Training Your Eye – Lighting for Cinematographers

Many of you have heard me talk about how I light to eye by either looking at the back LCD screen or a  lighting monitor like an HP DreamColor. Lighting to eye is something that is based on experience and what you like esthetically. I trained my eye through the use of exposing film, not an LCD screen or a monitor, but a photo-chemical process and by the use of a light meter. Many say that the light meter is dead with digital. I disagree. It is the only tool that you have in your box that can measure what you love. It can tell you how you lit a specific scene in case you have to go back and pick something up later in your schedule. You will need that tool to measure footcandles and f-stops to guide you to make the match perfect.


“What Do You Like?”

Let’s start with the basics.

KeyLight: This is the first thing you start with and this light will dictate all of your other levels of exposure with your back light and fill light. Deciding on the quality of you key light will be your choice. You can use hard light or soft light, or in this case we are showing you a book light in our lighting example, which is a very soft source. Where you position this light is up to you as well.

Back light: Some like a heavy back light in certain situations. Others like the subtlety of a back light at night, where it barely etches your actors out of the dark background. All of these choices establish your style. I try to not repeat my looks, and I am constantly challenging myself to light differently, lighting that will be unique to the story. Challenge yourself. Move out of that comfort zone. Remember that abyss I talked about jumping off just to see what it looked like on the way down? This is what I was talking about.

Fill light: It is my favorite training tool because it is what shows you every detail. Or you may choose to suppress the fill to the point where your audience has to squint to see. Now you might be thinking, “OK, what I see is what I get on the monitor.” Yes, but what is that measurement? Take the few seconds it takes to get out there and read on your light meter what you see and respond to. Log that in your memory or a book with the scene number. I always draw a quick crude lighting plot of where things are located. That way you are good to go. I have burned myself too many times by not doing this, and I sit in the theater beating myself up over not taking those few seconds.


“How to Train your Eye”

Key Light

• Set up a Book Light or a simple key light that you can position. Get this to your liking and then read and record it in your book, along with the position.


Key book light

Reading the Key- Book Light

Reading the Key- Book Light

Key Light

Key Light

Book of Light

Back Light

• Set up a light behind a model and slowly increase it until it is where you say, “I love this.” Go over and read it. Put that in your book, with a little diagram of where the back light is located.


Reading the back light

Reading the back light

Back light

Back light

Fill Light

• First, flag the Key Light so that it will not affect your bounce until the bounce card is collecting light from the key light source. Move your fill card in slowly. Don’t add a light into it yet; we are training your eye. Now, you can look on your lighting monitor or your LCD to gauge it. We call this passive fill. Passive fill is light that you are collecting and bouncing from a white card that is filling your model in, not from a light aimed at it.


Passive Fill-Moving Card

Passive Fill-Moving Card

Fill Light
Fill Light

You are moving your fill card toward your model, and it starts to collect the fill light. Stop the fill card once you like the level of fill on your model’s face. Go in there and read that. Now put that value next to the fill bounce in your book.


Reading the Fill
Reading the Fill

Once you have that measurement, you can back your fill card out of the shot, put it over camera and match the measurement from what you just wrote down in your book. How do you match that? By using a light meter. You can continue to do this with a bounce and a light into it, or use a Kino Flo. See, you can use anything you want now because you have a measurement of what you like.

light meter


“Finding your Fill Ratio”

You have just figured out what you like, so now we have to find out what that ratio is to the Key Light. If your Key Light is reading a 4.0 stop and your fill is reading at 1.0, then you are a very moody lighter and like 4 stops down on the fill. If you read your fill at a 1.4 and 5/10th’s, then you are a less moody lighter. All of these levels can easily be adjusted to help tell your story. The fact of the matter is that you have just trained your eye to what looks good to you, and now you have a way to measure it.


Finding Fill Ratio with Meter Readings

Finding Fill Ratio with Meter Readings

Final Set Up

Final Set Up

Back, Key and Fill

Back, Key and Fill


“Selecting Your Light Meter”

There are many light meters to chose from that will fit your budget. I started out with a Minolta back in my gaffing days, then moved to a Sekonic, and now find the Spectra IV as my go to meter. For your review, I have selected a group of meters that all read foot candles.


Spectra IV-5

Sekonic combo Spot and Light meter

Sekonic Light Master Pro L-478DR

Sekonic lightmaster Pro


The light meter is a powerful tool in figuring out how intense your lights need to be. I think I have used this example before, so if you have read it, I will bore you with it again to prove this point. Every light has an output measured by foot candles. Having a light meter that reads in foot candles is so important for this very fact. Let’s say you are lighting a night exterior and your back light moon source is 150 feet away. Foot candles is the only form of measurement that will tell you if the light you are thinking of using will be bright enough. Once you get some experience, you will just know your lights and what they can do. This is the process of being a cinematographer. Experience, experience, experience. How do you get that? By getting out there and training your eye and by making mistakes. I have given you the road map to get out there and tune your eye. Itʼs time to get BUSY!!!!!!!


Mole Richardson Product Catalog with FootCandle Chart

Mole Richardson Product Catalog with FootCandle Chart



Equipment used for this blog post-

Canon C300
Canon D Mark III
Blackmagic Cinema Camera

Canon 85mm Cinema Prime
Canon 24mm-105mm

Redhead – Backlight, Diffused
Book Light: Blonde, Bead Board Bounce, 1/2 Frost Diffusion, Gel
2 Light Fay – Fill, Gel

Bead Board for Passive Fill Card Example

Variac Dimmers

HP DreamColor

Spectra IV Light Meter:
For Foot Candle example video

Editing Software:
Adobe Premiere Pro CS6

Music provided by: The Music Bed

Jose De Los Angeles: Gaffer/Lighting Technician
Derek Johnson: Camera Operator C300/Grip

Model: Monette Moio

Shot at: Revolution Cinema Rentals

  1. R L Pete Housman 2 years ago

    Thank you……I love the opportunity to learn this ….I use much of the same steps for stage lighting. Thanks for sharing.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      R L Pete Housman. Thanks for the comment and support.

  2. Aviv Vana 2 years ago

    Hi Shane,

    I love the methodical way of learning here .Step by Step. This stuff is bread and butter to you and I was curious if today you go more by eye, as you were saying in the beginning, due to having trained yourself to see light and know what you want and like. I can imagine that these days on a set you make changes by eye and the monitor for the most part. Would that be accurate?

    Thanks for these great posts – you always give that extra bit of information, that insiders look, that I feel i’m missing from the rest. Thanks!

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Aviv Vana. Yes I tend to light much more by eye with my experience, but always turn to the light meter for matching from scene to scene. Thanks for the comment and support.

  3. Aviv Vana 2 years ago

    p.s. I sent an email to Lydia to be in touch.

  4. Octavio Silva 2 years ago

    What an amazing post Shane!
    What do you think about the new Sekonic touchscreen meters??
    Are they good?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Octavio Silva. I haven’t had a chance to use those yet. The ones I detailed in the post I am familiar with and are able to read foot candles. Thanks for the comment and support.

  5. VisualMED 2 years ago

    OH SHANE that was a really massive article …thank you everyday for this powerful articles you make …..keep up

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      VisualMED. Thanks for the kind words and support.

  6. Mark Pommett 2 years ago

    Great tutorial Shane. If I were in a situation where I had to light from above couldn’t I just use a china lantern as my key and achieve the same/similar effect of a book light by adding a layer of 1/4 frost and skirting the sides? Thanks!

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Mark Pommett. Sure if you want to use a top light source that would work wonderful.

  7. Devap 2 years ago

    “first flag the key light so that it will not affect your bounce until the bounce card is collecting light from the key light source.”

    when you say key light source in this part, does that mean light reflecting off the subject? because when I imagine it, you are flagging the key light so that you aren’t just re-bouncing the light from the key light.


    • Devap 2 years ago

      Nevermind I think I just figured it out. it means to flag out light coming directly from the key and to only bounce the diffused light coming through the scrim from the key

  8. Fabio Seyding 2 years ago

    This was really an great blog post again.

    But i have a question:
    The light sketches are showing that the lamps are controlled by dimmers. Aren’t you running into problems with the color temperature of the lights, when you’re dimming this tungsten units? I guess using scrims, ND-filters , black net frames, etc. would be a solution without color temperature problems but of course you can’t fine tune the light level so smooth and exactly.
    What would be your approach for fine tuning the light level when you are using non dimmable-fixtures like HMI’s?

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Fabio Seyding. That is correct. I always use scrims, ND, etc to control the light level. The lights in this test we’re done on dimmers to show the light levels coming up and down. Thanks for the comment and support.

  9. Aaron 2 years ago


    You just made me realize how cool light meters are! It really takes all the guess work out of setting up a scene. It totally makes sense now why it’s important to know every camera’s “stock” and “latitude” and why you spend so much time testing cameras. It’s like reading a recipe out of a cook book!

    Thank again for all that you do,

    Aaron Almquist

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Aaron. Thank you so much for the kind words and support.

  10. Daniel Longworth 2 years ago

    Probably your clearest explanation yet! Thanks for another stellar post.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Daniel Longworth. Thank you so much for the kind words and support.

  11. N.K.Osborne 2 years ago

    This is why I jump for joy every time I see Hurlbut blog in my RSS reader. Always useful information. Thanks a ton Shane! You’re really a viable asset to us all. Now I’m off to do this test.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      N.K Osborne. Thank you so much for the kind words and support.

  12. Molefi Clive Mohale 2 years ago

    This course came at the right as there is confusion between LED vs Traditional Lighting. Thanks Shane

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Molefi Clive Mohale. You are very welcome. More lighting blog posts coming soon. Day exterior lighting coming up next.

  13. Tom Riseth 2 years ago

    Thank you for all your brilliant posts, Shane! I was hoping maybe one day you could write a post about the director/DP relationship? I myself shoot for smaller and mid-size productions in Norway and find that many times I will not even really have a say in how the lighting setup should be – which is annoying, especially if I’ve already put in time and effort to pre-light a scene (and find that my setup looks better than the one overruled by the director at the end).


  14. Oli Kember 2 years ago

    This is great Shane, thanks for sharing. I love the discipline of writing your ratios down and making diagrams, I should make more of a policy of this on future shoots.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Oli Kember. Thank you my friend. It it great to takes notes to build your own playbook on lighting but can also save your ass for reshoots and matching shots.

  15. Paul Antico 2 years ago

    Shane this is great!! This is what you were talking about on the extremely popular “Hurlbut Returns” episode and it’s great to see actual examples. I’ll mention it on the next show.

    Better yet, I’m using my light meter more often. :)

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Paul Antico. Hahaha. It was great talking with you, and I’m glad you’re getting some nice traffic to your podcast. Look forward to doing a MONSTER podcast on Need for Speed trailblazing.

  16. Isaac 2 years ago

    Great post! What website would I be able to buy the different diffusion sheets you use?


  17. Lliam Worthington 2 years ago

    Thank you once again for another fantastic blog Shane.

    Best Wishes


    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Lliam Worhtington. You are very welcome. Thank you.

  18. Alan Austin 2 years ago

    As always…thanks so much for sharing….love the blog posts you take the time and trouble to make for the film community.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Alan Austin. Thanks for your wonderful words.

  19. Dain Fuentes 2 years ago

    Thanks for another great series of instructional videos. I hope a lot of people take advantage of them. It’s great to have these resources available free of charge.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Dain Fuentes. Thanks for the kind words and support.

  20. Manoj Narula 2 years ago

    Thanks Shane for the demonestration, great tutorial !

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Manoj Narula. Thanks for the comment and support.

  21. Brian Boyer 2 years ago

    This type of info is priceless. If I can get my production work to look as good as your tests and tutorials, I’ll be doing pretty darn good.

    I am a little confused by the videos, however. The one that appears to only be showing the key and back lights has a title card that reads, “Final Set-Up…Back Light – Key Light – Fill Light”. This is essentially (except for one word) the same title card for the video demonstrating all three lights. Am I missing something or was this a typo? If it is a typo, Vimeo allows you to re-upload edited videos without losing the original URL.

    Thanks again.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Brian – Thank you for your kind words and thanks for pointing that out. We had a duplicate in there.

  22. Jerry Rojas 2 years ago

    Hi Shane!

    People looked at me weird when I take out my spectra to take a reading. I once heard a client say that I was just bragging because we were shooting digital. I know “I don’t need it” when using digital but I always did it to train my eye, and now that you said exactly the same I know that’s the right way to do it.

    Thanks for sharing

    Big hugs.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Jerry Rojas. Long time no hear form my friend. How is mexico treating you and your family? Using my light meter every day on Need for Speed. It is the absolute fastest way to expose digital. Hope you are well.

  23. Charles 2 years ago

    “Training Your Eye” is a eyeopener! Thanks!

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Charles. Thank you for the kind words.

  24. Hannes 2 years ago

    Thanks for this great blog post! Your way of teaching how to light is so simple! I loved this sentence: “It is the only tool that you have in your box that can measure what you love.”

    I think, great lighting tutorials are underrepresented on the web. There are tons of camera/effects etc. tutorials but not much on lighting (which is the key to photography …). I would love to see a tutorial DVD/website that takes and example project/scene/mood or something and teaches in detail how to approach it in terms of light. Are you planning to do something like this? It would be great !

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Hannes. That is exactly what my lighting workshop in the fall will cover. Stay tuned to the blog for details. Thanks for the comment and support.

  25. James 2 years ago

    Shane, do you ever use false color, histograms, waveform, or zebras for measuring exposure values?

  26. Isaiah Rendon 2 years ago

    Thank you for your efforts to freely educate your followers. We love you for that. Inspiring is the word to define you as a cinematographer.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Isaiah Rendon, These are the comments that inspire me to do what I do. Thank you!!!!!

  27. Paul Antico 2 years ago

    Shane, thanks again so much for posts like these! I finally got around to getting a better meter- got the Sekonic 478-D Light Meter. From the last show you did for us (NeedCreative Podcast; you are very popular there) – a lot of people are going and getting meters and teaching themselves light.

    I also find the meter very useful for recreating setups and communicating light to teams. Great stuff, sir.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Paul Antico, that is what I am talking about. We need to talk about a big secret project.

  28. Lawrence 2 years ago

    Shane, when you’re setting up a scene, do you light first then expose the camera to your lighting setup? Or do you set your camera to the exposure you want, then light according to that camera exposure? Thanks in advance.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      Lawrence, I set the camera up first thing, to dial in my color temp, then the exposure. Then I light to that.

      • Lawrence 2 years ago

        Thanks Shane.

  29. thaidp 2 years ago

    Sir, how do we decide our final exposure, I mean the f stop? Are we suppose to take the average of key & fill light?

    Thanks. Regards.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      thaidp, I usually base my exposure on the key light.

  30. James 2 years ago

    Shane, I just read a couple of your comments and I’d just like a little clarification. So if I understand correctly, you setup your camera first (set the color temp/balance and exposure you want.) Then you set up your lighting. Correct? If so, then do you re-adjust your exposure on your camera based on the readings you get from your light meter? I’m a little confused by the order. Thanks!

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      James, I dial in the color temp and the exposure based on what is in the room or on the street, etc. Once I like those tones and the mood with that exposure I go in and light the actors. I like just referencing the light meter once the set is lit so I see how the lighting monitor and the meter are jiving. But, what I am advising you all to do is do this to educate you on the ratio of light levels that you are starting to respond to. If you lit someone face and on the monitor it looks a little dark, you know with your light meter what that reading was, then when you add a little more light so it looks good on your monitor then you read it again so that you see the difference. This is all about training your eye. Where I use a light meter now is for matching purposes. Once we have rehearsed the scene and everyone is happy, I then go in and read all the light levels so that if I have to go back and match anything later or with re-shoots I know what my light ratios were, where my lights were placed and what color temp I shot at. These I enter into a Book of Light for the project that I am working on. I hope this clears it up.

      • James 2 years ago

        Shane, thank you SO much for the clarification. It all makes much more sense now. Thank you!

  31. fredqiu 2 years ago

    I am a student of cinematography from Beijing Film Academy. I would like to thank you for that your blog introduces many essential and practical skills for us. I leave this message for ask you that would you mind me translate your article in Chinese, then post it in some technical forum.

    • Author
      Shane 2 years ago

      fredqiu, you are very welcome and thank you for the kind words and support of the HurlBlog. Absolutely. Translate away!!!! Please link back to our blog please so that your readers can get more of our free information.

      • fredqiu 2 years ago

        I will, we all appreciate for your KINDNESS

  32. Sejir Tliha 1 year ago

    I really thank you for your great efforts that makes our life easy by learning these rich skills.

    • Author
      Shane 1 year ago

      Sejir Tliha, you are very welcome thank you for your support

  33. Malte Løkken 1 year ago

    Very inspiring blog, Shane.
    I’ve decided to start using a light meter,

    With a Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera, coupled with a BMPCC speedbooster from metabones (the 0.58x one) you can’t read the exact f-stop. All you have is an iris ring from “Fully open” to “as closed as the lens goes” with 8 markers. ( F – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 ) .

    With an increase of 1 and 2/3rds stop of light coming through, my 1.8 lens is supposedly now an 1.0.
    – Original mininum / maximum aperture: f1.8 – f16
    – With speedbooster: f1.0 – f9. Right?

    So my guestion is this. Do you know of a way to test the effective f-stop, or better yet, t-stop, of a camera setup? In order to map the test results to the markers on the speedbooster, to use it with a light meter.

    I suppose the “F” would give me an f1.0, but if each marker represented a stop, the “7” would land me on f11. Right? But the minimum aperture of the lens is, now, an f9. I’m in trouble.

  34. Allison K 12 months ago


    Thank you so much for posting this! It’s a great explanation and the diagram is very helpful.

    I did have a clarifying question regarding the position of the lights. I remember learning when I first started out that the standard 3-point lighting set-up had the key light opposite the backlight and to the side of the camera that was opposite the side the subject was framed on (i.e. in an interview, if the subject was framed on the right side of the screen, the key would be coming from the left and vise-versa for a left-framed subject). I believe some of the production companies I’ve worked for before have used this set up as well. However, you set up your lights with the key and the backlight on the same side as well as having the key on the same side as the framing (in other words, the subject is framed on the right side and the key is coming from the right, making the shadows exist on the opposite side of the face). Is this a personal preference, or is the way I learned previously wrong? Or did you simply decide to light the subject this way because she was facing the camera directly?

    Thank you!


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