Welcome to the Lights Film School video tutorial on lighting on the “upstage” side of the camera. As filmmakers you’ll often be looking for ways to add depth and dimension to your images. One way to do this is to “light on the upstage side of the camera” – meaning the side away from the camera. This will mean that your shadows will fall towards the camera rather than away from the camera.
Before we begin let’s take a look at how this concept is used in cinema. Here we have a subject that is looking camera left with the majority of the shadow falling “towards the camera”.
Generally actors won’t break the “4th wall” and look directly at the camera. This means that one side of their face will be closer to the camera than the other side. The angles will often be very subtle, but you’ll soon find that one side of their face will be closer than the other, with only a few exceptions. For the purpose of demonstration we’re exaggerating the contrast ratio on our subject’s face but If we wanted to avoid such dramatic lighting we could always bounce some of the light back on our subject by using a bounce board or even just throw a rim light on him like “this” to give a better exposure to the downstage side of his face.
There are multiple ways you can keep your shadows towards the camera. You can achieve this look by working with flags, subject placement or light placement. But let’s start with the easiest setup. Let’s imagine we have one primary light source: A window. Because your can’t move the sun or the position of the window, this means you need to think of ways to position your subject and your camera in a way that will keep your shadows “towards the camera”. In our case, because we’re shooting in a black box studio and don’t have access to the sun, we’re using a couple of 650 watt lights from our “Arri baby blue kit” to throw some light through our curtains.
As usual, before we begin we’d like to show you our lighting setup for this shot. So let’s take you behind the scenes to show you how we setup and lit this scene.
It’s a really simple setup. We’re just using 3 lights. 2 behind the curtain acting as our subject’s main key light and 1 practical lamp hanging from the ceiling to give light to our background and seating area. So before we bring out our subject let’s light this scene.
Here is a wide shot of the studio before it’s been lit. Now let’s go to black and start to build our lighting from the ground up.
At this point you can see we’ve turned the lights on behind the curtains. We’re going to be sitting our subject on the bed so this light acts as our “key light”. The fabric the light is passing through acts as a sort of diffusion which softens the light.
Now let’s turn on our practical lamp. Notice it’s not positioned properly. We’d like the light to catch some of the flower and vase in an upcoming scene so let’s quickly reposition it so it highlights a more specific part of the frame… There. That’s great.
So that’s our scene lit. As you can see it didn’t take much!
Now let’s sit our subject in the scene. Remember that his key light is coming from behind the curtain. Just so you can see how we’ve done that we’ll zoom out so you can see behind the back wall.
Okay, let’s get back on topic. Now that we have the subject in the scene we need to find a way to position him. Since we want him to have nice side lighting on his face let’s position him so one half of his face is positioned towards the key light and one half of his face is positioned away.
Now let’s give him some action. Okay, now he’s reading a book. So we have our light positioned, our subject positioned and now we need to position our camera. Let’s give this shot a try.
This is really not a bad shot. We have a nice contrast ratio on his face, we have a strong sense of depth and a simplified colour palette. It’s not bad and it’s a perfectly usable shot. But let’s change our position so that the shadows on the left side of his face are directed towards the camera rather than away from the camera.
I like this shot much more. We still have our simplified colour palette, a strong sense of depth and nice contrast ratio, but now we have shadows that are positioned towards the camera rather than away from the camera.
Here is a similar shot with a slight variation in framing.
And here you can see all of our shots compared side by side.
Again, there are many exceptions to this rule, but you’ll often find that keeping your shadows towards the camera will give your shot more depth and a more interesting sense of dimension.