What Directors Need to Know About Cinematography

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Composing the Frame: Let There Be Light

What Directors Need to Know About Cinematography

Written by David K. Irving

“Manipulating shadows and tonality is like writing music or a poem.”~Conrad Hall, ASC

To determine the nature of existing light and consider how to maintain the style dictated by the screenplay, a director of photography, along with the key production crew, visit the set during pre-production. The walk-through consists of matching the floor plans and storyboards to the actual place in which they will shoot. Adjustments are then made to the drawings to reflect the real location. The director of photography notes the available light, practical lamps and power supplies, and suggests to the gaffer what lighting package to prepare for this particular location.

Most cinematographers visit the set or location many times at different times of day to observe how shadows come and go with the arc of the sun. Although the sequence may be scheduled to be shot in the morning, changes may require shifting to an afternoon shoot, and by thoroughly examining the location, the key production personnel will not be surprised. Experience helps to limit surprises, but alas, they are inevitable. It reminds me of Wittgenstein’s quote: “When I came home I expected a surprise and there was no surprise for me, so, of course, I was surprised.”

After the walk-through, the department heads sit down and indicate the lead-time they will require to prepare the set. The director of photography, for example, may want to pre-rig. All of this information is reflected in the constantly morphing production schedule.

A black screen tells us the characters are in darkness. Illuminate one small part of the scene and the audience’s eye is drawn to it. Light the entire scene, but concentrate more light on a specific character and the audience’s eye is drawn to them. If a scene is lit at 100 foot-candles, the lead actress might be at 110, causing her to “pop” out of the frame. Cinematography is often referred to as “painting with light.”

Using film examples and stills assist the director and director of photography in settling on a style and look for the film. Storyboards help even more by pre- visualizing the look of each shot. The essence of the lighting plan is dictated by location and time of day. A sauna in Greenland during the summer is a very different look than a jungle at dusk. Sunrise tends towards blue light whereas a sunset glows with yellow and orange. High noon has a harsher light than dusk, while cloudy days have an even light compared to the harsh shadows on a cloudless desert. The language of film lighting requires discussions and decisions about the following:


Unless the sequence is intentionally unnatural, as in a dream scene, light sources are based on the logic of the location and time of day. Any setting, whether exterior or interior, are lit to duplicate reality. Within this framework, cinematographers have some leeway, or artistic license, to enhance the scene artificially to deliver a desired result, as long as the set looks realistic and corresponds to the overall artistic plan. During the day a room with a big window will use the sun as the main source of light. The main light always comes from this direction. The practical lamps will illuminate a pool hall at night over the pool tables.


The director of photography considers the source and uses it as the key or brightest light. During the day, in most cases, the sun is the source light. The audience sees the lights over the pool tables and logic dictates these bulbs will light the characters.

Hard or Soft

Light has qualities such as hard (harsh) or soft (diffused). The mood of a scene is greatly affected by the quality of light. Comedies use bright lights while horror films tend to use shadows and shafts of light for effect.

Natural or Artificial

Cinematographers measure light with a light meter. The stock in the camera is sensitive to specific kinds of light. Some stock is made to be shot outdoors (daylight) while others are used exclusively for interiors (tungsten). The color in the stock is affected differently when shooting with the sun as a source as opposed to using tungsten lamps. While there are filters and special tricks to manipulate the temperature of the stock, a director of photography is constantly balancing the equation of the stock + light + subject + mood + intent.

Instruments on set that are part of the dressing are termed practicals. Let’s imagine a character enters a room during the day where the sun streaming in through the window is the source. If he or she turns a lamp (practical) on in the shot, it must be bright enough to look realistic. Gaffers (electricians) work with set dressers to rewire and place high intensity bulbs in practical lamps so they will be bright enough to register on the film stock balanced to match the source light.

Shadows, Silhouettes, Highlights and Edges

Once the basic lighting plan is roughed in, the cinematographer adds details to the scene with the lights. One can choose, for example, to have the shadows in the scene milky or deep black. Characters can be lit so they blend in with the background or backlit so an edge of light brings them out from the background. Pin spots can highlight the eyes, the hair, a key prop or a puddle of water. A flag or cookie can be placed so as to block some of the light, which creates an interesting shadow or dappled effect.


The sun is the predominant source of light in exterior shooting. Though cinematographers prefer a cloudy day for the diffused light that filters through the cloud layer, a crew can work in the bright sun without any lights at all. If the sun is too harsh, grips can set up large white silks that hover over the actors for tight shooting. The even light that comes through the silk is consistent. As in every department, lighting needs to follow the logic of continuity rules. To cut from a brightly lit face to a dark face can be jarring to the viewer.

Because the light from the sun is bright and shines down on the actors, gaffers provide bounce boards or shiny boards which when placed correctly, bounce the light from the sun back up into the faces of the actors, allowing the camera to see faces without blowing out (overexposing) the background. When the day is too dark, lights can be brought on to set to fill in and create highlights, powered by a portable generator (many feet away to avoid the noise made by the generator). These instruments can fill in and create highlights when the day is too dark. Directors and their crews are constantly “chasing the sun” during exterior shoots. Sunset can often determine the end of the workday for many of the crew since exposure levels drop until there is not enough light to shoot a scene. Conrad Hall reminds us “the sun is the most parallel light source because it is so far away.”


Shooting in a practical location or on a sound stage requires a lot of light. Dozens of instruments are used, hundreds of feet of cable, myriad “C” stands and a mountain of gels, scrims and flags. The cinematographer, starting with the source, sets up the bigger instruments to generate the majority of the light. Then, little by little, he or she sets up smaller instruments, flags the big lights, gels and scrims if necessary, until the scene is ready for photography.

One of the advantages of shooting interiors is the control one has over light. Whereas the arc of the sun affects exteriors, clouds, wind and weather, the light of interiors is fixed. A director can shoot an interior scene during the day or night. Even on a practical location, if the scene is set at night, but it is in fact day time, the grips can set up a frame outside each door and window, cover the frame with light proof black velour, position tungsten balanced lights with blue gels inside the tent, and it will be nighttime all day long.


Most films are shot in color. Black and white films are a thing of the past, though occasionally contemporary filmmakers insist the story they plan to shoot calls out to be shot in black and white. Color is an integral part of the style determined by the director, cinematographer and art director. Colors and patterns form a distinctive quality specific to each film.What Directors Need to Know About Cinematography

What Directors Need to Know About Cinematography

David K. Irving

NYU Professor David K. Irving is the author of several textbooks, including “The Fundamentals of Film Directing and Producing” and “Directing the Short Film and Video”.