How Lighting Techniques Have Changed throughout the History of Cinematography

Lights! Camera! Action! Since the very beginning of moving pictures lighting has played a pivotal part of the cinematic experience. In the beginning – starting with the 1890’s – the main concern with lighting was just that “moving pictures” could properly be seen. Eventually, directors began to realize the impact that lighting makes on creating a scene, telling a story and setting a mood as well. Just as this view of lighting impacts the cinematic experience, so too does the technology used to capture and convey those messages. For example, the early silent movies of the 1920s were shot in studios under glass roofs with muslin cloth draped across the camera in order to create the soft lighting effect. Early cinematographers like Charles Rosher created lighting effects by mixing hard carbon arc lamps with soft Cooper-Hewitt lamps. (These were mercury-vapor lamps created in the early 1900s.) By the 1940s this lighting source was replaced by tungsten lamps.
By the beginning of the 20th century directors and cinematographers were beginning to understand that lighting had more of a use than allowing the public to see what was happening on the screen. They began to seek ways to manipulate the emotions of the viewing public by seeking out and exploiting the available technology. Director D.W. Griffith, for example, actively sought out the latest innovations in lighting in order to tell a story. One can easily contrast movies from other directors of the time by viewing works such as Pippa Passes (1909), The Thread of Destiny (1910), and Enoch Arden (1911). The effects he creates are achieved by using reflectors to deflect strong backlight onto the actor’s faces. Another innovator in the use of lighting is the great Alfred Hitchcock who relied heavily on lighting to affect the mood of audiences. Hitchcock used shadows to add emotional tension to certain scenes.
By the 1960s and 70s technology began to evolve even further beyond the use of those early Cooper-Hewitt and Tungsten lamps as a light source, to the use of HMI (hydrargyum medium arc-length iodide) lights. So effective was HMI as a lighting source that it continues to be used to this day. Modern cinematographers have a treasure trove of technologies at their disposal. They know more about the psychology of light and color on mood and how this impacts story telling. They also can easily see how filmmakers from around the world approach their art by using light and shadow. At Ratpac Dimmers we sell the latest technology in the control and display of lights that can help professionals in the theatre, concert and special events field."RatPac Dimmers"

Great Cinematographers Part 4- Roger Deakins

Movies are one of the few forms of media that can affect the lives of millions of people over generations.  Moreover, few jobs influence the way movies look and feel as those held by cinematographers.  One cinematographer who has been greatly influencing what we see and therefore what we feel since the 1980s is Roger Alexander Deakins. Deakins belongs to the American and British Society of Cinematographers and has received a lifetime achievement award from American Society of Cinematographers and 13 nominations for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. He is a favorite of the Cohen brothers having worked with them on movies such as The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and many others.  Movies he has worked on apart from the infamous Cohen brothers include The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking, A Beautiful Mind, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and many more.


A true master, Deakins is known to be very generous about sharing with others how he creates shots that help set the proper mood in the films in which he’s been a part.  His cinematography tips are as follows:

  • Learn to be selective: Choose projects that mean something to you.
  • Lighting is King: Lighting creates a mood and affects how people perceive a character or scene.
  • Stay with the Character and Story:  Not every character deserves fancy lighting.  Let the story drive each scene.
  • Don’t Compromise Performance: Help enhance each actor’s performance with the appropriate lighting.
  • Find Your Style:  Don’t copy others. Have your heroes but make your own path.
  • Tech Is Good, but Don’t Forget You’re Telling a Story: Storytelling is more important than the technology.
  • Choose Your Location Wisely: As it is with real estate effective cinematography is all about location, location, location.  Location influences lenses, lighting, and camera setup.
  • The Film Is the Director’s Film: Cinematographers are responsible for helping the director achieve his/her vision.

Be Social and Get to Know People:  You have to be able to network as a cinematographer so that you can move on to greater projects.
At Ratpac we have American made wireless dimmers that can help lighting professionals set the proper mood regardless of whether they are working on a major concert or film or stage production. We are dedicated to helping lighting professionals by giving them access to the latest technologies in lighting with our dimmer packs.