The art of light – Cinematography in film

You have probably noticed the image difference between your shitey iPhone camera footage and your favourite feature film. Thousands of pounds worth of camera equipment aside the difference you are probably seeing is how it’s lit.

This is the art of cinematography!


I’m not a film maker but it’s a subject I have a tremendous interest in. I’ve written and storyboarded a few scripts which lie waiting in the eternal porn vortex which is my hard drive and will probably never see the light of day but that’s ok as the fun was in the creating. I often spend more time watching ‘making of’ documentaries about films rather than the films themselves and one area that’s always captured my interest is that of cinematography.

Film cinematography is more than just lighting a scene or shot. Also known as a director of photography or D.P. the cinematographer’s job is technically the person who is in charge of the camera. They choose which camera to use for a specific shot, which lenses to use, how it’s framed and of course how it’s lit.

cinematography-manual-865x505This sounds a lot like what modern directors do as they are the proverbial captain of the ship but it actually harks back to a time when film was in it’s infancy and had more in common with theatre rather than the machine it is today. Directors were hired to direct the actors exactly the same way that they would have in a stage production and they were there as the emotional and motivational guide for performances (a more appropriate term for them would be performance directors). The technical stuff would be handled by the DP who was responsible for capturing the performance on film and would often be left to his own devices to set up, light and shoot the shot as they wished (essentially they were the directors hence the name director of photography).

Of course the lines between a DP and a director are very blurred these days. The director is still very much in charge but modern directors often take on some of the role of cinematographer and even cameraman. Today’s generation of film makers grew up and were inspired to make films by actually watching films and to many the art form is in the way it is shot, lit and framed as well as drawing out the best performance by your cast. Ridley Scott is famous for quite often getting behind the camera himself as to him the framing is everything. It’s his canvass, his portrait and it has to be done perfectly and often the best way to do that is by yourself.

A famous example of this old vs new was when James Cameron clashed with original DP Dick Bush on the set of Aliens. Dick was used to lighting a set his own way without interference from the director and lit the sets far too brightly. Jim Cameron being Jim Cameron who had his specific vision to how the film would look was having none of it and promptly fired his ass.


lIGHTLighting a scene is probably the most important task undertaken by the cinematographer and they are artists who paint with light.

A basic film setup consists of what is known as a 3 point lighting system (also used in still photography). As the name suggests this consists of three lights which are known as a key light, a back light and a fill light –

The Key light is your main light and is often projected at the front of your subject/talent often favouring one side of the face or body.

The back light as it’s name would suggest is a projection from the back (usually from above and out of shot). This adds a sense of depth to the 2d Frame and creates a sight halo around your subject which separates it from the background and works in conjunctions with a shallow depth of field

The fill light is typically a softer and sometimes optional light which does what it says on the tin and gently fills in any extremely dark patches in the frame (provided it’s necessary of course).

This is the general technique used to light a particular subject in the frame but set lights are also used on location and in sound stages to create background mood.

Temperature setting and white balance of the camera is also important as to how the light will look when captured as it can radically alter the mood of the shot.

Of course lighting is an art and there are no real rules. Cinematographers often have to devise new and exciting ways to light a scene and they use all manner of ideas and tools such as coloured gels, moving lights and even other mediums like smoke, dust or the classic milk in water effect so that the light will catch more easily in the atmosphere.


There are many, many fine cinematographers in the world who have worked on so many beautiful films but as in everything there are the names which are giants.

Slocombe on the set with Harrison Ford and Director Steven Spielberg

One of my personal favourites is the late great Douglas Slocombe who sadly passed away on the 22nd of February of this year (2016) at the grand old age of 103 (Fuck!!!).

Slocombe was responsible for lighting many wonderful films for the legendary Ealing studios in the 1950’s, most famously for the classic Alec Guinness adventure ‘The Man In The White Suit’ .

Of course many of my era will know him more for being the cinematographer of the first three Indiana Jones films. The trilogy is an absolute triumph in terms of photography and Slocombe’s use of light, colour and temperature gave the films a mood and an atmosphere that would go on to inspire a look for an entire generation of film makers.

Another favourite is the mega talented Allen Daviau who did the absolutely sublime lighting in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. which had a hazy charm that just about defined the 80’s.


I’ve lit some stuff a few times for a college film course I did years ago and like anything it’s tough to get what you want and you do have to experiment a few times to get things right, but that experimentation is incredibly creative and of course tremendous fun. It’s particularly rewarding when you not only satisfy yourself but also the person in charge who has given you specifications to meet. Being an old gothy goblin I was particularly fond of indoor night settings and shadowy shots using beams of light.

Good lighting can make or break a film sometimes. It can be the difference between a morbid and depressing scene and a joyous happy one. It is the visual and emotional signpost to which our subconscious latches on to in order to emphatically lock in to a scene with a character.

Where would we be without it!

RIP Douglas Slocombe  – 10 February 1913 – 22 February 2016


Author: Kitsune Mifune


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