Lighting is part science, part artform which makes discussing its use in feature films particularly difficult. It’s important to remember that in most feature films, although the lighting might look normal and natural, the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to achieve a particular lighting effect. Lighting always makes a significant and meaningful contribution to the narrative. As Stephen Burum, the cinematographer on films like The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, once said:  ”The art of cinematography is the art of lighting and making that light tell the story.”


It’s important to understand and use appropriate terminology when discussing lighting in feature films. Here are some common phrases that you might find useful when discussing the films you study in class.

Key light. The main source of light in a scene.

Fill light. The secondary source of light in a scene, often used to reduce shadows.

High key lighting. A scene that is well lit with few shadows.

Low key lighting. A scene with little light resulting in shadows and darkness, often used in horror and film noir.

Backlight. A light positioned behind the subject, often casting them into darkness.

Rim light. A light positioned above and slightly behind the subject which helps to define the edge of the figure. Sometimes referred to as a hair light.

Hard light. A lighting source that casts harsh shadows.

Soft light. A diffuse, ambient light.

ChiaroscuroAny shot that uses low key lighting, high contrast and shadows.

Three point lighting. The common use of a key, fill and backlight.


Lighting can contribute to narratives in many ways, such as creating atmosphere or contributing to characterisation. When you’re studying a film, always consider how lighting contributes to the narrative. When describing the use of lighting in a scene, be specific about the quality, intensity and colour of light. Think carefully about the shadows the light casts and where they fall. And remember: there’s no such thing as ‘dark lighting’. Making reference to the use of low key lighting and shadow is far more accurate. Here are some great examples of lighting from recent films.

At the beginning of The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan) there is a great example of how lighting contributes to character development. After staging an audacious bank heist, The Joker removes his clown mask and says, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger.” Here the use of lighting contribute to his sinister characterisation. The key light in this shot comes from a large window over The Joker’s right shoulder, casting a diffuse light across his face, accentuating his pitted and scarred face by creating grotesque shadows. While one side of his face is reasonably well illuminated, the rest is in shadow. The pallid light also makes his scars seem more grotesque. This is a very good example of lighting contributing to a narrative, helping to establish The Joker as particularly sinister and malevolent.

In the opening sequence of Skyfall (Sam Mendes), cinematographer Roger Deakins uses lighting in the opening shots of the film to establish the character of James Bond. In the opening shot of the film, Bond’s steps into a hallway, backlit by warm, golden light. Moving further down the hallway, Bond steps into frame, his piercing eyes highlighted by a shaft of warm light. The rest of his body is in shadow, creating a sense of mystery and danger. This combination of shadow and warm light helps to establish Bond as the film’s protagonist.

In One Hour Photo director Mark Romanek and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth use lighting to develop the character of Seymour ‘Sy’ Parrish (Robin Williams) and how different his life is from the family he has become obsessed with. Before he goes to sleep one night, Jokob Yorkin admits to his mother that he feels bad for Sy because he doesn’t have any friends. “We don’t even know that much about him,” she says. “I mean, he might even have a lot of friends.” The lighting in this shot is warm and the key light throughout this sequence appears to come from a small, incandescent lamp on Jake’s bedside table. This use of warm lighting contributes to the sense that Nina and Jake are part of a loving family. At this moment, Romanek cuts to a shot of Sy as he returns home. At first there is absolute darkness, when Sy opens the door to his apartment, pallid light spills in from the hallway. He turns on the overhead light which illuminates the sickly, beige walls. Romanek cuts back to the warm hues of Jake’s bedroom where his mother says, “Not everybody’s as lucky as we are.” Romanek cuts back to a shot of Sy as he walks into his kitchen. The lighting, once again, reinforces how hollow and empty his life is in comparison. The walls, cupboards and appliances in Sy’s apartment are uniformly white. The key light in this shot comes from what appears to be the fluorescent light in the kitchen. Whereas the incandescent lighting in the previous shot creates a sense of warmth, the harsh fluorescent lighting in the kitchen creates the sense that Sy’s life is completely empty.

In the opening sequence of The Departed, director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus use lighting to establish gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) as particularly sinister. After harassing a young woman at a diner, there is a shot of Frank talking to a young Colin Sullivan. Costello is largely backlit by the key light which is streaming in from the window behind him, glinting off the glasses lined up along a shelf. Costello’s face is in shadow, making him appear particularly sinister. This techniques is used throughout the entire sequence to characterise the violent gangster as particularly sinister.


Responsible for coordinating the camera and lighting departments on a film shoot, the chief cinematographer – referred to as the director of photography – is often the person behind the look of a film. Here are five cinematographers you should check out to refine your appreciation of lighting.

Roger Deakins. Roger Deakins in a multi award-winning cinematographer who has had a long running relationship with Joel and Ethan Coen, working as director of photography on films such as The Shawshank RedemptionFargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men and Skyfall. He has received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers.

Janusz Kaminski. Janusz Kaminski is a longtime collaborator with Steven Spielberg whose films include Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds and Lincoln. Kaminski has also directed a number of films, including the highly styled horror film Lost Souls.

Jeff Cronenweth. Jeff Cronenweth has worked as director of photography on a number of films and is noted for his collaboration with director David Fincher. Cronenweth’s films include One Hour PhotoThe Social NetworkThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Hitchcock.

Robert Richardson. If you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino, you’re sure to recognise the work of Robert Richardson who has worked on a number of Tarantino films including Kill BillInglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Before teaming up with Tarantino, Richardson had already had a long and successful career as a DoP, working on films like PlatoonA Few Good Men and Casino.

Matthew Libatique. Matthew Libatique is a versatile cinematographer who has had success working with a number of filmmakers including Darren Aronofsky and Jon Favreau. His films include IronmanThe FountainCowboys and Aliens and Black Swan.