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Ministry of Education.

Let There Be Lights!

Lighting, contrast, and colour all contribute to the impact of the composition within the frame. Lighting enables directors to show people or objects in the way in which they want them to be seen, highlighting particular people, emotions, moods, or objects.

Every shot is lit by either natural or artificial light or a combination of both. Sometimes, one of the sources of light is visible in the shots and may be part of the action, such as car headlights, searchlights, a torch, or fire. However, it is more usual for the source of light to be off-frame.

Amateur video cameras have a key light on the camera to help illuminate the subject and prevent unwanted facial shadow, but this may cause the subject's face to look flat and untextured. Depending on the purpose and context of the shot, and how the shot should be lit to achieve appropriate emphasis, the scene may need to be lit from several different angles at the same time.

A silhouette or halo effect is achieved by lighting the shot from behind the subject. Silhouettes can make characters seem more mysterious and actions more dramatic. Shadows may increase the sense of depth in a shot, heighten suspense, obscure a character's identity, or make a shot look more abstract.

Underlighting or lowlighting, in which the light shines up from below the subject, can make people or things appear gloomy, grotesque, or unworldly. Sidelighting emphasises shadows, making people or objects appear gaunt or sinister.

Too much light on the film may lead to the shot being overexposed. Overexposure can be used deliberately to create an unreal or dreamlike effect. Underexposure can also be intentionally used to create the effect of darkness.


Colour is widely used in film and television for purposes similar to those on the stage. The lighting may be selected to emphasise a particular colour range in order to convey a mood or meaning. Blue light in film, in television, or on the stage might symbolise a mood of anxiety or depression, whereas bright white light may indicate happiness or innocence. Red light might be used to indicate danger or to enhance violent or bloodthirsty action.

Film Stock

The choice of film stock determines both the lighting and the colour of the final film. Some film-makers still choose to shoot mainly or completely in black and white, especially to show tense, realistic action in particular periods, as in Schindler's List. More commonly, colour film is used, and the qualities of different film stocks are combined with lighting to give particular effects.

In the classic western film, High Noon, for instance, the flat, washed-out lighting and the choice of a particular film stock together produced a grainy, newsreel quality, giving the film a realistic appearance. The sky's white, cloudless, burnt-out look helped emphasise the hardness of the townsfolk who refused to help their sheriff defend the town.

Summary of Terms

lighting lowlighting underexposure
key light sidelighting film stock
underlighting overexposure

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Published on: 06 May 2009