Basic Lighting Terminology

Kim Welch

Senior Member
Staff member
"The art of cinematography is the art of lighting and making that light tell the story." Stephen H. Burum, ASC

Basic Lighting Terminology

Ambient Light - The light already present in a scene, before any additional lighting is added.

Incident Light - Light seen directly from a light source (lamp, sun, etc).

Reflected Light - Light seen after having bounced off a surface.

Colour Temperature - A standard of measuring the characteristics of light, measured in kelvins and is important in that film and digital sensors are much more sensitive to color temperature than our eyes are. The scale takes its name from the scientist Lord Kelvin

Contrast Ratio - The difference in brightness between the brightest white and the darkest black within an image.

Key Light - The main light on the subject, providing most of the illumination and contrast. Many key lights may be placed in a scene to illuminate a moving subject at opportune moments.

High-key lighting -

Low-key lighting -

Fill Light - A light placed to the side of the subject to fill out shadows and balance the key light.

Back Light - A light placed at the rear of a subject to light from behind.

Hard Light - Light directly from a source such as the sun, traveling undisturbed onto the subject being lit.

Soft Light - Light which appears to "wrap around" the subject to some degree. Produces less shadows or softer shadows.

Spot - A controlled, narrowly-focused beam of light.

Flood - A broad beam of light, less directional and intense than a spot.

Tungsten - Light from an ordinary light bulb containing a thin coiled tungsten wire that becomes incandescent (emits light) when an electric current is passed along it. Tungsten colour temperature is around 2800K to 3400K. Also known as incandescent light.

Halogen Type of lamp in which a tungsten filament is sealed in a clear capsule filled with a halogen gas.

Fresnel - A light which has a lens with raised circular ridges on its outer surface. The fresnel lens is used to focus the light beam.

Incandescent - Incandescent lamps produce heat by heating a wire filament until it glows. The glow is caused by the filament's resistance to the current and is called incandescence.
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Roy H. Wagner ASC

Master Filmmaker
What is hard light in relation to soft light?
Basically, a light pointed directly at the subject creates a hard shadow whereas a soft light tends to be executed when the light is bounced back to the subject or directed through a softening material.
Thats the dictionary definition but I contend a hard light can be a soft light and vice versa.
if a soft light is near the subject it becomes harder. Why? The intensity of the light requires the lens to be stopped down. This offers a sharper/ harder shadow.
A hard light can be moved far away from the subject. The fact that the diminished intensity requires the lens to open to a wide t/stop makes the light softer.