Five Roles Of Light

(Cinematic Lighting Lesson 02)

Summary: Every light you use should fulfill one of five roles: key, fill, backlight, set, effects. If it isn’t, turn it off. In this video Ryan covers what those five roles are, shows how they’re used to create cinematic images, offers tips on placement of each light, and gives you questions to think about when placing a light.

Length: 8:17 minutes

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Depth of Field, Part 1: How Aperture and ISO Affect Focus
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 6: Five Tips For A Successful Shoot
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 5: Lighting Six High Speed Sets
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 4: Common Lighting Problems
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 3: Camera Operation & Workflow
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 2: Frame Rate
Your Guide To High Speed, Part 1: Introduction
12 Crucial Questions Before Lighting Your Set (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 15)
Negative Fill: The Best Kept Secret (Cinematic Lighting Lesson 08)
12 replies
  1. SamK0471
    SamK0471 says:

    Beautiful work, gents! This was sooooo worth the wait.

    I have read about lighting a scene but the way you both show and explain it here really helps. Thank you for this. So, for me at least, one of the key takeaways is you want to purposefully build your lighting to meet the needs of your story – what you are trying to say and show – instead of to meet some theoretical construct like 3-point lighting. I am sure this gets better with experience but as a novice I have to ask is it just pure repetition, previzualization, some sort of workflow (all of the above) that gets you to proficiency quicker? I’m not trying to distill this down to a rule or formula and I know each setting and story will require something different, but there has to be a common, baseline approach that gets you to better lighting, right? I mean I see what you did here and I get it but I want to start to think that way more often so as to build muscle memory and be more consistent in how I tackle my lighting.

    This was excellent and I am sure I’ll pick more up in additional viewings and I can’t thank you enough for this.

    • Ryan E. Walters
      Ryan E. Walters says:

      Thanks. Tim & I are really glad you are liking it and getting a lot out of it. We’re having fun putting these together. 🙂

      You are correct, that it is a bit of everything that gets you to proficiency quicker. The more you light, the more familiar you’ll get with your tools and what they do. The more you know what they do, the easier it will be to pre-visualize it in your head. And the more comfortable you get, the more you can experiment and try new things out.

      As far as a baseline approach goes, I’d recommend starting with turning one light on at a time, and build up the scene that way. Then you’ll be able to see what each light is doing, and figure out if it is adding to or taking away from the look. Something else I have done, is to turn off all the lights except for the one I’m working with- that way I can see exactly what it is doing.

      Hope that helps. 🙂

  2. jonathanesters
    jonathanesters says:

    You guys are strong teachers; your explanations are clear and reinforced well with solid images. Thank you for the clear distinction between rim/hair lights and edge/kickers. Questions: what is the 3/4 back position for the edge/kicker relative to the subject and camera?

    Also, regarding making the key light shadows fall toward vs. away from the camera: what is the difference in the position of the key light? It seems in the 2 comparative images that the key moved from the subject’s left to right, but how does this alter toward vs. away from the camera? Enjoying these spatial questions?

    Again, I really dig the lighting diagrams and BTS shots. What are you using to create the lighting diagrams?

  3. Ryan E. Walters
    Ryan E. Walters says:

    Thanks. 🙂 Yeah, 3/4 back is relative to the subject and camera- or more precisely- the camera’s view. For example- look at the 5 Roles diagram. The lights in front of the talent, are in the frontal position, the lights behind the talent are in the back position. The hair light is on the same axis as the camera- it is in the full back position. If the hair light were to move either to the right or the left (around the 10-11 o’clock, or 1-2 o’clock) it would now be in a 3/4 back position.

    In regards to the shadows falling toward camera- the key light is typically from a 3/4 front position, and the light comes toward the direction that the talent looks. So if they look screen left, the key would be on the left side. If they look right, it would come from the right. That pushes the shadow toward the opposite side of the face, which is the side that the camera sees. If the talent looks right, and the key is on the left, the shadows get pushed to the side of the face that the camera doesn’t see, and the lighting gets more flat, and less shapely. (If you’re trying to hide shape, that’s a good thing, if you want to reveal shape, that’s not so good…)

    Diagrams are all created by hand in Photoshop. It takes a lot of time to do those… unfortunately I haven’t found an app that I like yet- and I’ve tried a bunch of them out…

    • Ryan E. Walters
      Ryan E. Walters says:

      Thanks for sharing those links. 🙂

      Omnigraffle is a great program for that. It’s what I use to start my lighting diagrams to hand off to the crew for my shoots. For these diagrams I will also incorporate another program called Shot Designer: to help finesse it a bit more.

      As you mentioned, Omnigraffle is easy to use, and it will probably fit 80% of peoples needs. (And it works on my iPad!) Definitely worth the money if you’re making a lot of diagrams, IMO.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t found a one stop solution for the diagrams we’re publishing on the site, so I combine all the tools we’re using in Photoshop… a bit laborious, but it seems to work for now…

    • Tim
      Tim says:

      The dimmers we use on practicals is actually one we put together ourselves, but it looks exactly like this one from FilmTools:

      It isn’t hard to build as long as you know how to correctly wire the box. You can probably build your own for $20 (USD) with parts from Home Depot, Lowes, or Ace Hardware.

      There are other options too, such as this dimmer.

      Be sure to test whatever dimmer you get with the bulbs you plan to use for your production since some bulbs make a buzzing sound when dimmed that can ruin your audio. Also these dimmers are all for incandescent bulbs; if you are using LED bulbs you will need to get a dimmer specific to LEDs.

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