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The Cinematographer Checklist #2: Painting with Light

By Abijeet Achar

When I arrived at the doorsteps of Emerson College in Boston, I would confidently say, “I’m a cinematographer,” and imagined a flock of doves flying behind me in glorious 120fps. The first short film I was asked to DP turned out to be one of my biggest failures as a creator.

I did not make a single good decision. Specifically, I did not follow any proper principles to lighting. When the film screened in class, I cringed. The visuals were overexposed, flat, and uninspiring. In this moment I told myself, “I am not a cinematographer, but I aspire to be.”

After this initial disaster, rather than marketing myself as a cinematographer, I told colleagues I was a grip/electric. Over the next two years, I listened and followed the instruction of the DPs. I paid attention, took notes, and absorbed as much information as I possibly could. I then became a Teaching Assistant for the Cinematography department, and only in my final year did I tell fellow graduate students that I was a cinematographer. Since then, I have shot several short films, commercials, and music videos that I can be proud of.

In my first blog post, I discussed the DP’s checklist my cinematography professor gave to me. In addition to general questions to ask yourself as a DP, it also gives a checklist of lighting techniques to consider. Here is that list.

1. What element of lighting do I need for this scene?

There are countless ways to light a scene. I’m sure you’ve all heard about 3 point lighting. But it’s important to create your own formulas and strategies to create your signature. Here are a few things you need to consider to create interesting lighting in a scene.

Key: The main source of light hitting your subject.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Fill: Helps reduce the contrast on a subject from the key light.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Malum. Directed by Connor Christensen, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Backlight: Lighting a subject from behind. This helps separate the subject from the background. Backlight with no fill or key will result in a silhouette.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Kicker/Rim: An accent light that highlights the edges of a subject. Coming from above, or the side of a subject at a higher angle. These highlights are usually brighter than the key.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Malum. Directed by Connor Christensen, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Eye-light: A light that is used to fill shadow around a subjects eyes. This light makes use of the human eye’s reflective qualities.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Ambient: The practical sources in a scene that creates ambiance within the set. Are there practical lights in use? Is there a window with natural daylight coming into the scene?

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Background: Lighting pointed towards the background of a scene. This helps create depth within your shot and separates your subject from the background. Not to be confused with backlight.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Foreground: In wider shots, your subject may be lit well, but foreground elements may be silhouetted. Foreground lighting adds details to foreground elements of a scene.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

With correct exposure, a well-lit shot is the combination of these elements. It’s important not to use these strategies for the sake of using them. Each element must be carefully considered in regard to the mood of the scene, the ideas you want to convey in conjunction with the script, and if it makes logical sense in the diegetic space.

2. What is the quality of light? And how do I get it with the tools I have?

Now that you know the various types of lighting, you can decide on the quality of lighting. You need to make these decisions in pre-production so that you can rent the appropriate tools needed for your lighting strategy.

Indirect/Direct: Do you want a source pointed directly on the subject to create stronger contrast (direct), or do you want softer light by bouncing a source onto a beadboard to create a more flattering look?

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

Harsh/Soft: A noir film utilizes lots of harsh lighting that creates a strong contrast. Brooding self-loathing private eye? Harsh. Soft lighting utilizes various forms of diffusion that creates a much softer image. Think Malickian.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Malum. Directed by Connor Christensen, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Ambient/Sourcey: Ambient lighting could be natural overcast daylight lighting your subject. It could also be a soft pancake coming from above. Sourcey lighting could be intense stage lighting blasting your subject from above, or perhaps a lamp used by detectives in an interrogation room. The audience knows there’s a lighting fixture.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

My Indian Rhapsody. Directed by Abijeet Achar, cinematography by Logan J. Freeman, Nicholas Corsano, Abhishek Achar

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

Flat/Chiaroscuro: Flat, meaning a lack of contrast. I want my subject to be flat to help strengthen the idea of a character’s mundane routine and their general apathy for life. Chiaroscuro is a painting technique developed during the Renaissance. In cinematography, it’s referring to lighting a subject with a higher contrast ratio. This translates into an image that’s much moodier.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

Skipped/Direct: Skipped refers to lighting that is bounced off an item and then onto your subject. For example, a high sun shines through a window, bounces off the floor, and hits your subjects face at a low angle. It’s an interesting look that gives the audience information (time of day), and also creates an interesting mood. Direct light, as referenced above, is any lighting that directly hits your subject.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

My Indian Rhapsody. Directed by Abijeet Achar, cinematography by Logan J. Freeman, Nicholas Corsano, Abhishek Achar

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

My Indian Rhapsody. Directed by Abijeet Achar, cinematography by Logan J. Freeman, Nicholas Corsano, Abhishek Achar

Constant/Dimming: Got any light gags planned for the scene? Perhaps you are shooting a club scene, and your lights need to be flashing on and off for a strobe effect. Grab a dimmer board. Or, your subject is at home relaxing by the fireplace. Grab a chimera softbox and 1k dimmer. Constant lighting is any lighting that does not change during a scene.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

3. What is the color of the light?

This needs to be planned in pre-production so that you can budget and order the appropriate gels. Over the years, I’ve collected various gels that can be used in all sorts of situations. One example, I wanted to use a red exit sign as a motivated light source and as a kicker on the subject. The sign itself wasn’t strong enough to expose the subject, so we added a 375W fixture above and put on a red gel. The strategy sold in the final product.

light and cinematography abijeet achar zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

4. Now go and create.

That is the list, tested and true. And in the 5 years since I received that aged piece of paper, I still refer to this list. Like I said in part 1 of the DP’s checklist, as a cinematographer, you need to find the devil in the details. A well-lit scene is nothing more than a few well-executed details of light on a subject.

Cinematography is the balance of light and shadows, finding the perfect ratio based on the feeling you want to convey. It’s often said that a cinematographer paints with light. It’s true; the camera frame is your canvas, and the lights are your brushes. Practice with the tools you have, and become a master of your art.


Read The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details

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About the Author


Born and raised in Durban South Africa, Abijeet Achar is a cinematographer and director of Indian and Mauritian descent. In 2016, Abijeet completed his M.F.A. in Visual and Media Art with a focus in Cinematography at Emerson College in Boston, MA. His thesis film, “My Indian Rhapsody,” had its world premiere at the 2017 Atlanta Film Festival and was a semifinalist in the 44th Student Academy Awards. In addition to co-managing Pineapple Cut Pictures, Abijeet is a national touring cinematographer for singer/songwriter, Corey Smith, and is a certified Steadicam Operator.

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