Cinematic Lighting Starts with the Basics

Jul 01, 2021 at 06:15 am by Warlord720

We’ve all seen them. Those fantastical renders that look so real or cinematic they jump out at you and demand your attention. Transversely we’ve all taken great pains and time to create wonderful scenes full of life and nuance only to be stumped by lighting so poor it makes the entire scene look, not just bad, but terrible.

Sometimes these works never see the light of day and that is a shame as all artists have something to offer but they are too cringe-worthy to post. So much so your reputation would suffer if you published them anywhere.  While that may be true or just a conjured figment of your imagination the result is the same.

A lot of hard work never gets seen much less appreciated and just a few minutes here and there could solve that problem. Then you can showcase that hard work to anyone out there and feel good about it.

Lighting is indeed just one aspect of a good render, but it may well be the most important aspect. Forget the layout, the fancy modeling, and the drop-dead gorgeous landscapes as they are merely fluff compared to the substance of lighting.

First of all.. darkness breeds mystery. At the same time remember not all monitors or devices will playback at the same light level. Some screens will be darker, and you want the viewer to be able to easily see the scene and its objects. On the other hand, too much light and the mystery is gone… because you can see everything!!!

Basic and Default LightingLeft: Light sources above the bunks, emissive from the equipment on desk and wall screen. Right: Same scene flat lighting generally used when placing objects.

Dig out those tightrope shoes… this isn’t the first time you’ve had to wear them, and it won’t be the last. Nuance is tricky and hard to teach in some respects. Experiment if nothing else.

I have done many lighting tutorials for different applications over the years, after having learned from some highly experienced compositors (the make-or-break job on any production), they all start with the same blank canvas, just like a fine artist.

First, delete ALL of the lights including ambient lighting, and tone down or eliminate shiny reflections from objects. A little reflection is fine as long as it doesn’t affect the lighting of the scene. Some engines may amplify that reflection to cast light which is an old-school way of 3D lighting still in use. For our purpose, we just want a completely unlit scene.

Why? Mainly to see what happens each time you add a component to the lighting. This way you have one hundred percent control without having to guess why things are not bouncing right or still looking flat and unattractive.

There are many ways to light a scene such as customary 3-point lighting or lighting to achieve an effect or a look which may only be one light… in the closet or hallway even… to add atmosphere as that is another objective of lighting. While it may seem attractive to load up premade lighting that includes many features like point lights, spotlights, area lights, emissive object lighting (Global Illumination), and HDR … you may never figure out how they all interact with each other as the easy button method is a blunt force application to a nuanced task.

Scene with Basic Cinematic LightingBasic cinematic lighting. Not complete but a great starting point even though it borders on being too dark for some monitors.

If you go with 3-point lighting, even in a room visibly lit by one lamp, you will need the standard key, fill, and rim/backlight. The key light is generally the strongest and located at a 45-degree angle highlighting a focal point of the scene. The fill light is opposite the key light in most setups and fills/softens the shadows generated by the key light. The rim or backlight makes the object stand out from the background with a rim of light around the edges or part of the subject.

In custom lighting, you use any number of lights to mimic light sources such as lamps, ceiling lights, screen glows, and so forth. This doesn’t mean you can’t use a 3-point light system to highlight your subject it just means you aren’t tied to that concept alone. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  

As with the 3-point system start off with an unlit scene. No lighting of any kind… black screen in most cases. From here start adding an appropriate light source to items such as lamps, tv and computer screens, and so forth. DO NOT overpower the scene with a wide range (area) on a light unless it is a very bright light which in most cases washes out any nuance.

A table lamp shouldn’t light up an entire room… unless it is a very tiny room. A lot of lighting systems mimic the Inverse-Square law of light. Doubling the distance between light source and object illuminates a surface four times greater. The areas further away from the source grow darker. So, light a reasonable area with a device or lamp.

Final Render in Iray
Iray Render of stateroom scene.

Not every device in your scene has to be on… like a laptop but if it is… make it emissive and cast enough light to know it’s there. Again, add to the scene but don’t overpower it.

These are just the basics as volumes can be and probably have been written about cinematic lighting. This provides a foundation that can be built upon to finally turn all that hard work into renders that you are proud to post.

M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord, is an international award-winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director, and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years.  Now retired, M.D. is currently working part-time on writing and select character development projects. You can learn more about MD on his website


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