Cinematic Lighting Terms and Concepts (Kodak)


The terms and concepts detailed below are from this article by Kodak: Lighting – KODAK Motion Picture Film (PDF)


  • Naturalism – Naturalism follows the logical positioning of light sources in a scene and is often referred to as motivated lighting. For example, when two people are photographed facing each other in an exterior daylight scene, and one person is backlit, the other person should be in full sunlight.
  • Pictorialism – Pictorialism allows the use of light angles that violate Naturalism’s logic for artistic eDect. Though not realistic, both people might be backlit simply because it looks better.
  • Ambient light
  • High-key – High-key lighting is predominantly bright and allows few dark areas or shadows within the scene. This kind of lighting features strong illumination on the subject and often an equally exposed background.
  • Low-key – Low-key lighting enhances depth by using contrasting tones of highlights and shadow. Only a few areas are lit at or above key, resulting in more shadow areas. This ratio creates the low-key effect.


  • Intensity – Light can range from intense (sunlight) to subdued (match light). We measure intensity in units called foot-candles, which define the amount of light generated by a candle flame at a distance of one foot. Generally, we discuss different intensities of light in quantified terms of stops.
  • Color – Light has a color balance, or bias, which is dependent on the source (daylight, tungsten, etc.).
  • Quality – Hardness (directness) or softness (diffuseness) of the light is referred to as quality
  • Angle – The angle of the source, relative to the reflective object or subject, affects intensity and quality.


  • In exterior daylight settings, we may have too much light filling our subject. To compensate, we often use a technique called subtractive lighting. We use negative fill, which is the removal of some of the quantity of light to control shadows of varying densities. Additive lighting is probably more familiar. When we add light, we often use electric lamps. But we can also use reflectors, bounce boards, and other tools to redirect light so that it falls on the subject. In so doing, we add light. Cinematographers typically combine the techniques of additive and subtractive lighting in order to control and manipulate a scene’s contrast.


  • Modeling – When we introduce a level of contrast, we create the illusion of the third-dimension. That illusion is called modeling.
  • Stops – The degree to which we execute modeling is called the contrast ratio. We express that ratio in terms of stops
  • Key side – The side of the face nearer the light is the key side.
  • Fill side – The side of the face away from the light, the dark side, is known as the fill side.
  • Contrast Ratio – The difference between the key and the fill, expressed in stops, is the contrast ratio. The fill light is always the “1” in the ratio. Conventional contrast ratios are applied to relatively small areas, primarily people.


Light output from a direct source travels in an aligned, focused path. That light is known as hard light. Light output from an indirect source travels in a non-aligned, diffuse path. That light is known as soft light.


The key light is often the main source of illumination in a scene. Its technical purpose is to produce a level of light that will permit proper exposure. The side of the subject nearer the light is the key side; the light that illuminates it is known as the key light. The side of the subject away from the light, the dark side, is known as the fill side; the light that illuminates it is known as the fill light. The fill light is the source that illuminates the shadow areas—we “fill in” the shadows. Its technical purpose is to reduce contrast. The side of the subject that is opposite the key is called the fill side. The back light is the source that lights the side of the subject opposite the lens. We use a back light to separate the subject from the background and to enhance the feeling of depth.


So that the cinematographer remains in control of the project’s look—day or night, interior or exterior, a variety of materials are used to diffuse, diminish, soften, and spread light beams. Dense diffusion material generally has greater light scattering properties than less dense material. Reflector board, typically foam core and bead-board, is often positioned to bounce light where needed. Scrims, usually made of metal mesh and mounted to the lights, can be used to reduce the intensity of light. A single scrim cuts the light by half a stop; a double scrim cuts light by a full stop.


  • LCD screen – Think computer screen or a television
  • Florescent – The kind of lights that appear in a school or office building
  • Moonlight – Not actually light from the moon, but light that has been reflected off the moon from the sun
  • Tungsten – Professional lighting, warmer light around 3200 Kelvin
  • LED light – Light Emitting Diode. Individual LEDs are usually pretty small, but many of them can be used for a fill light.
  • Standard incandescent light bulb – The lightbulb that’s probably in one of your lamps, warmer light
  • Candle light – A small candle flame. Usually orangish in color
  • Match light – An even smaller flame
  • Three point lighting:
    1. Key light – Main source of illumination
    2. Fill light – Contrast management with light from the opposite side of the key light
    3. Back / Kicker / Hair light – Background separator
  • Direct light – Light output from a direct source travels in an aligned, focused path
  • Hard light – Light from a direct source
  • Indirect light – Light output from an indirect source travels in a non-aligned, diffused path
  • Soft light – Light from an indirect source
  • Defined shadows – Shadows that can be very clearly made out
  • Softer edge shadows – Shadows that cannot be made out too well
  • Diffusion – Filter sunlight with diffusion. Diffusion material such as silk or grid cloth can be stretched over a frame and mounted on stands to cast a diffused light over the entire frame. This softens shadows and reduces contrast
  • Specular highlight – A specular highlight is the bright spot of light that appears on shiny objects when illuminated (for example, see image at right) – Wikipedia
  • Soft box – is a type of photographic lighting device, one of a number of photographic soft light devices. All the various soft light types create even and diffused light by transmitting light through some scattering material, or by reflecting light off a second surface to diffuse the light – Wikipedia
  • Bounce, bounce card, reflector – Something to create a source of diffused light
  • Ceiling bounce – Using the ceiling to bounce a light around a room
  • Front light bounce – reflectors in front of the subject
  • Barn doors – Control width of the light
  • Gelatin filters – is a transparent colored material that is used in theater, event production, photographyvideography and cinematography to color light and for color correction – Wikipedia