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5 Tips for Lighting Faces

Laura Beth Mar 03

Let’s Face It

When we think of iconic cinematography, we most likely think of textured, “graphic” imagery…  shapes, quality of light, a striking composition… actual people may or may not even be present in the shots!

Cinematographer Laura Beth Love Shoots "Tabloid Vivant"

Thus, it’s sometimes easy to focus on the “big picture” lighting and overlook the importance of the tiny details.  For me, faces have always been the most important.

Even on the tiniest budget with the tiniest lighting package, I usually find that I have to craft the faces separately of the rest of the scene.  In many cases, the faces might actually be my starting point for lighting design.

The biggest improvement to your “face lighting” will come through changing the way you think about lighting faces.

Woman vs. Man

A frame from "All About Lizzie"

A frame from “All About Lizzie”

I once had an actor tell me that he “learned long ago to ask to be lit like a woman.”  He meant that great care often goes into softening a woman’s face, whereas men are overlooked in the name of “ruggedness.”

Admittedly, when I first sat down to write about lighting faces, I imagined  two separate articles: men and women.  I was surprised to realize that my “list of tips” would be almost exactly the same for both, yet I still feel a fundamental difference in the way I think about lighting men and women.

A still from "Bound" (2015)

“Bound” (2015)

There is no physical or logistical reason for it.  The basic principals are the same and light always responds the same.  The issue is an emotional one, and it is a question of character.  The objective of lighting is underscoring the drama of a scene, and you can’t do that without acknowledging and creating differences between your characters.

One very basic, dramatic dynamic between characters is built in to the differences between a man and a woman.

To ignore that, is to miss an intrinsic opportunity to engage your audience and trade in on their lifetime’s worth of associations and experiences.

However, women aren’t always meant to look pretty, and men aren’t always meant to look rugged.  Sometimes they experience the same emotions, and sometimes they experience completely different emotions in response to the very same event.  As in all other aspects of filmmaking, we must take our cues from the characters and the story. 

With this in mind, here is a list of things you might choose to consider when lighting faces:


5 Tips for Lighting Faces


A frame from "The Magnitude"

“The Magnitude” (2013)

1.  Find His or Her Good Side.

Everyone has one; no one is perfectly symmetrical!   (And this doesn’t mean their other side isn’t still pretty great, as well.)  Finding an actor’s “good side” doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t shoot him or her from their other side, but it’s helpful information to have.

A frame from "Eve: Beauty and the Blade"

“Eve: Beauty and the Blade” (2008)


If you have a particularly long scene with an actor, one that might hold on his or her face for a very long time, this could be worth considering during blocking.  We’ve all heard stories of actors who insist on ONLY being shot from their “good side.”

Don’t TALK about her good side, just find it. 

2.  Observe.

A frame from "Mother's Cure"

“Mother’s Cure” (2014)

How does he or she move? Does she naturally tilt her head one way or another, while speaking?  Does she tend to rotate her shoulders to the left or right?  Does she respond to your suggestions?  Consider these observations when lighting your actor.

Either the actor will need to adapt his or her body language to the design of your lighting, or you will need to design your lighting around his or her body language.

Some actors can hit very precise marks and they know their face and lighting angles very well.  By contrast, even experienced actors might not understand lighting if they’ve been on shows with general, soft lighting schemes, or just never worked with a Director or DP who really “painted with light.”

A frame from Thunderland"

“Thunderland” (2015)

Different strokes for different creative visions and experience-levels…

Bottom Line:  If you design lighting that only works for a body positioning that she can’t remember to hit, then it’s not going to look like the lighting you designed.  You don’t get to hold up a sign at the screening that says, “Yes, but if she had turned like this it would have been beautiful.”

3.  Educate.

Promo for "Angel's Piano Bar"

“Angel’s Piano Bar”

New actors and actresses may not yet be aware of their best angles, or how to find their light, how to feel the light in their eyes,  and they may not be experienced in having to adjust their posturing to remain flattering for camera and lighting, while still looking natural.  Even some experienced actors and actresses have very little awareness of how subtle adjustments in their movements can dramatically affect how they look in a given lighting set up. (For example, flat “tv lighting” is very forgiving, and requires relatively little awareness of this kind of subtlety.)  Sixty years ago, it was much more common for actors to have these camera-aware skills, and they are so valuable!

If your actor has a hard time finding his light, take a little time at the beginning of the shoot to offer him tips and explain why it is important.  A little “education time” will pay off for both you AND the actor, as he gets the hang of it.  This is something that the Director and DP can tackle, either separately, or together.  (Every Director-DP dynamic is different.)

4.  Fall In Love a Little.

A frame from "Jailbait"

“Jailbait” (2014)

Don’t be a creeper, but most of the time, you need to to make sure she looks good.  Or he looks good. (Or bad, if that’s part of their character… but… we’re talking about love right now.)
Try not to get so bogged down by the burden of “doing your best with time and resources” that you forget how the audience is supposed to feel.

 Remember to step back and look at your actor or actress from the audience’s perspective.  If the audience needs to fall in love with him or her, you need to be able to “fall in love” a little too.  

Again, you aren’t actually going to ask for anyone’s number here, this is about being connected to the feeling you are trying to create within the audience.

If she doesn’t look good, fix it.  If he doesn’t look good, fix that, too.

5.  Research.

A frame from "The Love Trilogy"

“The Love Trilogy”

Is he or she an experienced actor? Even if they have a reel or headshot…  Study their past films and photos online to learn their faces.  Round or chiseled? Deep set eyes? What is the texture of her skin? Scars?  Wrinkles?  Does he have signature body language, or does it change with each role?

This is also a great way to see what different lighting styles will look like on your actor’s face, without having to try them all yourself!

What if she’s a new or inexperienced actress?  Try to get her in for a test shoot or, at the very least, use those first few scenes on the first day to learn her face and body language.

OK, But Where Do I Put the Lights?

The only real answer is, “wherever steps 1 – 5 tell you to.”   (You can also watch my 2-Minute Lighting Tutorial)

But Here are a Few General, Technical Guidelines:

Having followed steps 1 – 5…

  • A 3/4 Key Light, set just above eye level and a hair light (not a kicker) is a great starting point.  Once you turn on the light, move it around while watching the actress or stand-in.  An inch left or right, up or down, will make all the difference.
  • Almost NEVER leave the key light “naked.”  Use the largest and thickest diffusion that you can afford (“afford” in regards to $, space, and exposure).  As large as you can make it, as close to your subject as you can get it.
    Leigh-Ann Smith lit for her close-up on "No Food"

    Leigh-Ann Smith lit for her close-up on “No Food”


  • A still from WPG's music video "No Food"

    WPG’s music video “No Food”For effect or beauty lighting (music video, performance, dream, angel, etc.) place the light directly over the camera and directly centered for his or her face.  Move the light around (an inch  left/right, up/down) until you find the place where you no longer see any shadows on his/her face.


  • If he or she is looking straight into camera, raise the camera slightly  to encourage the actress to lift his/her chin.
  • For scenes with normal (offscreen) eye lines, set up the camera just above his eye level (not too high, or it will get weird).  Try not to shoot from below eye level unless he or she has a neck and jawline that can handle that.  Often that angle is unflattering and that may be distracting.
  • Avoid wide lenses for close ups, unless the character is a cartoon or really f’d up.  Longer lenses will be more flattering.


Remember: These guidelines aren’t about “fixing” an actor, they are all about accentuating his or her best assets, helping to create the character, and making sure that he or she “looks the part” (whatever that part may be) for the story.

Best of luck!  And let me know how it goes!



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