17 Lighting Terminologies That Every Filmmaker Should Know

Here are a few of the lighting terminologies that every filmmaker and cinematographer should know about.

Key Light:

The dominant or main light in the scene. The “key” illuminates the surface. Generally, the key light is the brightest light in the set-up.

Fill Light:

While key light lights up the subject, it also casts the shadow. Sometimes, we may want to keep the shadow – but most of the times, we need to get rid of those shadows. The fill light fills in the shadow, not lit by the keylight.

Lighting is sometimes described in terms of the “key/fill” ratio.


Light that hits the person or object from behind or above.

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3 Point Lighting:

The above 3 lights (key, fill and backlight) together form the 3-point lighting set-up, which is the standard method used in the movies and shows. Even in photography, 3-point is among the first lighting set-ups that beginners photographers learn.

3 Point Lighting - Key, Fill, back Light
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A kicker is the light from behind that grazes along an actor’s cheek, on the fill side. Often a kicker defines the face well enough that a fill is not even necessary.


A light that comes from the side, relative to the actors. Sidelight makes the subject look dramatic.


Light directly from above. The word can also be referred to a flag that cuts off the upper part of a light.

Quality of Lighting:

In terms of the quality of the lighting, there are 2 terminologies that we need to know:

Hard Light:

Light from the sun, or small lighting source that creates sharp well-defined shadows. Hard light makes the subject look dramatic (hence, used as a sidelight). The hardness of the light depends of 2 factors:

Light Source Size – smaller the source is, harder the light will be.

Distance from the subject – farther the subject is from the source, harder the light will be.

Soft Light:

Light from a large source that creates soft, ill-defined shadows, or no shadows at all. Soft light illuminates a larger part of the subject – hence used in commercials and such.

Ambient Light:

Light that just happens to be in a location; soft-overhead light that is sort of there.


Actual working light, table lamps, floor lamps, sconces and so on. Practicals are lights within the frame.


Part of the scene on the other side of the camera. Downstage is the side the camera is on.

High Key:

Lighting that is bright and fairly shadowless, with lots of fill light.

Low Key:

Light that is dark and shadowy with little or no fill light – use mostly in dark scenes.

Bounce Light:

Light that is reflected off something – a wall, ceiling, a white or neutral surface, a silk, etc.

Available Light:

Whatever light already exists at the location. Maybe natural light (sun, sky, overcast day) or artificial light (street lights, overhead fluorescents)

Motivated Lighting:

Where light in the scene appears to have a source, such as a window, a lamp, a fireplace and so on.