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How to Create Dramatic Lighting for Your DSLR Film

Understanding the concept of dramatic lighting is a start, but theory only gets you so far. It doesn’t help unless you can use your DSLR to create compelling illumination. Traditional three-point light provides for a great staring point. From there, things get more interesting.

Film lights like Rembrandt

When you think of the most dramatic portrait lighting, it’s hard to not have the Dutch master topping the list. Characterized by an illuminated triangle under the eye of the subject, Rembrandt's style has become one of the most recognizable techniques in portraiture, and it also gives a nice touch to your movie.

Just place the key light slightly higher than the subject and off to the side, letting it bathe one side of the face in light. Since the bridge of the nose dips low near the eyes, some light spills over to the other side of the face and creates a triangle underneath the eye.

All it takes are a single light and reflector to add detail to the less illuminated side of the face.

Here are some aspects to consider:

  • Keep the triangle reasonably sized. Don’t make it too small on the face so that it looks like the eye up against a peephole. Or too big that it loses form. Another good idea is to never make it longer than the nose or wider than the eye.

  • Control the effect. This technique is altered by both the light source to subject distance and intensity of the light.

  • Use a reflector. While a face in shadow appears dramatic, it looks better when you “open it Up” a little to show some detail. You can either use a fill light, with about two f-stops less exposure, or by holding a reflector on the shadow side just out of shadow range.

Film the angles

How you position the lights makes a strong statement of your intentions. But that’s not always represented by basic lighting technique. That’s generally when the main light illuminates the subject above eye-level from an angle. Rembrandt lighting provides a creative device, but it’s not for every situation.

Consider the following:

  • Horror lighting: For a dramatic flair, try lighting the scene in the style of the old black-and-white horror films like Dracula or Frankenstein. Next time you see one of these classics, observe the eeriness of the lighting. Positioning the lights low and pointing them upwards often create an eerie, spooky look.

  • Light on the run: When the subject is moving through the scene, it’s not practical to set up a dozen lights when you can track them with one.

  • Backlit subject: If there’s enough light on the scene, use backlighting. It defines the subject with a rim of light.

  • Secret witness style: If you’ve ever seen a whistle-blower on a TV news program, you know that all you see is a bright background with a silhouette of the person. This is done with just a background light.

Simple green screen illumination

This one’s tricky. That’s because the intent of green screen illumination is to create even illumination for the background. But at the same time, the foreground lighting needs to show both shadow and depth while matching the tone of the keyed background.

Each situation differs based on the background and subject, but here are a few things to consider:

  • Make sure the green screen is evenly lit. You can eyeball it, but it’s probably better to use a light meter to be sure the corners and center are reasonably close in terms of brightness.

  • Study the background footage. Before attempting to light your subject against the green screen, assess the direction of light so you can match it with the subject. The angle, direction, and intensity of light should match closely.

  • Emulate the color of light for the subject. After figuring out the direction and intensity of the light needed for the subject, use a colored gel or change the white balance to match the color for both the subject and background.

Film with complementary color

Another interesting light effect happens when you exploit the contrast of colors on the scene.

Here’s a basic rundown of complementary color:

  • Blue/yellow: This most commonly occurs with the naturally lit twilight sky and warm artificial illumination like tungsten or sodium vapor lamps.

  • Red/cyan: Can occur when a low-quality fluorescent light is combined on the scene with either a warm tungsten bulb or a lighting setup with a red filter.

  • Green/magenta: Makes for an interesting contrast of color, although you need to manufacture this one with gels, at least on the magenta side. You can find green casts anytime when you encounter certain high-intensity discharge lamps.

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