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3 Ways to Modify Your Lighting for a Cinematic Look

Almost any light can create a cinematic image if you modify it correctly. Here’s an introduction to the three primary ways to modify your lighting.

Gaffers and their teams use three main types of modifiers to diffuse, block, and reflect light, but you can apply the same principles at a prosumer, indie, or no-budget level.

Here’s what you need to know to get started modifying your lighting.


Diffuse the Situation

The first category of modifiers diffuse light, making it larger relative to the subject. This illuminates a larger object evenly, or yields a softer quality of light.

Most film sets use a standard 4×4 frame covered with silk for diffusion — like Soft Frost to diffuse light — but you can also place the diffusion role directly on a C-stand arm and unroll as much as you need. A no-budget method might be to place a shower curtain or other piece of translucent plastic on a lighting stand to create what’s called a T-stop or T-bar.

For more on diffusion, check out these articles.


Negative Fill

The next category of light modification is blocking lighting — reducing it or taking it away completely. Traditionally, you do this with a fire-resistant material called Duvetyne. But, in the era of low-heat LED lighting, you can get away with black curtains — or even black builder’s plastic, which comes in a long roll for pennies per foot. It’s noisy in the wind, so it’s best to use inside.

For more on shaping light, check out these articles.


Bouncing Light

Bouncing Light

Bouncing light doesn’t have to mean a bunch of expensive equipment. Get out the bed sheets.

The final category of light modifiers is reflectors, or bouncing light. This is the art of getting light from where it is to where you want it.

The pro version might be a 4×4 mirror board, or a ClayCoat 8×8 on a frame. You can get the same effect, with less control, by using poly-board insulation material, either mounted to a stand or taped to form a V-flat.

These methods are by no means exclusive to each tier, and you’ll see poly-board and black fabric in the hands of almost every working gaffer. What’s important is that you understand the principles behind each type of modifier, and chose the right tool for the job.

For more on bouncing light? Check out this article.


Cover image via Marko Poplasen.

Interested in the tracks we used to make this video?

Looking for more on lighting? Check out these articles.

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