, and you may find them even on professional film shoots when there’s a smart and thrifty DP. You can use the light reflecting and absorbing tools mentioned above to shape and control the output. 

LED folding lanterns designed for camping are another, newer option available across a spectrum of price points and power, and can serve as a kind of DIY LED light panel. Some even have built in dimmers, diffusers, and other tools that make them particularly valuable on a low-budget film set.

Globe-shaped paper lanterns or “China balls” are a long-time favorite of DPs looking to easily create beautiful, diffused lighting without bloating the budget. Because they are omnidirectional, they provide a uniquely versatile, low budget option and are a preferred lighting hack for countless filmmakers. Available in a range of sizes and colors, paper lanterns can be used as a soft key light, hung from the ceiling or a C-stand to enhance the overall brightness, or placed in frame as a strategic practical, among other creative applications. Just remember that tungsten light bulbs get hot and paper is flammable! Do not exceed 250 watts for a 30-inch lantern if you want to avoid a fire, which you definitely do. Fluorescent or LED bulbs will create less heat and pose less of a hazard.

You also may want to consider the humble clamp light -- a simple, silver-shaded device available at most hardware stores, often for $10 or less, that can be clipped to a light stand or almost anywhere else, and angled as-needed to provide a little extra illumination wherever you like. The built-in clamp may not be strong enough to securely hold the light at every exact angle you desire on every possible surface, but you can greatly enhance their grabbing-power by adding a cheap spring clip to make sure everything stays put. Get creative with different colored bulbs or gels, and use the techniques mentioned above to effectively and inexpensively reduce or increase the light generated, and there are endless options to further modify the power and quality of illumination from these affordable little guys.

Household items are your friend

Think about what you have lying around or could pick up at the dollar store that would enhance your kit and help increase the versatility of the lights you have!

The ability to soften light is key to any functional kit, and you don’t necessarily need to shell out for professional diffusion.  Wax paper, opaque shower curtains, bed sheets, or even laundry dryer sheets  can all be used to effectively diffuse harsh light sources --  just be very careful not to place them too close to a hot light as they are not going to be as heat-proof as professional diffusion and could melt or catch fire. You'll want a pack or two of clothes pins to help affix said diffusion to your lamp’s shade, a stand, or wherever else you may want it. 

Black garbage bags can be a great substitute for duvetyne or black wrap if you need to block the sun or street lamp coming through the window or other light leaks. Conversely, white cardboard items or those wrapped with silver foil can reflect and increase light.

Don’t discount Christmas lights! Single or multicolored bulbs on a string can be used in countless ways beyond set decoration for a holiday scene. Tape them to foam or polyboard for a Do-It-Yourself soft light panel. Use them as a backdrop in closeups for a striking bokeh effect of soft, aesthetically-pleasing, out-of-focus background. Place them in the distance to fake nighttime city lights. Or just use them as a portable, gentle ambient light source.

There is always post…

While you should never plan to “fix it in post” and should always do everything you can to properly light your set to create the look that will best serve your project, enhancing your light design in post-production is always a reasonable option. Certain inconsistencies of the sort common to low budget films can be remedied through color correction, and your intended look can be solidified through the color grading process. While you won’t necessarily be able to turn trash to treasure through the magic of post-production, you will be able to take decent light and level it up through intentional creative choices that bolster the foundation you laid on set. Let your imagination run and see what sorts of interesting looks you can generate for a truly special style to your frames.

Whatever your project and budget, film and video are creative mediums that reward research and ingenuity. With a little forethought, it is very possible to create smart lighting designs that hit the mark on both a technical and artistic level. It’s just a matter of clarifying your vision, assessing your resources, and experimenting in advance so you have a solid plan when the camera rolls.

Want to learn more about lighting? Register today for the Fundamentals of Lighting for Film. 

Master the art of lighting and create captivating visual content for any media platform. These workshops cover the fundamental principles of lighting, including how to work with natural light, set up a lighting kit, adjust white balance, and use dramatic lighting techniques. Whether you're a photographer, videographer, or content creator, this course will help you create stunning visuals that stand out in today's competitive media landscape.

What you will learn

  • How to use natural light to light a subject
  • How to setup basic 3 point lighting
  • Dramatic lighting techniques
  • How light can be used to tell the story

Nicole W. Solomon is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and media educator. She is half of the independent production company 4Milecircus and co-hosts the film discussion podcast The Celluloid Mirror.