Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Secret To Great Lighting


One of the key elements to making your images look cinematic is in your lighting choices. Even if you have a great set and talent, if the lighting is flat and poorly executed, your images will not end up feeling cinematic regardless of what camera system you are shooting on. So how do you light cinematically? Well, I want to share a secret with you ...


The secret to lighting cinematically is deceptively simple: Stop updating your Twitter / FaceBook status, stop reading your email on your iPhone, unplug from the internet, and engage with the world around you. (I said simple, not easy ...) The more you spend time observing light as it occurs naturally, figuring out what you like about it and what you don't like about it, the more you will develop your eye. The stronger your skill for recognizing what looks good will become, and the better equipped you will become at lighting your sets cinematically.

Technology is a double edged sword. On the one hand, our iPhones pull us in, connect us to the internet and distract us to what is happening around us. But on the other hand, it is a very powerful tool if used well. I always carry my iPhone with me- even when I'm on vacation, or relaxing. (It's set to airplane mode during these times, but it is with me.) What I appreciate about always having my iPhone on me, is that I can take pictures at any time - and if you are around me for any length of time, you know that I do. Whenever I encounter a lighting scenario that speaks to me, I take multiple pictures of it to reference later, and draw inspiration from. I study these images to figure out what I like about them, and then figure out how to replicate it later.

A great example of this happened early this morning as I had my cup of coffee. As I sat at the table a ray of sun came through the window resulting in a lighting setup that spoke to me. So I sprang up out of my seat and took the following pictures:

Moments later, the clouds rolled in, as they do here in Oregon, and I was left with this:

It is the same location, but the upper set of pictures feels more cinematic to me- it speaks to the things I like in a well lit scene. While the lower set of pictures feels like what you see on most indy budget films. Had I not been paying attention to the lighting*, and had I not had my phone on me, I would have missed this opportunity, or forgotten what made the scene appeal to me. So always be aware of the light around you, explore and figure out what you like, and why you like it, so that you can replicate it later on set.


This is exactly how I came up with the lighting plan for the image that heads this article. I was in the kitchen late one morning and saw the sun raking through the window. I snapped some photos for reference and figured out what I liked about it. Then later, when I happened to be using my kitchen as a location for one of my shoots, I stole that lighting setup. I already knew what I wanted the look to be like, it was just a matter of doing the preproduction work of planning how to get there with the resources and crew I had available to me. (Which were very minimal.) If you would like to see how I executed this lighting setup, check out Lighting Alchemy: BTS Working From Home.

The other part of observing life and the world around you, is to pay attention to other peoples work, and other visual art forms. Go to your local art museum / gallery and hang out for a day. Watch movies that speak to you visually. Look though photo albums. And as you do so, start collections of reference images that you can study. Figure out what is speaking to you in the image, and think about how you might be able to create that same look in one of your projects. And then think about how you might tweak that look to make it more of your own. As I said before, technology can be a very helpful tool if used thoughtfully. I use iPhoto to organize all of my reference images and things that inspire me. I then have these images on my iPhone and iPad to draw inspiration from at a later date. Here is a partial list of some of the albums I've created in iPhoto:


So get out there and live life and observe everything you can. The more you pay attention to what works, and to what doesn't work and why, the more cinematic your images will become. Try not to get hung up on the minutia of how a scene was lit, there are many different tools that can be used to get to the same end result. (That is one of the things I love about this field.) Focus on developing your eye, and the rest will come over time as you practice your craft.

*The irony of what I am saying and the fact that I have my iPad out on the table is not lost on me. Technology has its place. But it shouldn't dominate our lives so that we miss out on the world around us. :)


Until Next Time, Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer
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