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One Simple Trick That Will Improve Your Film Lighting

reverse key banner

“What’s this?!” I hear you cry sceptically,

“Are you going to offer some kind of Holy Grail of lighting that will instantly make my movies look better?!”


Well… actually, yes. Quite simply if you put into practise the information below your movies will almost immediately look more… well movie like. It’s a simple yet incredibly effective lighting technique that should change the way you place your lamps… forever!

So, what is it exactly that I’m eluding to? Why, it’s Reverse Key Lighting of course. Don’t know what that is? You’re in luck, read on.

First things first, let’s just make sure we’re all on the same level. For those of you who are unaware, the ‘Key Light’ is the main light that falls on the subject, hence the name. Pretty simple right? So the light that allows you to see a character’s face or the surface details of an object, that’s a key light. It can be soft and flattering, hard and sculpting, it can be under exposed or over exposed, but it’s job is to shed light on the focus of the frame. Let’s look at some examples from movies below…


Inception, Cinematographer Wally Pfister


Mission Impossible 3, Cinematographer Daniel Mindel


Skyfall, Cinematographer Roger Deakins


Skyfall, Cinematographer Roger Deakins


Revolutionary Road, Cinematographer Roger Deakins

Got it? Good. Moving on.

Now, take a look at those screenshots again. Notice anything in particular about the positioning of the Key Light? There’s continuity between all of those shots about where the Cinematographer has chosen to place their main lamp.

The point I’m getting to and the thing you’ve been waiting for is called:

“Reverse Key Lighting”

Remember that phrase, because I want you to implement it in all of your latest blockbusters. The term Reverse Key Lighting refers to the positioning of the Key Light; the technique involves placing the Key either slightly behind or at an acute angle to the subject, rather than simply letting it fall square on the face of your character. A simplified explanation (which isn’t always entirely accurate but works) is to avoid setting your key up “camera side”, i.e. don’t use the key to light the side of the actor’s face that is closest to camera, always aim to light the plane of the face that is furthest away from camera. As I said, this isn’t always an accurate description, but it will serve you well in most cases.

This does a number of things that make a face look more interesting to an audience, and both males and females benefit from this type of lighting. For Men, it accentuates their harder, masculine features, creating interesting shadows and a “chiselled” structure.


Road to Perdition, Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall

For Women, it is quite the opposite, the play of light across female faces (with perhaps a little fill) will flow, rather than jut as it would with Men, accentuating curving feminine cheekbones and jaw lines. It also has a narrowing effect, reducing the width of the face (i.e. – making them look thinner – which they’ll be very happy with!).


Meet Joe Black, Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki

Either way, for both male and female actors, it creates shadow and that means depth, interest and contrast, giving you an area of shadow along their face to play with. Fancy filling it in a little? Go ahead. Why not bring in a couple of backlights (or rim lights) opposite the key? Check it out.


Transformers, Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen

Lighting from camera side, also sometimes referred to as “the dumb side”, will make faces look a little flat. This is simply because the shadows that fall on the face, are less visible the closer the light gets to the camera.

Imagine shining a torch onto a football (or soccer ball for our American friends), then imagine lifting that torch to eye-height; the effect you’ll get is flat lighting, you’ll see barely any shadow falling on your subject, because all shadows will fall in line with their light source… in this case you!

flat lighting

Is it a sphere… or just a flat circle…

Now imagine getting your mate to hold the same torch, this time you walk off to the side of the football, what will you get? Long streaking shadows, descriptive, forming, sculpting areas of light and dark that tell you more clearly the shape of your subject. How interesting. Now apply that same technique to your filming and replace the torch with your key and think of yourself as the camera. Always find the most interesting shadows.

reverse key lighting

This is definitely spherical.

A Real World Example: 

Now, we all love Inception right? And, I’m not by any stretch of the imagination about to criticise a certain Wally Pfister for his awesome Cinematography on that film, but below are two screenshots from the film that help demonstrate what I’m talking about. The first, shows some reverse key lighting, look at the shadows, the depth, the interest, very nice.


Inception, Cinematographer Wally Pfister

The one below is lit more from camera side, due to the setup of the scene, but the lighting here feels more flat and less interesting – I’m sure that was the intention of Mr. Pfister, he knows what he’s doing and that’s how he wanted it, but it demonstrates how different an actor can look depending on the positioning of their main light source. However, this example also illustrates a clear point – always think about the effect of your lighting; don’t just use this technique for the sake of it, have a reason and purpose. Does it fit the scene? How will it tell more of a story? In this example we can see Mr. Pfister has done just that.


Inception, Cinematographer Wally Pfister

So there you have it, Reverse Key Lighting in a nutshell. It’s a nice technique that creates pleasing effects. Light a little differently and see how it impacts the aesthetic of your film. I hope you enjoyed this, thanks for reading guys.

Zand & Ell

Zand & Ell

Leave me a comment below – what do you think of reverse key lighting?


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1 Comment

Brilliant. Thanks for sharing this.

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