How To Create The Softest Hollywood Lighting Setups

Soft lighting is defined as a type of light that is bright but balanced, with few harsh shadows. Under mild lighting, the transition between light and shadow is noticeably smoother and more gradual. If your subject is bathed in soft light, there will be few to no shadows on their faces. And, if a shadow exists, it is not as dark as it is with sharp light shadows. In this article, I will show you how to create the softest Hollywood lighting setups.

What Is Cinematic Lighting?

Cinematic lighting is cinema lighting that generates a sense and has a distinct aesthetic. It’s the lighting we see in movies, whether they’re high-budget or indie. While the word “cinematic lighting” is not an exact phrase and is very subjective, there are specific lighting techniques that often result in this aesthetic.

Cinematic Lighting Cover Image

Emulating lighting styles from renowned paintings, such as Rembrandt’s, or opting for a “chiaroscuro” effect, will result in cinematic lighting. Playing with lighting ratios inside the frame is frequently the difference between dramatic lighting and flat or monotonous lighting.

Lighting your topic to be somewhat brighter than your background draws your attention to the subject. Also, if the subject is a face, lighting it from behind, opposite the camera (also known as upstage lighting) helps to define the person’s face as the shadows fall towards the camera. There are several sorts of cinematic lighting for movies that you may use to get the desired atmosphere and shot.

Film Lighting TechniquesPlan Out Lighting

Lighting in cinematography and movies is quite similar to the lighting in photography. Many of these methods may be familiar to you, especially if you’ve done any studio photography in the past, but it’s important to understand how they can uniquely aid filmmakers in generating diverse moods and atmospheres in every scene.

It’s also worth noting that because these approaches aren’t black and white, many of them can take the shape of other cinema lighting techniques. What important is that you understand what each is excellent for and can use them to achieve your cinematic goals. The many styles of lighting in movies are as follows:

Key Light

The key light in any scene or photograph is the brightest, usually overhead. It’s important to know your lighting crew’s arrangement of lights so you can be sure what kind will work well for each situation.

However, just because it’s your “primary” light doesn’t imply it needs to be facing your subject all of the time. To create a darker tone, you may set your main light wherever, even from the side or behind your subject. Just keep it away from the camera or right next to it, since this will generate flat and direct lighting for your subject.

Limit Bad Lighting

This method, as the name implies, is used to “fill in” and erase the dark, gloomy regions created by your primary light. It is notably less powerful and positioned in the opposite direction as the central light, allowing you to give depth to your picture.

Because the goal of fill lighting is to minimize shadows, it’s best to set it a bit further away and/or diffuse it with a reflector (located roughly 3/4 opposite to the key light) to generate softer, more evenly distributed light. Many scenarios work effectively with only key and fill studio lighting because they offer obvious depth and dimension to any item.

Back Light

Backlighting is utilized to produce a three-dimensional scene, therefore, it is applied last in a three-point lighting configuration. This likewise faces your subject, but a bit higher from behind to isolate it from the background.

As with fill lighting, disperse your backlight to make it less powerful and cover a larger area of your subject. For example, in mid-shots of people, you should light up their shoulders and the base of their neck rather than simply the top of their head. If you want to create a silhouette, you may utilize this approach without the key and fill lights.

Fill Light

Side lighting, as the name implies, is used to illuminate your scene from the side, parallel to your subject. It is frequently used alone or in conjunction with a dim-fill light to create a dramatic atmosphere or “chiaroscuro” lighting. To get this look, your side light should be powerful enough to generate significant contrast, and your lighting should be low-key enough to show the texture and emphasize the features of your subject.

To maintain the dramatic appearance and feel of a scene when utilized with a fill light, reduce the intensity of the fill light to 1/8 of that of the side light.

Practical Lighting

The use of regular, functional light sources such as lamps, candles, or even the television is referred to as practical lighting. These are typically included on purpose by the set designer or lighting crew to create a dramatic evening setting. They may also be utilized to provide subtle illumination for your topic.

However, practical lighting is not always simple to work with since candles and lamps are often insufficient to illuminate a topic. A concealed, supplemental motivating light (more on that later) or dimmers fitted in lights to regulate the intensity of the light can be employed.

Background Lights

Background Lights is the process of actually bouncing light from a bright light source onto your subject or scene using a reflector or other light-colored surfaces, such as walls or ceilings. This results in a larger, more evenly distributed region of light.

Bounce lights, when utilized correctly, may be used to generate a significantly softer key, fill, top, side, or backlighting, especially if you don’t have a diffuser or softbox.

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Soft Lighting

Soft light does not relate to a specific lighting direction, rather it is a method. Soft lighting is used by cinematographers for both aesthetic and situational reasons: to decrease or remove sharp shadows, generate drama, reproduce gentle lighting from outside, or all of the above.

Hard Lighting

When you need to create a hard light, such as that of sunlight or an unshaded bulb in your room which produces harsh shadows on objects around it; use one small enough so its source doesn’t overwhelm what’s being lit.

Hard lighting can be a great way to call attention and emphasize your main subject or specific regions in the scene. The harsh shadows will make them stand out even more, while also giving an intense outline that makes this type of photo work well for portraits.

High Key

High-key lighting is the type of light that creates a highly brilliant picture without any shadows, often approaching overexposure. This method was popularized in movies and TV shows throughout Hollywood’s classic era (1930s-1950), but it has recently become more common in advertisements for movie sets or video footage taken at live concerts because producers want to create an authentic vintage look with their productions while also staying modern enough not be outdated quickly by recent trends.

Motivated Lighting

Motivated lighting is used to simulate natural light sources such as sunlight, moonlight, and nighttime street lamps. It is also the type of lighting that complements real lights, allowing the director or cinematographer to adjust the intensity of coverage of the latter using a different light source.

Several approaches are employed to guarantee that your motivated lighting seems as natural as, such as the use of filters to generate window shadows and the use of colored gels to recreate the warm, brilliant yellow light from the sun or the chilly, dim bluish light from the moon.

Three Principles Of Light


The direction of the light or lights in reference to the camera is referred to as its direction. Backlight, top light, frontal, and profile are some frequent words for light direction. Several various light directions often work together to make up the whole lighting direction. If the light is strong enough, you can usually identify from which direction it is coming.


The intensity of the light refers to how much light is falling on any given section of your scene. The intensity can and frequently does shift from one portion of the frame to the next. It also differs from subject to subject. On set, you’ll frequently hear that there should be a 4-to-1 ratio from one side of the face to the other. You may also have a 3-to-1 ratio between the topic and the backdrop. This indicates that the light should be four times stronger on one side of the face than on the other, and three times stronger on the subject than on the backdrop.

Softness or hardness

The softness or hardness of the light, unlike its direction or intensity, is a more subjective attribute. Hard light is frequently employed to provide mystery and drama.

What Is Soft Light?

Soft lighting is a form of light that is bright but balanced, with few strong shadows. The shift between light and shadow is significantly smoother and more gradual under soft lighting. There will be few to no shadows on your subject’s face if they are bathed in gentle light. And if there is a shadow, it is not as dark as it is with harsh light shadows.

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Consider how things seem on a cloudy or overcast day, with clouds providing a diffusion between the sun and an item. The cloud diffuses the sun’s light, which illuminates the item from all sides, providing a gentle glow.

How To Create Softest Hollywood Lighting Setups

Diffusion, in a nutshell, alters the relative size of a light source. For example, if we placed a white sheet between your subject and lighting, the shadows would be considerably softer than if we merely struck the subject with the floodlight.

It is critical to underline the phrase “relative size” here. While a softbox may cast soft shadows on a human from 5 feet away, it will almost certainly cast harsh shadows on an automobile. There is a clear link between the size of your subject and the optimal size of your source light in ideal soft lighting circumstances. The size of your light source should grow in proportion to the size of your topic (if you want soft shadows).

Let’s go over a couple of techniques for getting softer light on stage.

Diffusion Paper

If you want to soften your lighting just a little, diffusion paper is a terrific alternative. The “paper” is typically fastened to a light’s barn doors. The impact isn’t striking, but it is subtle enough if you’re looking to soften up the overall look. To get the same effect, some individuals use wax paper instead of diffusion paper. While this may work with LED lights, you shouldn’t put wax paper on a tungsten light since the paper might catch fire.


On set, a softbox is exceptionally adaptable, serving as a superb key, fill, or backlight for your subject. The softness of the light created by a softbox is proportional to the size of the face. Larger softboxes, in general, generate softer light than smaller softboxes.

When hunting for softboxes online, be cautious. There are a number of bad softbox brands out there aimed at independent filmmakers. These lights are prone to breaking and have terrible color casts. If you’re just getting started, I recommend beginning with a simple Lowel softbox kit.


Umbrellas and softboxes are similar in that they are frequently coupled to a light source. Depending on the style of umbrella you choose, you may either shoot through it or bounce light off it onto your subject.

Some umbrellas are made of white fabric, while others are made of metallic material. Both are good and, depending on the material, and the distance from the subject can generate soft light.

China Balls

A china ball is a terrific place to start if you want to add highly even lighting to your scene. They’re dirt inexpensive, and the light they provide is exactly the right amount of soft. The only disadvantage of dealing with china balls is that they are difficult to install. However, if you’re prepared to work with them, they may provide you with wonderful soft light for a very low cost.


Silk is often put between your subject and your light source on a separate stand. Silks might be huge or tiny (up to 20 ft. × 20 ft.). On a film set, silks are usually referred to by the size of the metal frame that surrounds them. The most common sizes are 4×4, 6×6, 8×8, and 12×12.

If you’re working on a shoestring budget, you don’t have to buy a “professional” silk to achieve a comparable light effect. Most of the time, a white sheet or shower curtain suspended between your subject and the light source will suffice. When using silks, pack plenty of sandbags.

5-in-1 Reflector Diffusion Screen

Stop reading this post and go get a 5-in-1 reflector if you don’t already have one. A 5-in-1 reflector is the most important lighting tool for independent filmmakers. A light diffusion cloth is used on the interior of a 5-in-1 to cut light from a bright light source. They may be mounted on a c-stand or handled as needed. When I’m outside in direct sunlight, I frequently utilize these diffusion screens.

Bounce Light Off the Ceiling or Wall

If you’re working in a dull workplace or at home (or just forgot your softbox), you may always bounce light off the ceiling. This approach effectively transforms the entire wall into a large soft light. When I want to evenly light a space, I usually utilize this strategy. Just bear in mind that if your space has high ceilings, you’ll need bright light.

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If you’re shooting outside and want soft light, seek some shade. The shade will fully block off the main light source rather than disperse it. Instead of being illuminated by the sun, your subject will be illuminated by light bouncing off items all around you.

Blotted-out backgrounds are one thing to watch for while photographing in the shade. Because your subject will be out of direct sunlight, your backdrop will most likely be quite brilliant. Just keep this in mind when you frame your shot. Because your lighting may vary while shooting in the shadow, it’s preferable to film in the shade if you’re only shooting a brief scenario.


Another way to achieve soft light is to position your subject near a window. Windows emit the exceptionally strong and soft light, which photographers frequently employ to their advantage. When it comes to window light, filmmakers have fewer options because the light might shift throughout the day.

Color casts are something to keep in mind while photographing near a window. Lights in your house are usually tungsten-balanced (orange), but sunlight from a window is usually daylight balanced (blue). To prevent shooting in mixed illumination, consider purchasing a CTO daylight conversion filter to place over your window.

Book Lighting

Book lighting is another prominent lighting method that has been making its way across the movie world. Book lighting is essentially a two-diffusion method that always employs at least one silk. The key to successful book lighting is to avoid directing the physical light source towards your topic. Instead, your light will bounce from one source to another before hitting silk. As a consequence, there is a very faint light. If you want the softest light possible, employ book lighting. Keep in mind that this might take some time to set up.

When Should You Use Soft Lighting?

When employing soft light, you may create a more flattering image than when using harsh light. It will make your photo appear more genuine, warm, and pleasant.

A soft light arrangement is essential for filming a heartwarming scenario. It’s ideal for bringing out warmth in your subject, and if you want to give good news inside the scenario, this is the light configuration for you!

Learn to disperse your light sources, scatter them uniformly, and utilize them in the appropriate settings to enhance the mood and add another depth.

It truly will take your movies to the next level. Soft lighting combined with the proper photo composition will go you far. Experiment, but most importantly, find the ideal composition and lighting settings to bring the tale to life.

How To Convert A Hard Light Source To A Soft Light Source

You can find yourself in a circumstance where you’ve set up your light source and then decide you want to move in the opposite way. In this scenario, switching from one sort of light source to another is simple. By adding diffusing material between the lighting and the subject, you may soften a harsh source and modify the angle and light gradient.

You may also just connect a softbox to the light to soften it and make it a larger, more even source. You may even take a soft source that you’ve already set up and move it away from the subject to create a harsher, more concentrated light. You may also use reflectors, umbrellas, or a convenient wall to bounce the light around more to soften it and make it less directed.

How To Use Both Strong And Soft Light

Regardless of your years of experience, the most important studio photography advice is to be adaptable with your lighting arrangement. You may have a vision for the ultimate style you desire for the shot, but you may discover that the outcome appears quite different on set depending on the lighting circumstances. Prepare to experiment and play around because a combination of harsh and soft light may frequently bring out the best in a product.

Once you’ve mastered both harsh and soft light sources, you may blend the two lighting styles. For example, the set may have a general, overall softness to its light, but you may employ a rim (or accent) light to add mood or dimension to the image or to highlight certain parts of things in the frame. Mastering both forms of light gives you complete control over your lighting and the image that comes out of the camera.


To sum up, soft lighting is defined as a type of light that is bright but balanced, with few harsh shadows. Under the softest Hollywood lighting setups, the transition between light and shadow is noticeably smoother and more gradual.

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