Many decades ago when the film industry was still in its infancy, directors and cinematographers came to an epiphany concerning the use of light in the, then new medium of movies – light, just as it does in real life, affects not just our ability to see objects but it also influences our moods. Thus, cinematographers quickly began exploiting the psychology of light and how it influences how we react to the world around us – emotionally. Hence, a cinematographer’s work is part art and part science as they bring together light and color in order to tell their story using the careful manipulation of both in order to affect how we “feel about” each scene. The directors who excel in their craft know this and use it on movie goers in subtle and not so subtle ways in order to shape each scene.
In order to begin to understand how movie makers use light to effect the mood of any given movie scene, one has to first understand the types of light that can be used. Common types of light for illuminating movie scenes include hard light, soft light, available light and combination light. Hard light is the kind of light produced by a cloudless day. It produces shadows that are angular and harsh. The great director Alfred Hitchcock used this kind of light to great effect in many of his movies. This kind of lighting is often used to create a mood of danger and eeriness. Next, there is soft light. This light is the opposite of hard light in that the shadows that it produces are not angular or hard. They are soft and gentle. Movies made in the film noir style often use this type of light. The effects created by this kind of lighting include romantic, seductive, non-threatening and comfortable moods. This kind of lighting can be used as an immediate contrast to scenes containing hard light and strong emotions. Combination light – as its name implies – lies between hard and soft light and the emotions elicited by it can vary.
Finally, available light – as its name implies – is using whatever light is accessible. Often documentary films use this kind of lighting out of necessity and in order to create a sense of reality. Speaking of authenticity, reality shows also make heavy use of available light. It is used in this context to make viewers believe in the realism of what they are viewing. In summary, lighting is used to affect our mood in a number of ways as movie goers. The use of it by cinematographers is in no way haphazard or random. Cinematographers rely on science and art in order to further manipulate us and affect our mood from scene to scene.