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Why filmmaking needs lights

If you have ever been on a film set you will surely have noticed just how bright film lights are. To an untrained eye, mainstream film sets look drastically over-lit. Why are lights used in filmmaking? Surely if we want the film to look natural we should just turn up on location, set up the camera and shoot. Instead, we take enormous care to use film lights, which cost money and take ages to set up.

The reason for which lights are necessary in filmmaking is that film, and to an even greater extent video, does not respond to light the same way our eyes do. Specifically, film and video see things in a much more contrasty way. In other words, they cannot cope with the lighting contrast of real life: if you shoot a scene without artificial lights, either the shadows will go completely black or the highlights will go completely white. All of this means that if you want a scene to look natural, ironically the only way to do that is to have enough light to make film see the scene the way our eyes see the scene.

In any case, there is more to cinematography than simply making the actors visible and photographing them. For top results, the mood of the film must be carefully crafted with lighting, amongst other things. Not to mention the fact that there are many situations in which natural light will not result in exposure at all. For example, there is no way you can do an exterior night shoot without lights, even if there is a full moon.

There are other considerations I could make. For example, it has been noticed by many filmmakers and filmgoers that the best films present a heightened interpretation of reality; in other words, films that touch our hearts tend to offer a world that is “more real than real.” This is simply a way of saying that they are not bland. Presenting an enhanced view of reality involves using highly stylized lighting.

One of the biggest myths is that shooting video requires fewer lights than shooting on film. This is completely incorrect, because film can handle a much larger contrast range than video, and therefore suffers less if the lighting is excessively high-contrast. Video, on the other hand, has enormous problems looking even remotely decent when the lighting is not perfectly fine-tuned in such a way that the brightest spot in the scene it is no more than three stops hotter than the darkest point in the scene. Therefore, ironically, film is in theory the best choice when there is little or no control of the lighting, but the impressive lighting set-ups used on 35mm shoots has intimidated people into thinking that celluloid needs more light than video. The opposite is true.

The next time you have the pleasure of visiting a film set remember that things look flat and over-lit because they were lit for film, not for the human eye; the image will have much more texture, depth and contrast when you see it on celluloid on the big screen.


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