Levels Of Cinematography - Lighting & Color Tones

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

Imagine you're shooting a short film. You have an idea that has your actors talking in secret in a dimly lit room. You set your scene and you start filming. You notice that you can't see your actors that good and, at best, you can only see their silhouette. That's not what you wanted. You try to adjust your exposure and see that you have created a noise in your scene. You start wondering what went wrong. Then you realize, you didn't properly set the lighting in the scene.

Has this ever happened to you? It has to me. One thing I never thought about in the beginning of my career is how vital correct lighting is to a scene. When I started filming, I never had to worry about it because I relied on stage lights to show the bands I was filming. When I brought my filming skills outside of concert venues, I had to learn real quick what I was doing wrong.


It's not only important to light the scene to give a specific tone to the film, but also to produce the best image possible. If you don't light the scene correctly, you can run the risk of producing a film that doesn't look clean. How can you remedy this? Let me give you some advice.


The most important thing to remember is that every camera can interpret light differently. That's basically all a camera does. The light passes through the lens, then falls onto the camera sensor and then processor in the camera analyzes the light and produces it into an image. If you light looks good, the image will reflect that. If it doesn't, then it'll look like crap. If you learn how to light your scene properly, your cinematic value will increase dramatically.


It is possible to make your scene as bright as possible to make sure you have enough light because you can always close the iris of your camera. You could also close the iris to a level that focuses on the light and keeps the subject in the dark, similar to what you would see in an interview where the subject chooses to remain anonymous. As long as the light is being interpreted by the processor without too much strain or artificial pixels, the image will look great.

Another important aspect to remember is the characteristics of the light. More importantly, how to control it. Learning about these characteristics is vital to the cinematic look to the video. We can talk about these characteristics at a later time, but for now, let's talk about how the tone, or color, of the light can effect the cinematic value of the film.


When you think of lighting, most people would think about a simple light bulb that you turn on so you can see what's in the room. Not everyone realizes the science behind lighting, especially in film. Lighting adds so much to the story and it can make or break an entire dialogue. Let's take a look at a few examples.


When you look at "The Godfather", you'll notice that most of the scenes in the movie radiate this orange hue. Orange give this sense of welcome and puts the actor in a certain light, that way the viewer always gets the sense of welcome every time they see him. The movie is extremely careful in the colors they chose, by sticking with the oranges and other slightly altered color schemes for other characters, the viewer not only identifies the colors with the characters, it also gives different emotions with the changing of color schemes. While the psychology of using orange is a little more complicated than you'd probably like to read, I'll share with you the basics of the subject. Orange is attention getting. You always see it in construction zones so it's already associated in your brain with the feeling of caution. It can also be associated with fall. Most people would think about Halloween when they think of fall, but some people would associate the color with the change of seasons and with the change of seasons, specifically with fall, you'll notice that the dying leaves are an orange color. Subconsciously, we associate the death of the old and the change of a new beginning of the season.


Let's look at a more modern movie, Avengers Infinity War. Throughout the entire movie, you see darker color tones. Darker tones are used to indicate evil and death. From the opening scene, all the way to the shocking ending, you'll see a change of lighting from bright to dark every time you see the heroes winning or losing in battle. Dark lighting can also represent a sort of rebirth, and in terms of this movie, it was the death of the MCU as we know it, but the rebirth (as we recently found out from the new movie trailer) and the rebirth of the core members of the Avengers. Now, the new movie may in fact be a hard pill to swallow since we know that most of the core members of the Avengers will more than likely be killed as a sacrifice, but the rebirth would be through the legacy of their sacrifice.


Color tone as it relates to lighting in a film is an important technique that is used to help communicate specific emotions to the viewer on the subconscious level. Next time you watch a movie, pay attention to how the light affects the mood of the scene. You'll be surprised to find that the color tones match the mood in virtually every movie.

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