Reading: Elementary illumination



Key point for me

There are two basic steps to lighting for film:

  • finding the best angle – photographing the subject from an angle that puts most surfaces in view of the camera
  • lighting the object – the illusion of depth can be enhanced by separating foreground and background; each surface should have a different brightness; the background should be of a different tone


Alton, J. (2013) Writing With Light. Berkeley: University of California.

Exercise: Reflected ‘bounced’ light

I set up a couple of shots with a light source at one side of the subject, in this case daylight coming through a window. Using reflected light, I held a reflector directly opposite the light source to reflect light back into the shadows.

I used a Kenro 32″ 5-in-1 reflector kit, which comprises of white, gold, silver and black reflector covers on a 32″ translucent frame. I began by using the white reflector, to bounce light back at the subject to help level up the shadows and highlights within the shot. I then experimented with the gold, silver and black covers as reflectors to see what textures and colours can be achieved using these different materials.

Reflected light – Set-up 1

Camera: Sony PXW-FS7
Lens: Samyang 85mm T1.5


No reflector                                                                  White reflector

Silver reflector                                                             Black reflector


In the first set-up, I placed the reflector on a stand directly opposite the window.

Using a white reflector, I was able to reflect light back onto the face quite effectively. Which helped to level up the shadows and highlights a little. The closer the reflector was placed to the subject, the more light was bounced back onto the face.

The silver and black reflectors created a different effect. The silver reflector bounced light back onto the face, but gave the shot a much harsher feel. The black reflector increased the contrast in the shot by absorbing light in the shadow areas of the face, producing a much more low-key shot.


Reflected light – Set-up 2

Camera: Sony PXW-FS7
Lens: Samyang 50mm T1.5


No reflector                                                                  White reflector

Gold reflector                                                               Silver reflector


In the second set-up, I held the reflector slight slightly lower than the subject and angled it upwards to reflect the light back onto the face. Hand holding the reflector meant I could direct the light more accurately, sculpting the image by looking at the way in which the light fell on the subject.

Again, using a white reflector, I was able to reflect light back onto the face very effectively. Which helped to level up the shadows and highlights a little, particularly around the nose, cheek and hair. The closer the reflector was placed to the subject, the more light was bounced back onto the face.

Using the gold and silver reflectors I was able to achieve two quite different effects. The gold reflector bounced light back onto the face and hair, giving it a warmer feel. The silver reflector bounced light back onto the face and hair, but gave the shot a much harsher, colder feel, and was the least flattering of the reflectors used.

Of the three types of reflecting material I used in this exercise, it is the white reflector that I will start with when looking to bounce reflected light into a shot on my next assignment film, as it produces a more natural, softer light than the silver or gold reflectors.

Tone and colour

A martial arts epic set in ancient China, Hero (2004) tells and re-tells one story three times. Two versions of which are false and one is true.

A nameless warrior is being honoured for defeating three of the King’s most dangerous enemies, the assassins Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow.


As Nameless recounts his battles with the assassins, the King begins to question the truth of some of the details of the warrior’s tales, interjecting his own take on the suspect version of events. The framing tale which opens and closes the film is dominated by shades of black.


Within this opening frame, Nameless recounts his encounter with the assassin Long Sky. Where the two characters meet in battle, the scene cuts to black and white.


The first story in red, is told by Nameless, who recounts how he defeated Falling Snow. He tells how Falling Snow had cheated her lover Broken Sword with their friend Long Sky, and how, after Sky’s death, Broken Sword has slept with his servant Moon out of jealousy. Broken Sword is then killed by Falling Snow, also out of jealousy.


The red theme continues into the fight sequence between Flying Snow and Moon. This is a visually stunning scene, which reaches its climax when Falling Snow dodges Moon’s sword, which goes on to embed itself into a nearby tree trunk, which starts bleeding. At which point the entire landscape transforms from autumnal orange to blood red, as though the very land itself was bleeding to death. The change of atmosphere within this scene is from life to death.

As a consequence of killing Broken Sword, Falling Snow is too emotional to fight properly and is killed in battle by Nameless in front of the King’s army.


The second story in blue, the love story, is told by the King, who suggests Falling Snow died willingly after wounding Broken Sword to prevent him from stopping her sacrifice herself.


The third story in white tells how Falling Snow was willing to sacrifice herself, but that her death faked. It also tells how Broken Sword opposed Falling Snow and Nameless’s plan to kill the King.


The flashback in green presents the failed attempt by Broken Sword and Falling Snow to assassinate the King.

Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer on Hero, said the choice of colours was aesthetic, not symbolic, and that the coloration itself becomes the movie’s theme: ‘Part of the beauty of the film is that it is one story coloured by different perceptions […] I think that’s the point. Every story is coloured by personal perception’ (Mackey, 2005).



Mackey, R. (2015) ‘Cracking the Color Code of Hero.’ In: The New York Times [online] At: (Accessed on 29 June 2017)

Hero (2004) Directed by Zhang Yimou. [DVD] China: Miramax.

Light and colour

Cinematographer Darius Khondji makes some very inventive use of light and colour in the films ‘Seven’ (1995), ‘The City of Lost Children’ (1994) and ‘Delicatessen’ (1991).

Seven (1995)

In ‘Seven’, a dark psychological thriller about two detectives, Detective Lieutenant William Somerset and Detective David Mills, on the trail of a vicious serial killer, the lighting matches the dark, moody, threatening mood of the film.

The opening sequence begins with a shot of Somerset in his kitchen. The shot contains mixed light, daylight through the kitchen window and florescent light either side of the window. This helps set the context, early morning.

The scene cuts to Somerset in his bedroom, again with mixed light, this time mixing daylight from the window with artificial light from a lamp beside the bed.


In an example of the logical change of light within a scene, the camera pans right, following Somerset as he reaches across and switches off the lamp on the beside table. The source, a table lamp, is shown in shot.

City library. The sequence of shots within this scene represent the abstract state of the dark world into which Somerset has entered, the dark inner world of the mind of a serial killer. A fitting setting for this point in the film, the book stacks and empty tables of an empty library. A storehouse of knowledge.

As Somerset attempts to penetrate the dark recesses of the serial killer’s mind, decode what the killer is doing and why.


Wide Shots – following Somerset as he enters the empty library reading room, searches the book stacks, and sits alone at a desk reading. The solitary searcher.

Close Up – offers a more intimate shot of Somerset as he reads his way through a stack of books, drawing us into the moment, a moment in which he is immersed in thought. The shot also makes use of shallow focus, placing the character within tiny pools of white and green light. The light becoming part of an abstract design framing the character.

A third scene,set in the chief of detective’s office, is again a dimly lit scene set during daytime. The blinds on the main window behind the Chief’s desk are down and partially closed.  The office is ‘lit’ by several small lamps.

The different shots within the scene maintain the logic of light levels, direction of light and colour balance within the space.


What I found particularly interesting about the lighting in ‘Seven’ is Khondji’s use of multiple small lights on walls and tables throughout the film. This scene is an example of this, with four different lamps visible within the scene.  These four lights are also arranged to give the impression they are providing the key light for the three characters in the room. For example, the lamp on the desk provides key light for the Chief and the lamp stand provides key light for Mills sitting opposite the desk. The use of multiple small lights within scenes such as this helps to give the film is stylistic look.

The City of Lost Children (1994)

‘The City of Lost Children’ contains numerous examples of continuity and logic of light.


The children point their torches at One as he opens the door and enters the room. Cuts to a Close-up of One shielding his eyes from the light.


Beam of light from the lighthouse is cast across the harbour. Cuts to a Close-up of character smoking in his chair, closing his eyes as the light falls on his face.

There is also a playful sequence of light changes in the sequence in which an engineer fuses a street light outside the nightclub, setting off a chain-reaction across the city.


Here we see the light bulbs fuse and explode in the engineer’s face. This is followed by a domino effect of different lights going out in various locations across the city. In each case, the source is shown in shot before it goes out.

An interesting use of colour and light which contributes to the look of ‘The City of Lost Children’ is found in the sequences in the city’s streets at night, particularly in the scenes of One and Miette running through the alleyways. The result is very film noir, with its high contrast and deep shadows, similar to that found in film noir classics such as ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Odd Man Out’.


Delicatessen (1991)

The continuity of light in opening sequence of ‘Delicatessen’. The light and colour establishes the mood of the film as a whole, with its dark, shadowy, burnt orange, post-apocalyptic setting. Beginning with establishing the shop in its semi-derelict neighbourhood. The only light source is that coming from within the shop itself.


Camera approaches the butcher’s shop. The light inside the shop casts a pool of light onto the street outside.

The logic of light levels and direction of light is maintained throughout the sequence, as the camera moves in closer to the shop front and enters the through the door, revealing the butcher sharpening his knife.

‘Delicatessen’ also contains examples of shots representing the emotional state of a character.


The light in the scenes featuring Clapet represent a dark, sinister character. Lit from below his face, he appears sinister and threatening. By contrast, the light in the early scenes featuring Louison are bright and evenly lit, representing a character who is innocent of the world into which he has stepped. The lighting in both cases matches the contrasting nature of the two characters.

Another example of continuity and logic can be found in the workshop scene. Visual continuity within the scene in the workshop is maintained through the logic of light levels and direction of light as we cut from shot to shot.


In the shot of Roger at the drill, light appears to be coming from the left of the frame, illuminating the right side of his face. In the following shot of Robert Kube, testing toys at the table behind Roger, the light appears to be coming from the right of the frame, illuminating the left side of his face.

The logic of the light direction in these two shots is apparent in the following wide shot of the interior of the workshop, in which we see the large window, the source of the light within the scene.

An example of the light source being shown in shot.


In the closing scene, Louison is seen climbing onto the rooftop of the apartment block during a thunder storm. In tho shot we see the lightening flash as the character climbs the ladder and steps onto the roof.


The City of Lost Children (1994) Directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet [DVD] France: Canal+

Delicatessen (1991) Directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet [DVD] France: Miramax

Seven (1995) Directed by David Fincher [DVD] USA: New Line Cinema