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How to Tell Story With Lighting | 7 Essential Rules

How to Tell Story With Lighting | 7 Essential Rules

Zane Gong |

In today’s episode, Ted is sharing 7 essential rules to consider in how to tell a story using lighting. As always, there is always more than one ‘right’ way to doing things, but these tips can be very helpful along the way. So, let’s get started!

Tip #1: Make Importance Shine

This is a very simple tip but can be very critical in guiding the viewer along the story. The eye is drawn towards the brightest part of the frame, so if something is important make sure your lighting communicates that. If your audience needs to see something make sure it is the brightest thing in your frame. Remember, light reinforces visual importance.

Tip #2: Feature The Protagonist’s POV

Light your characters the way your protagonist sees them. Lighting is more than just daring the eyes of your audience, it also expresses how your main character or protagonist feels about the people they interact with, friend, foe, love interest, afraid, and so on. Lighting can also affect and foreshadow a characters motives.

Tip #3: Choose: Light or Dark Side

Even if your story is without clearly defined heroes and villains, lighting can be used to delineate sides. In the above example from the film, ‘Shawshank Redeption’, there aren’t necessarily good guys or bad guys, but there is one character not sharing in the good times celebrating with his peers on a roof top. The solo guy is in the shadows and back lit, while the rest our lit with front sunlight.

back light

frontal light

Tip #4: Soft Moments Use Soft Lighting

Matching the quality of light with the emotional impact of a particular scene is a great way to use lighting to help tell a story.Soft light is very pleasant and soothing and is often used for romantic scenes, happy endings and overall positive moments. While hard lighting with strong textured shadows is more appropriate for tough times, danger and sadness or anger, to name a few.

soft sunset for iconic romance

Tip #5: Use Color To Push Emotion

Using color to help tell an audience how they should feel about a scene is to use color. Warm tones like orange, amber and straw tend to make viewers feel connected, intimate and nostalgic. While cool tones like, blue, cyan make audiences feel cool and detached, just to name a few of the basics. Ask yourself what color options mean to you? There a definitely quite a few movies where scenes have been washed with red in moments of urgency, passion or danger.

detach the scene

Tip #6: Move Lights for Chaos

Matching the motion of your lighting to the action of your scene, is your scene chaotic or slow, make sure your lighting movement helps express those feelings. A chaotic scene like a character running from danger, try to emphasize that chaos with flashing lights or small moving lights familiar to police flashing lights or a flashlight used to search for someone. If your scene is slower like a romantic encounter, maybe consider a slow moving light fade to help emphasize how much your protagonist cares about their love interest.

Tip #7: Light Only What The Protagonist Can See

A great way to use lighting to help ground your audience to your protagonist is to light only what your protagonist can see. This is often used in horror films with half lit hallways where the protagonist can’t see what is just beyond their arms length expressing feelings of constriction and unknown. On the flip side adding depth of lighting in an environment can help show how free and liberated a character can feel within a scene.

As always these are starting points to help improve your cinematography game, what concepts of light do you think can aid your your storytelling?

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