May 15

Dramatic Lighting Tips for Film and Video Making

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

Dramatic lighting

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.

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.

male talking head shot

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.  The man in the picture above has a slight shadow on the right side of his face.

If your key light is significantly brighter than your fill light, you automatically achieve this affect.

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.

video production light kit
A professional light kit gives you control over things such as the level of diffusion, shape, and direction of your lights, as well as color temperature.

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.

barn door on video light
Barn doors are used to help direct and shape light.

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.

This photo from The Wizard of Oz is a good example of using dramatic light on the background to create a mood, but using different lighting on the actors.

Wizard of oz movie dramatic lighting.

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.

Often, color gels are used to help correct the color temperature of the light, to make different sources of light blend and not create coloring mistakes.  The picture below shows blue and orange color gels, which are commonly used for that purpose.  Blue matches sunlight.  Orange matches tungsten.   Other times, color gels are used for decorative purposes, so they will be colors like red, pink and purple.

colors gels laid out on a table
Gels used with a lighting fixture for color correction

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.

cat picture dramatic lighting


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 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 backlight it, it will barely show.

example of backlit smoke
The misty smoke in this image would not show without sufficient backlight.

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” in part because the lighting was brilliant.  Of course, if you light like Orson Wells and you can’t let your actors so much as twitch or the lighting is no longer perfect.

citizen kane movie poster

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


  • In your own words, describe the basic differences between how dramatic lighting looks compared to  nondramatic lighting.
  • As the director, why would you want to include dramatic light in your production?  Why might you want to avoid it?
  • Name 3 ways to achieve more dramatic lighting.



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