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Using Practical Lights to Convey Mood

Logan Baker

Here are a few tips and tricks for using practical lighting to establish mood and set the tone for your next shoot.

Top image via Netflix.

Choosing the right lights for your shoot can be difficult. You have to consider the space you’ve chosen to shoot in, the size of your crew, and the budget you’re working with. While there are a million different ways to properly expose your image and light your subjects, there are a few helpful tricks that can up the value of your shot while saving time and money. A recent trend among filmmakers and DPs in television and movies has been to employ camera lights that serve the story while also aesthetically lighting the actors.

Mixing Colors

Using Practical Lights to Convey Mood — Mixing Colors
Image via Netflix.

One of the most recent examples of this technique comes from the popular Netflix series, Master of None. In the last episode of season two, the two central characters find themselves isolated inside an apartment as the tension builds in a classic “will they or won’t they” fashion. The lighting for this scene involves simple blue and red light bulbs on opposite ends of the frame. This might seem like an obvious choice for representing passion and loneliness, but the lights are also backlighting the subject, almost creating a vignette, while composing one of the most romantic and memorable shots in recent memory.

Using Practical Lights to Convey Mood — Vignette
Image via Radius TWC.

There are a few things to consider before choosing the color and type of light to use on the subjects on camera. You need to complement your actors’ skin tones and wardrobe with the appropriate lighting. Colorists can grade a project to a certain extent, but when it comes to complementary lighting on set, the results will speak for themselves. Just know that blue and orange, red and green, red and blue, and blue and yellow all complement each other, making your subjects pop.

One of the best-known DPs who adheres to this method is Benoit Debie, who has often used two opposing colored lights or practicals to light his actors on camera. His work often consists of heavy neon usage, so if you’re curious about mixing crazy colors in your shot, check out some of his work.

Using Neon Lights

Using Practical Lights to Convey Mood — Neon Lights
Image via A24.

A director who keeps coming back to using neon is Nicolas Winding Refn. The majority of his movies take place in the dark underbelly of society, whether that includes cannibalistic supermodels or underground boxing rings. These themes rely on practical neon lights to set the tone. Neon lights are a cheap and visually appealing solution in these situations. Consider location too when you’re scouting for your production; you can’t put a price on a lighting setup already waiting for you on set.

Using Practical Lights to Convey Mood — More Neon
Image via Radius TWC.

One of the masters of on-set practicals was Stanley Kubrick. Whether it was lighting characters with candles, christmas lights, or single-source lamps, the man was a master of setting ominous tones through lighting.

The recent John Wick films also make excellent use of creative lighting by employing practical neon (and LED) lighting and lens flares. Given the subject matter is usually very dark and intense, this decision to feature reds, blues, purples, and white lights makes for some pretty outstanding shots.

Using Practical Lights to Convey Mood — Practicals
Image via Lionsgate.

Practical Lighting

For a more in-depth look at practical lighting in general, Ugly McGregor dives into how to light an interior night scene with only lamps and candles in this quick video tutorial.

Practical lights can serve as purely aesthetic choices. If you decide to make use of practical colored lights for your next shoot, think about the colors, the emotion the scene calls for, and how the colors can complement the mood you want.


Have you used practical lights in the past? Let us know in the comments.

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