Dramatic Lighting Tips

Dramatic lighting is fun for both the audience the lighting director, which might explain its extreme popularity in modern television and film production.

Nothing spices up a lackluster show more than dramatic lighting.  Even game shows feature dramatic lighting; it’s not just for horror flicks anymore!

Dramatic light is a subjective term of course, but usually, it implies:

  • Direct Light
  • Deep Shadows
  • Strangely Shaped Shadows
  • Lots of Contrast between Bright/Dark Areas of Your Shots.
  • Unusual Coloring
  • Light Coming From Unusual Angles
  • Misty Atmosphere

Extremely dramatic lighting is probably not something you want if your show is light-hearted, funny and meant to project a friendly atmosphere.  A show like that calls for the exact opposite: bright, diffused light that’s virtually shadow less.

However, just because you don’t need the mood found at Jason’s Screaming Death House doesn’t mean your video can’t benefit from a few dramatic lighting techniques thrown in with your overall, cheerful full illumination.

If you need intense shadows, you need direct light. Direct light is light coming straight at you with nothing to shade or bounce it. 

As the artist directing the lighting, you’ll no doubt need to control and shape all sources of light.  You do that with tools like barn doors, foil, creative bouncing, stencils, color gels, and reflectors.

A professional lighting kit with umbrellas, barn doors, and softboxes.
A professional lighting kit with umbrellas, barn doors, and softboxes.

Using video production lighting accessories like those pictured above, you can choose to:

  • Block the light’s path
  • Bounce the light
  • Color the Light
  • Shape the light beam

When you control the shape, color and intensity of the light, you design the lighting mood you want for your show.  You decide how unusual and extreme to make your dramatic lighting by deciding where and how you situate your lights.

The dramtic lighting in this shot looks fantastic.
The dramtic lighting in this shot looks fantastic.

A small bit of dramatic lighting greatly improves all interview lighting.  Shadow less is great for many things, but most interview shots benefit from a few well placed shadows, even if you want your subject to look friendly.  If your key light is significantly brighter than your fill light, you automatically achieve this affect.

Here is a common set-up with four lights.  A key light, a fill light, a halo (back) light and a background light.  Moving any of these lights to more extreme angles can make your lighting look more dramtic.
Here is a common set-up with four lights. A key light, a fill light, a halo (back) light and a background light. Moving any of these lights to more extreme angles can make your lighting look more dramatic.

Want more dramatic shadows on that face?  Slide your key light further to the side of your subject’s face.  Generally, a key light should be about 20 degrees to either side of your camera.  The fill light should then be about 30 degrees to the opposite side.  This puts subtle shadows on the face, enough to give proper definition but wouldn’t be considered dramatic.

Create dramatic lighting by placing your key light at a 45 degree angle, or even further from the camera.  Side lighting like this will definitely be more dramatic.

Here is a light with a barn door attached.  A barn door is a standard lighting tool to help direct the light beam.
Here is a light with a barn door attached. A barn door is a standard lighting tool to help direct the light beam.

Another method to achieve dramatic lighting is to lower your light stands so the light comes in from an unusually low angle.  Generally, light stands are raised to a neutral position, slightly above eye-level.  Placing your lights at this height makes it look “natural” as we are all used to light coming from above.

Deviate from this neutral position and you will begin to add dramatic effect.  Light coming from below eye level is one of the easiest ways to achieve a dramatic effect.    Try lowering the light stands down to their lowest collapsible point and aiming the light upward.

Another way to make your lighting appear dramatic is to put extreme shadows in the background, even if you light the person’s face evenly.  Merely projecting jagged shadows on the background will make the whole shot look spooky, but your subject won’t get offended because of that shadow that makes his nose look like a giant, lumpy potato.

Add some color gels to make the light any shade under the rainbow.  You don’t need to use as much icky fake blood in your horror movie if you’ve got deep cherry color gels on your lights.  Color gels are heat resistant plastic sheets you clip in front of your light.  They come in all colors and are a good, inexpensive way to make your lighting more professional looking.

Use barn doors to direct the light where it will create the longest and most dramatic shadows.  Barn doors help you shape the light so some part of your shot will be very dark and other parts will be very light.  This contrast is what you want for dramatic effect.  Expose for the brighter sections and let your shadows be intensely dark.  The best shots that give the viewer overall impressions of darkness are actually quite bright in some areas of the shot.  Other parts of the shot are in complete blackness and overall, the viewer sees the shot as dark.  You don’t want 100% of your shot to be dark because then the viewer can’t see anything.

Albert the kitty looks dramtic with deep shadows.
Albert the kitty looks dramatic with deep shadows.

CREATE A MISTY ATMOSPHERE

Mist automatically creates a dramatic effect and can easily be achieved with fog machines sold for Halloween.  I wouldn’t recommend messing with dry ice; it’s too hard to handle control and the fog tends to just sink to the floor.  A cheap fog machine is a lot easier to control, although that smoke also tends to hover on the floor.  (Have someone off camera fanning the fog gently.)  If you ever video tape any fog, smoke, dust, or rain, remember that those must all be back lit to show well on camera.  Place a light behind the fog or smoke and point it straight into the fog or smoke.  If you do not back light it, it will barely show.

For an example of the best of the best in dramatic lighting, watch the 1941 movie Citizen Kane.  That made so many lists of  “Best Movies Ever Made” mainly because the lighting was brilliant.  Of course, you light like Orson Wells and you can’t let your actors so much as twitch or the lighting is no longer perfect.  The actors in older movies are so stiff modern audiences snicker and think only old geezers think a movie like Citizen Kane is worth watching.  Yup, the lighting is exquisite, but modern audiences are used to shows that manage to make the lighting awesome without restricting the movement of actors so much.

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips

Lorraine Grula

Internet Video Gal


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Lorraine Grula


Lorraine Grula enjoyed a fast-paced, multifaceted career in the television and video business, producing, shooting, writing, and editing documentary-style videos in both news and corporate settings. Later, she got to teach media and video production in two high schools, which then morphed into instructional design and corporate training. Lorraine is now dedicated to sharing her vast knowledge with others who wish to learn the art of video making, with an emphasis on storytelling and creating professional-quality videos for the internet as simply, yet creatively as possible.

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