How to Light Any Subject: A Cinematography Tutorial

The world around us is a complex mix of reflective, transparent and neutral surfaces. Each of these surfaces don’t reflect light the same way as the other. That means as photographers we have to factor in the reflectance of each of these surfaces that we are photographing when lighting. Director / cinematographer Matthew Rosen shares some fundamental lighting rules for illuminating different types of surfaces.

There are two basic types of readable light: ambient and reflected.

Ambient light is the light that falls on a surface.

ambient lighting

Ambient Light

You read this light with an incident light meter.

reflected lighting

Reflected Light

Reflected light is reflected off of a surface and enters a camera. This light can be metered using the camera’s built-in light meter.

The world around us can be divided into three different types of surfaces: reflective, transparent, and neutral.

A neutral surface is anything that is not specifically transparent or reflective. It could be a face, a brick wall, or a chair—or anything else that fits the characteristics.

how to light reflective surfaces

A mirror or a transparent object does not react anywhere near the same way as a neutral subject does. A mirror, for example, reflects all of the light falling on it to a different direction. It may not necessarily be in the direction of the camera.

metering for reflective surfaces

Lighting a Reflective Object

The problem in a situation like this is that the camera will see that the mirror is underexposed while the incident light meter will indicate that the mirror is well-lit.

working with reflective surfaces

To counter the problem, the light has to be aimed at the place where the mirror is reflecting.

tackling different types of surfaces when lighting a scene

Although the mirror will be well-exposed, the light meter will indicate otherwise, because light is actually coming into the camera from somewhere else.

lighting transparent surfaces

Lighting Transparent Objects

With a transparent object, something like a bottle, this approach won’t work. As the bottle does not reflect light, lighting it with ambient light will be impossible.

how to light a transparent bottle

To light a transparent subject you have to light it so that the light comes through it. In other words, you have to use the technique of backlighting.

metering for a transparent bottle

However, you have to bear this in mind that since the bottle is lit using reflected light, an ambient light meter won’t work.

So, the key to lighting anything is to evaluate its surface type and meter accordingly.

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