Film Lighting Made Simple | Dandan Liu | Skillshare

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Course Intro


    • 2.

      Class Project


    • 3.

      Why Light?


    • 4.

      Principles of Lighting


    • 5.

      The Key Light


    • 6.

      The Fill


    • 7.

      The Back Light


    • 8.

      Lighting Setup Recap


    • 9.

      Lighting Tools


    • 10.

      Quantity of Light


    • 11.

      Color Temperature


    • 12.

      Quality of Light


    • 13.



    • 14.



    • 15.

      Negative Fill


    • 16.

      Lighting 5 Step Method


    • 17.

      Lighting in the Real World


    • 18.

      Lighting Interview


    • 19.

      Insider Tip


    • 20.

      Lighting Closeups


    • 21.

      Final Montage


    • 22.

      Course Conclusion


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About This Class

“Simplicity is the eye of sophistication.”

-Oscar Wilde

Feeling intimidated by the lighting process as a filmmaker?

I don't blame you. From all the online lighting courses out there, it seems like complicated light set ups and a big crew are the only way to light beautiful shots. Well, after years of working as a professional cinematographer in the industry, I've come to realize this: 

Beautiful lighting can be simple

Hence, this course.

This course teaches beginners how to approach film lighting with simplicity & nuance, focusing on lightweight, affordable light set-ups for the independent filmmaker. Inspired by the gorgeous cinematography of the Netflix show Chef’s Table, this course is divided into three parts. First, it will train your eye to see the nuances of light. Second, it will teach you how to shape light in a streamlined 5 step method. Third, it will apply all of the lessons in the real world by bringing you into a food and interview shoot of a private chef in Italy.

So get ready to have both your eyes and tastebuds drooling, as you leave with all the knowledge and a complete roadmap on how to create beautiful lighting for your film. This course is intended for complete beginners, but taking my “Creating a Beautiful, Cinematic Documentary with Soul” or “Filmmaker Booster Class” will help contextualize the lessons.

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Dandan Liu

Filmmaker | Contemplative Creative

Top Teacher

Hi there! I’m Dandan, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker and contemplative creative living in Italy. 

As a self-taught filmmaker, I love foraging for unique stories around the world that illuminate the interconnections among us. I started making films while on a 4 year journey living in monasteries around the world. One film led to the next, and after persevering for many years, I found myself working full time on film crews and streaming my films on Roku, Apple TV, museums, trains, and airplanes. 

My highest work is helping others craft an authentic, creative, and mindful life- your unique work of art. I believe that knowing who you truly are is the foundation for flourishing in every area of life. So, I founded Unravel, a playful journ... See full profile

Level: Beginner

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1. Course Intro: No doubt, lighting is an essential part of beautiful cinematography. However, it is probably the most intimidating, confusing thing to learn in film-making. Most courses out there fail to provide a simple methodical approach, leaving you lost in a sea of lighting setups that are expensive, heavy, and take a whole lot of labor and time to set up. Well, after years of honing in my lighting craft, I discovered this, beautiful lighting for film does not have to be complicated. In fact, simple light setups, when done with a sensitive eye, can create beautiful, stunning images. This is a course that I've been dreaming to teach for a while because, unlike other lighting courses out there, this course focuses on the simplicity and nuances of lighting. Inspired by the gorgeous cinematography of Netflix's Chef's table, it'll bring you into the home kitchen of a private chef in Italy, where I'll be shooting an interview of Chef [inaudible] and closeups of her culinary creations. This course will be divided into three parts. First, we'll cover essential lighting principles, training the eye to see nuances of lights. Then, we'll go into lighting tools that can create and shape your light, focusing on equipment that is lightweight, easy to set up, and affordable. Finally, we'll apply all of these together in a real life food and interview shot in the all Austrian countryside, near Venice. Get ready to have both your eyes and your taste buds drooling as you learn how to approach beautiful lighting with simplicity and nuance. As with my other courses, all lessons are designed to be applicable and get straight to the point. Let's get started. Or as Italian say, [FOREIGN]. 2. Class Project: Your class project will be to take a food closeup or interview headshot, using the techniques and principles learned in this class. Then upload it to the projects page for review. 3. Why Light?: Before we even look at lighting, you maybe wondering why light. Isn't natural lighting enough? Well, I agree that yes, sometimes natural lighting is all you need. I believe there are three situations in which artificial lighting can enrich your film. The first two reasons are obvious. When it's too dark and you need to increase exposure levels, when you want to enhance the mood or themes of your story. The third reason however, is probably the most overlooked yet crucial reason. Understanding this is a game changer. Since film is a 2D medium, artificial lighting is a powerful tool to add more three-dimensional depth cheer seen by layering highlights and shadows which separates your subject from the background. In art history, there is a tradition called chiaroscuro, which in Italian is a term to describe the layering of light and dark to create a sense of three-dimensional depth and volume. Take a look at all of your favorite shots. You'll probably see that there is some chiaroscuro going on. 4. Principles of Lighting: I believe a great way to begin your lighting journey is to learn how to light for interviews, as this setup incorporates all the essential lighting principles that you'll need for any lighting setup, including more complicated ones for narrative films. In the typical lighting setup for interviews, you have three components; the key light source, the fill light source, and the backlight. All of these are used to separate your subject from the background, creating depth, enhancing the mood of the story, and creating a pleasing visual aesthetic. Let's go over these one by one. 5. The Key Light: In the interview setup, the key is the main light source or the one that gives the most brightness. As you can tell by these interview shots, all of them have a side that is more bright, which is a result of a key light source placed on the side of your interview subject. We placed this key to the side of this subject to create contrast. When this happens, you also create a dark area on the opposite side.This is where the fill comes in, which we will address in the next lesson. 6. The Fill: Since you created a dark area with your key light source, this is where the fill light source comes in, literally to fill in the shadows and counterbalance the key. This fill can vary in its intensity to create the look you're going for, we refer to the ratio of the key to full brightness as contrast ratio. Images with high contrast ratios appear to have a bigger brightness difference between the key side and the fill side, which creates a more dramatic look. If you want this look, you'd set your fill to be much less bright than your key or add what we be called negative fill, meaning you fill the other side with shadows instead of light. More on that later. On the other hand, images with low contrast ratios appeared to have more similar brightness levels on both the key and the fill. This flatter look is commonly used for romantic comedies and sitcoms. For documentary, I usually like something that falls in between, but it all depends on the story. 7. The Back Light: The last element of the interview lighting setup is the backlight, in which you shine a small light onto the back of the subject to illuminate a bit of their hair and shoulder edges. This emphasized outline was really popular back in the days, but now there seems to be a trend where the backlight is very minimal. 8. Lighting Setup Recap: Taken together, this light setup with its key, fill, and accessory light is called the three-point light setup. However, don't get too caught up with the technical's of this lighting setup, because it's really the principle behind it that matters. Varying different intensities of light to layer highlights and shadows, which creates more depth to your image. As you'll see, how to create this depth will vary depending on your situation. In fact, I rarely use all three lights on my shoots. For example, in this shoot I did in Lisbin, I used lights already in the living room for the key, fill and edge. This light suspended over the table created a beautiful soft key for the face. The light coming from the windows created a nice edge separating him from the background. The darker area of the room created a nice soft contrast from the key. 9. Lighting Tools: Now that we have looked at the main principles of lighting, let's transition to talk about the tools that we use to light and shape this light. First, I will go over the lights themselves, then I will talk about the essential modifiers we use to shape this light. We will focus on the LED light, which is what most filmmakers almost exclusively use today, since they are the most lightweight, up - to - date, and quiet to use. They also don't emit that much heat that would otherwise pick your subject. 10. Quantity of Light: We measure the light's power by the maximum amount of brightness it can emit. The unit of measurement of this maximum brightness is Watts. For most purposes, I find that a 750 Watt light is more than enough to act as a key, where the main light of your setup. Note that for most of these lights, you can also dim them so you can use less light than their maximum brightness. I'll be talking about my own lighting kit later, so don't get too bogged with the numbers. 11. Color Temperature: As we've learned in our previous classes, color temperature is basically the color your light emits based on its wavelength, measured in Kelvin. For film making, lights come in two color temperatures. Daylight - balanced lights of 5,600 Kelvin, and tungsten balanced lights are 3,200 Kelvin. I usually buy daylight - balanced lights because they mimic natural outdoor light, and I can easily change the color temperature of them by using gels. 12. Quality of Light: Now that we have gone over the main physical properties of light, the power in watts and the color temperature in Kelvin, let's talk about the most important aspect, the quality of light. Which basically describes how the light falls on a subject or a scene. Lights can be hard or they can be soft, they can be spot focused and illuminate only one area or they can flood and illuminate the whole space. The way we control the quality of light is by using modifiers to shape the light, these modifiers fall into three categories; Diffusion, Focusers and Negative Fill. 13. Diffusion: Diffusion is basically used on every shoot because it's what takes off that artificial edge of light that makes it look more natural and soft. As you can see in this example, a common problem when you shine a light onto your subject, is that it looks artificial or what we call "sourcey". Another problem is that our light can create unflattering shadows. To remedy these, we add diffusion to our light to soften the light, taking the artificial edge off of it and remove unwanted shadows. In chef's table, the beauty of their lighting basically stems from many layers of diffusion, which creates what we call a nice highlight rolloff, meaning that the transition from highlights to shadows, is very gradual and smooth. Remember, nice highlight rolloffs are our secret to cinematic film-making. There are many tools for diffusion, but the main ones are an umbrella, a diffusion flag, a China ball, a soft box, and diffusion gels you can put over your light. 14. Focusers: While diffusion creates nice even lighting, focus source really give shape to the lighting by focusing the light into a particular shape or space. The most common tools to focus a light are barn doors, funnels, and spotlight mounts. 15. Negative Fill: This one is a bit of a paradox. One of the most important tools we use to create beautiful light is one that takes light away or what we call negative fill. As you can see in these examples, a negative fill is like the secret ninja in the lighting world. It adds more depth and dynamism to an image, but also prevents light from spilling into certain areas you don't want that exposed. The most common tools for negative fill are negative fill flags that any large piece of black paper or cloth will do. 16. Lighting 5 Step Method: Now that we know about the principles of lighting, the properties of the lights themselves, and ways to shape them, let's put it all together into a five step streamline method for lighting. Step 1, observe the ambient lighting of the setting, see what sources of light are already there and whether you could use them skillfully, are there windows that could act as your key light? Are there other small light fixtures which we call practicals, such as lamps, that could give a pop to the background and create more depth? Step 2, choose or create a good backdrop to place your subject. Step 3, set your key light and shape it, look for any ugly shadows that could arise which could be remedied with diffusion or moving the light position. Step 4, set your fill light or add negative fill. Step 5, set your backlight and decide whether you like the look. 17. Lighting in the Real World: Now I'm about to head over to Chef Trevizon home. Located in the olive and grape studded countryside near Venice. I'll be posting a PDF with the names of the lights in my lighting kit, which is focused on being lightweight, affordable, and high-quality. Let's head on over. 18. Lighting Interview: So here we are in Chef [inaudible] home kitchen. As you can see, it was an overcast day. So that rules out using a window for my key. The first thing I notice are my ambient sources of light. There are two windows here and one window to the side. All of these windows have muslin curtains, which I can use to diffuse light coming in. I start clearing out the space, making room for my equipment and removing any visual distractions. In the process, I discovered some limitations. These two antique tables are made of very heavy marble that are detached from their fragile wooden bases. I don't want to risk moving them, so I'm going to have to work around them. However, that's not a problem because I see that there is a nice interview spot that shows more fully her beautiful kitchen environment. I placed her on the spot noticing what the ambient light is already doing. As you can see, it's giving me a nice edge light from the window. Step three, set your key. So here I have two options for the key light source. I'm going to test for which one I like better. An aperture light panel with a soft box and an aperture 120 D with its soft box. I like using soft boxes as the diffusion because I find it's less equipment to set up than a traditional diffusion disk and stand. I'm first going to start with the smaller light panel, moving it around until it doesn't give me ugly shadows. Usually, you will find that this position will be a little to the side of your subject. Now, I'm going to add, make it a fill and see what that looks like. As you can tell, this little shadow on her face creates more of a sense of three-dimensional depth. Okay, so this is not bad, but I think we can do better. I'm going to switch it over to the bigger light, the 120 D with its soft box as the key light source. As you can see, the larger the light source, the softer the light falls. Compare this one with the previous one taken with the smaller light panel. You can see that her skin looks what we call creamier and it looks less sourcy. The size of reflection in the background is already a beautiful look, one in which I'd use for a commercial. I'd reduce the light [inaudible] on her jacket so her face stands out more. However, because this is a dark with the chef's table aesthetic in which the images are very soft and naturalistic. I'm going to tone this light down a bit, mainly on her jacket, but also her face by flagging her jacket off with negative fill. So if you shine a little light on her backside, you'll see that there's a nice edge created on her shoulder and also on her cheek to emphasize her cheek bones. However, I'm not a fan of the slope because I feel it's not very modern and is associated with documentaries from the 80s and 90s. If you look at the interviews in chef's table, you also see that they have a minimalistic edge. So I'm just going to use this minimalistic edge created by the window. I'm also going to try and add a candle in the background to create more pop and visual intrigue. I like it because it conveys the coziness of her kitchen. So there we go. We now have a nice naturalistic look where she pops more from the background and has a nice light gradient over her face with a touch of shadow on the fill side and beautiful catch lights in her eyes. So here is the before and after. There we go. See it's not as hard as it seems and we don't have to use all three lights. The thing is to take your time. Take advantage of what the ambient lighting is doing, and play around with your lights until you get a look you are happy with. 19. Insider Tip: Insider tip. If you find that you're not getting the look you want from the lights, try repositioning or shaping lights before adding more. Usually, the simpler you can make it, the better. 20. Lighting Closeups: Now I'm going to film some close-up shots of amazing plates to show you that these principles can be applied not just to interviews, but for most other shots. I'm filming this at night, so I have full control of the lighting. For the key light source, I chose to go with my favorite, the 120D with the light dome, because as you saw in the interview shot, it gives such beautiful soft light, which is a feature of chef's tables in metography. Here is a ball of burrata, which is a mozzarella filled with cream. I've kept the key light to the side, as with my other shots. Here it is without diffusion and here it is with. I'm going to add negative fill in the form of a folded piece of black paper on the table. See how this little shadow gives more depth. All right, there we go. With diffusion and negative fill, we've created a nice image with the chef's table aesthetic. 21. Final Montage: As you can see, the process for beautiful lighting comes down to this core principle; creating depth through the subtle piecing together of highlights and shadows, like a jigsaw puzzle. Although we've demonstrated these principles for shots and documentary, you can apply and elaborate the same principles in narrative film as well. I recommend going through your favorite films and watching how these lighting principles are being played out and elaborated upon. Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for, here is a little montage of all the plates that we've shot. Buon Apetito. 22. Course Conclusion: Congratulations for finishing this course. I hope that this course has demystified lighting process for you and left you with the understanding that beautiful lighting is all about nuance. Now, it's your turn to go out there and put these principles and lessons into practice as it's the only way to truly learn. Please share a still of your interview or close up shot on the course page for feedback and ask me any questions as they arise. If you haven't done so already, I invite you to check out my other filmmaking and editing courses on my instructor page, which I build upon each other to create a comprehensive filmmaking education. One I recommend after this one is, my color grading with vision course. Which not only teaches you the technicals of adjusting color, but also how you can create stylized looks for your images. Thank you so much for joining me on this delicious adventure. I'm sending you all my best wishes for your filmmaking journey.