12 Crucial Questions Before Lighting Your Set

(Cinematic Lighting Lesson 15)

Summary: Cinematic images require preparation. In this video Ryan covers the 12 crucial questions to ask before you begin lighting your set.

Length: 6:48 minutes

Video Lesson


I’ve heard it said before that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That’s why it’s important that we do our homework before we ever step onto set. And that’s true regardless of what kind of project you’re working on, a documentary, an interview, or a dramatic scene. If you’re asking the right questions before you light your project you’ll be able to walk away with cinematic images. That’s why in this video, I’ll share with you the 12 crucial questions that you should be asking before you light any of your sets.

Style & Mood

What is the mood and tone of the scene?

What Is The Mood & Tone? (LC115)
The most important question to ask before you light anything is, “What is the mood and tone of the scene?” The answer to that one question will inform the answers to everything else. If you are going with a high key style of lighting, then you are going to need a lot of fill light to make the tone feel light. If instead, it is low key, then your have to decide how low key will it be? The more low key it is, the less you have to think about your fill.

Does the time of day affect the scene?

What Time Of Day Is It? (LC115)
Second, what time of day is it, and does it affect the scene? You might get a script that says Day Interior. That’s great, you know you’ll be inside during the day. But what time of day? Morning, midday, or afternoon? Even though it isn’t specified in the script and the director doesn’t have a specific vision, the time of day still affects the overall tone of the scene. Maybe the scene is about new beginnings and placing the time of day in the morning would be a good way to support that tone. Or maybe, the tone of the scene is darker, and placing it late in the afternoon fits the mood better.

Are you establishing your lighting style or matching other content?

Are You Matching Content? (LC115)
The third question is “Are you establishing a lighting style, or matching content that has already been shot?” Sometimes due the talent’s availability, or maybe how long you have the location, or some other challenge, you can’t shoot the entire sequence. Its at these times where you have to lock down what the lighting style will be so that you can match it later. Or if footage has already been shot, you’ll need to match it in order for the scene to intercut.

Once you have answered these three questions, the rest of the question are all a matter of logistics.

Logistics With Talent

Here are three questions to consider as you develop your plan for lighting your talent.

How many people are in the scene?

How Many People Are There? (LC115)
If there is only one person in the scene it’s going to be easier to light since you only have to worry about that person. With each additional person, you’re lighting needs will change, as you want to make sure everyone is lit appropriately.

Where does the action happen in the scene?

Where Is The Action? (LC115)
Although it may seem like a no-brainer, you only need to be concerned with lighting the part of the set where the action happens. If the action is only on a part of the set, don’t bother focusing on everything else; it’s only what is in the frame that matters. On the other hand, if you see the whole world, you’ll need to light all of it.

Do people move around in the scene?

Where Do People Move? (LC115)
Think about where they will be, what they’ll be doing, and if they need to be lit for the whole action or not. Many times people will have a beginning and an end, and those two positions really are what matters. The walk between the two points is less important. So focus your time on those two positions, and let the rest of the scene play as it is. If they have to be perfectly lit for the whole action, then you’ve got a bigger challenge on your hands.

Logistics With Location

Next up are three things to consider about the location.

Will we see the floor or the ceiling?

Do You See The Floor Or Ceiling? (LC115)
This might seem like a simple question, but it has profound implications for how we light. If we see the floor or we see the ceiling, that means we have less options for where we can place and hide our lights and cables. It’s generally not a good idea to see lights or cables in a shot.

For example, let’s say we saw the floor in our shot, and the only place we could pull power from was in the shot. To keep our cables out of the shot, we either could spend extra time carefully dressing the set to hide the cables, or we would need to find options that were all battery powered.

Are there any practical effects in the shot?

Are There Any Practical Effects? (LC115)
Maybe there is a TV effect, or maybe someone turns a light on or off. These are important things to consider. Typically, the talent never really turns on or off their own lights. Two reasons: first we are usually lighting the scene with more than just the practical and those additional lights need to be turned on or off too. Second, and even more importantly in my opinion, the talent needs to be freed up to focus on the acting and emotion, not the specific action. Having to fumble for a switch in the middle of a shot can get awkward and ruin the emotion of the scene.

Do we need to balance the light levels of the interior to the exterior?

Do Levels Need To Be Balanced? (LC115)
If it’s important to see the detail out the window, then we’ll need to increase the light levels inside to be able to see out the window. This might require ordering more powerful lights to compete with the sun. If we don’t balance the two levels, the window will blow out to white.

Logistics With Camera

The last three questions all have to do with what camera we’ll be using.

What ISO will we be shooting at?

What ISO Will Be Used? (LC115)
The lower the ISO, the stronger lights we’ll need on our scene; the higher the ISO the less powerful our lights can be. At higher ISOs–like above one or two thousand–we need to think more about lighting control, or taking light away from areas of the frame.

What is the slowest lens we’ll be shooting with?

What Is The Slowest Lens? (LC115)
As you’ll remember from the camera training, each stop on a lens requires twice as much light. So if you are working with a mismatched set of lenses, and the slowest one is a T4, then make sure your lighting package can light to that stop. If it can’t, then you’ll be underexposed when you’re shooting with that lens.

Will you be doing any high speed or macro work?

Are You Shooting High Speed or Macro? (LC115)
Both high speed and macro photography require a lot more light than your traditional lighting setup. The kind of lights you use are really important with high speed work since some lights introduce flicker when you are shooting at off speeds. And if you are going macro work, you’ll need high light levels so that you can get to a decent shooting stop so that your subject is actually viewable and not mostly out of focus.

Final Thoughts

By answering these twelve questions you’ll be well prepared to make your vision a reality. Remember great imagery doesn’t happen by mistake it comes with the proper preparation. And if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by this long list of questions, don’t worry: I’ve been there before. Just start by answering the three mood and style questions. Because those will inform a lot of the other answers to the rest of the questions. And then over time, with practice, these questions will become second nature.

So is there anything you think I missed out on, or maybe a topic I didn’t touch on. Well, let me know by leaving a comment below. And if you have any questions, ask away, and I’ll be sure to respond.

Tools We Used

How To Cinematically Light A Corporate Video (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 20)
How To Light Quickly (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 19)
Lighting For Extreme Frame Rates (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 21)
12 Crucial Questions Before Lighting Your Set (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 15)
3 Strategies For Lighting Your Night Exteriors (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 14)
5 Essential Strategies To Lighting Day Exteriors (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 12)
10 Tips To Lighting Day Exteriors (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 13)
How To Light A Small Commercial (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 23)
Where To Begin Lighting Your Set (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 18)
3 replies
  1. oscargoldman
    oscargoldman says:

    Nice. I’m wondering though: When discussing the balance of light between inside and outside, why is there no mention of using gels on the windows, instead of throwing more light at the interior? The example should would seem to be a good candidate for that.

    • Tim
      Tim says:

      Good eye!

      We actually do cover this issue in more detail in another lesson, “Three Strategies For Lighting A Day Interior” (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 10). Since that lesson is for members, I’ve copy and pasted that paragraph here:

      “If you do gel the window, just be aware of three potential problems. First off, it takes a while to gel a window correctly. Second, it can create additional reflections that become visible in the shot. Lastly, if it is done on the outside of the window and there is wind, it can make a rustling sound and interfere with the audio being recorded.”

  2. Ahmedsalem
    Ahmedsalem says:

    Very nice tips, really the point about lighting the start and end point and keeping some black pools during the blocking is very awesome, I think if it be covered in a long duration tutorial we see it with blocking it will become wonderful , Another idea came to my mind if you create some tutorials by using redhead fixtures it will be great because it is cheap and easy to rent and try


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