Axel Rothe - Cinematographer (Kameramann) / Colorist - Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt


Lighting Based Off References

In the last blog post I talked about the process of preproduction and how to find and make a look. You talked to the director and found your reference images. How does one transfer the lighting to one’s own film?


The prerequisite is to understand light: There is no light without shadows.

This is a still from a short film called Singular. This is the closing shot. We are shooting top down on the woman taking a shower. This is a simple shot and even easier to light. When we look at an image we don’t just see light contrast, we see color contrast. So do understand how to light this image we should subtract the color and bump the contrast.

We are now left with an image without any ambient and nothing but the key/fill ratio.

Where is the light coming from? Imagine a sun dial. When the sun wanders across the sky the shadow of the dial moves. The shadow is very crisp. That’s because the sun is a pin point source. What would happen if you used a soft source with a sun dial? The dial would be hard to read. The shadow of the dial would become soft and depending on the size of the soft source it might even disappear altogether.

Distance and size of the source relative to the object it is lighting can be deciphered by looking at the shadow.

Take a look at the face again. There are shadows in the eye cavities and on her cheeks. To her right her shoulder is in darkness. But the shadows are very soft and not entirely dark.

Result: It’s a soft source, about the same size as the actor, off to camera left, slightly behind the actor. The rest is ambient by either the room itself or the spill from the soft source.


This is a still from a commercial I shot. I upped the contrast and made it black and white.

What can we see by reading the shadows?

The guys face is in the dark, her right side is as well. Her nose shadow is almost entirely nonexistent. This must mean her fill light is coming from camera left and hitting her face frontally. This is supported by the fact that the guy is getting a similar soft light on his neck. When we look at the shoulder of the girl we can see the creases of her clothing are black and the shadow the fabric is throwing is sharp. This means there must be a hard source to camera left. However, the source is wrapping around the talent. So it's most likely a smaller soft source.


How about one more? This one’s a little more complex. This is from a music video I shot last year in a dinky Berlin club.

Removing the color on this still wouldn’t be a good idea, since we have a couple different light sources and the practical in the background seems to be giving off light. It’s apparently reaching all the way to the guy on the left. Which I can say was not the case, we rigged some lights above and enhanced the throw of the practical. Always ask yourself: Could a practical really be the source of that light? Often a practical is only there to motivate, but not the actual sources.

The shadows on our talent is redish in color. This means there must be a very soft redish light source on camera right. The practical in the back could never reach around. Taking a look at the shadows in her face tell us her key is coming from slightly behind her to camera left. But it’s not the hard light source hitting her shoulder. It’s softer seeing as it shadows fade out.

The full setup for the tracking shot.

I hope this makes things clearer. To recap, we need to look at the shadows to read the direction and texture of a source. By reading the color we can separate light sources. Is a practical realistically able to produce the light we see or is it an enhanced light?

Based on our detective work we now have a list of the light qualities used to make the look. What lights or techniques you use to achieve these qualities is up to you and the location you are working in. What might work in your reference, might not work on set.

It’s not important what lights were used, but what type of light sources: Direction. Soft or hard. Large or small. Color.

Lighting diagrams only teach techniques, not how to light.

Did you get something out of this post? Maybe you are still unclear about a certain aspect? Feel free to drop me an email: