How to Light Night Interiors

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How to Light Night Interiors

Night Interiors: The Build

I’m going to take you through how I light night interiors, and those night interiors will transition from our practical light into moonlight and urban sources that we replicate. These scenes present fragile parameters that we have to work in, and I’m going to outline those to you so that you  will be able to comfortably light a night interior scene from scratch.

I love the ability to play the digital sensor right on the edge, where you can barely see detail, just in the shadows. I’ve never been a big fan of hot backlight on night exteriors and I love it to be very underexposed and moody, but just having enough detail to be able to see into the shadows. I’m going to take you through that whole process.

“I love the ability to play the digital sensor right on the edge, where you can barely see detail, just in the shadows”

“I love it to be very underexposed and moody”

It starts with setting the camera down right at the angle that I’d like to shoot this. Now obviously I’ve got a lot of lights blazing here, so you can see me talking, but immediately we’re going to start to turn these lights off, we’re going to work with just the practical light, we’re going to bring in our moonlight sources or urban sources. We’re in a New York apartment, we’re going to be influenced from metal halide lights outside.

Before you start lighting you need to set your camera angle first

So, I would plot my camera down and I would kind of set an exposure that is always going to be wide open. I’ve shot over 21 movies and television series and most of the time it’s T2, whether it’s blazing day exteriors, or night exteriors, or night interiors. I always try to keep that shallow depth of field. I think it really plays three dimensionally.

I like to be wide open whether it’s blazing day exteriors…

…or night interiors

Now there’s sometimes an action that you have to go to a T2.8 or a T4 so you can get everything in focus. On the cars in Need for Speed, when I was doing all that action, I was playing everything more around a T4. But for drama and these types of movies, I really like to play in that T2 range.

Only for action I sometimes have to go to around T4

Ok, in the scene we are creating here, our character is going to walk in, sit down, he’s going to set his alarm, do a little action, maybe look at a pill, decide not to take it. And then he’s going to turn off the light and lay in bed.

So with that we need to create some night gags, because we’re going to have to turn off the light as he turns off the light, and any light that we are using for accenting that light will need to turn off with him. And we’re also going to have the moonlight coming through the windows.

Now one thing that looks incredibly unrealistic and I see it in many films, is where they snap the lights off and when you snap the tungsten lights off, they snap the moonlight on. We’re not going to be doing that. We’re going to have the moonlight already playing, it’s going to be tickling in the background, it’s just going to be apparent enough for you to see it and believe it as either a moonlight source or an urban source.

We have the moonlight already playing in the background

I want you to see what the scene looks like lit with just one single practical. We are wide open, at ISO 800. Now he’s kind of lit but he’s very dark.

Scene lit with one practical

There’s two ways to go about lighting like this. You can light the background which I like to do first – I like to get my moonlight going. Know that he’s going to be here, but I wanna get the moonlight at a balanced level to be able to play here.

I light my background first to get the moonlight going

Now, having said that, we have the practical light that was illuminating him ever so slightly, but we’re going to have to augment that from behind the practical. The light was incredibly hot and he was incredibly dark and you didn’t see anything else in the room.

We’re going to have to bring a light source in from behind the practical, so there’s going to be some accents that we’re going to have to add, as well as the urban light coming through the window. We’re going to start with keying him with a Westcott light from over here.

When you’re using practicals, especially these barrel lamps and stuff, they are a very warm tonality. These Westcott Spiderlite match that tonality, we can put honeycombs and everything on it which I think we’re probably going to have to do. Or we’ll dim it down and just go one circuit. But let’s play it horizontal on him like this.


Westcott Spiderlite with softbox placed horizontal

Color, temperature-wise, what we’re going to have to match is 2270K, so that’s what we’re looking to go for to be able to match the practical light.

Our color temp is 2270K

Eric Forand (Gaffer): And the reason we like to use the Westcott lights is that the color temperature is very warm.

Shane: Same globes that we actually have in that practical right there. So we are going to mimic this light.

Westcott Spider bulbs are very warm in temperature, so they’re ideal to match practical lights

The reason I am starting and building with the practical light first is because that’s going to decide how bright my moonlight/urban light is based on this light being on and then we’ll go from there.

I love this mood right here. This mood is perfect. Coming from this light is absolutely awesome. It’s just not bright enough. And if we put a brighter bulb in there, then it’s just going to be bright on the wall and bright on the bed and it’s not going to make any difference. So that requires us to bring in our light.

I love the mood of one practical, but the light is too bright and actor too dark

Eric: So the great thing about the Westcott is we have three circuits. So we can turn them on one at a time. Two circuits seems to do the charm here.

Westcott Spider lights have circuits that you can turn on separately

Shane: The only problem is that I can see your light in the mirror, so let’s fix it with a tape ball.  And let’s change the color temp on the camera to 4000K.

Key Grip Dave and his tape ball

Now it looks perfect. The color, the tone, exactly like it’s coming straight off the practical. I am riding the line here with that one light here, there’s enough light on him and at the same time I love how it’s falling off and illuminating the wall behind him. I’m worried that if we honeycomb it, it’s going to lose the feeling of the single source light.

The color, the mood, and the tone are perfect now

We are on 18 IRE in the shadows. That’s definitely dark, but I think that the mood is nice. We are on a T1.5 on the 24mm XEEN lens and my light reads a T2, so we have our nice base level.

We are on a T1.5, 24mm XEEN, ISO 800, and our light reads a T2

Now let’s get an M8 out there. I want to talk you through matching color temps. Just like with the practical light, you want to match exactly what’s out there in the real world. If you’re matching an urban vapor, or a sodium vapor, or a metal halide, then you want to match that source exactly.

Matching metal halides in “Swing Vote”

So we have a metal halide. Now, it’s not going to be as functional as a nice M8, so what we’re going to do is, we’re going to fire this up and we’re going to read its color temperature, and then we’re going to match the color temp with the M8. That way we could be much more controlled, we can spot it in if we need to, we can flood it out, we can scrim it.

Our real metal halide that we want to match with M8

The metal halides are a little uncontrollable at best. The idea is: imagine that there’s a metal halide outside the window. We’ve got a brick wall, let’s say this is in between the buildings in New York city somewhere. And this metal halide is illuminating this area. So we’re going to want to shape the M8s through the windows and give nice streaks of light across the bed and the actor. We’re going to use some gels to match the metal halide. Then we’re going to go and use a white bounce up on the ceiling with some Leko technology, to be able to pinpoint just some specific areas that just gives you this soft bounce that doesn’t fly all over everywhere. You can scrim it down and blue it a little bit. So we’re going to create kind of a cold tone in the shadows in the bedroom, and then we’ll use this cold metal halide feel to streak across, mixed with the warm practical.

Our ceiling bounce

We also need to set our overhead shot. I want to get a graphic top down with the help of our MoVI. When he lays down and the lights turn off, I want to do this kind of swirl effect, this kind of haunting turn from overhead.

Our overhead shot

We have fitted the Toad in the Hole with a junior pin receiver onto this menace arm and we’re going to send this up to get our overhead shot. And we’re going to need a 14mm because the 24mm is not wide enough for this shot.

Our MoVI mounted on menace arm with a Toad in the Hole to junior pin adapter

Now back to color temperature on the metal halide. My color meter is reading a 4000K with a 1.3 magenta, so that is going to require a 1/2 green to achieve that look with the M8. Let’s see if it warms it up a little bit, but I actually have my camera set to 4000K and I want this light to be a little colder, so let’s see where the 1/2 green gets us.

My color meter is reading 4000K with 1.3 magenta, let’s try 1/2 green gel

Let’s place the M8s so that we are getting a streak of light across his face.

Eric: A simple rule for a gaffer, if you stand in a place where you want to put the light and you can see the spot where you want the light to hit, then that’s the correct placement of the light. A pretty simple but effective rule, because it’s important to see where the light is coming from to be able to tell where the light is going to hit.

Eric finding the best placement for the M8

Shane: Another important thing to remember is that the further your light is from your subject, the more your light is going to spread. That’s why we want our M8 as far as possible, so that it’s just one streak of light across him.  

The further you are from subject, the more the light spreads

And the angle of the M8 that is hitting our actor dictates the angle of the additional M8 – we want it to hit the bottom corner of the bed while at the same time being consistent with the main M8.

You also want to make sure that the light is directed and doesn’t fly all over the place, so use barn doors and black wrap if necessary.

Back to our color temp of the M8. The 1/2 green got us to 1.4 magenta, so not all the way there. With additional 1/4  green, we are way too green, so let’s try out an additional 1/8 green.

In the meantime, I like to bunch up the curtains on the window. By doing that, it creates some interesting effects. It’s some soft light mixed with the hard light, it gives us mood. You can see it right on the pillow. And we could have a little fan blowing the curtains just to get a little movement.

See how the curtain throws interesting shadows on the pillow?

The electricians added the 1/8 green in addition to the 1/2 green that’s already on there, but that is still way too green, so let’s just stay with the 1/2 green.

1/2 + 1/8 green gel are still too green

We need to bring the M8s a lot higher to make it feel more like an urban source, and we need to flag off the M8s so that we don’t have a spill on the white walls and the white and silver ceiling, and having the light fly all over the place. That would ruin the mood in the room and not make it as moody and contrasty as I’d like. So let’s put a topper on them.

Setting up some flags and raising the M8s

We need to put up a topper over the lights to get rid of the spill in the walls and ceiling

And to finish this part off, let’s also throw a double scrim in there to decrease the intensity of the light we’re getting.

Lighting diagram

Look how great it looks now!

Let’s re-cap what we’ve learned:

  • Always set up your camera angle first before you start lighting
  • Then see your shot with all the practicals in it
  • Augment those practicals
  • Be sure that the color temp of your added light matches that of your practical
  • To make the environment looks natural, try to add some urban or moonlight sources from the outside – be sure to have the right color temp
  • You want to have your urban sources or moonlight sources playing in the background the whole time
  • When placing your lights, stand in a place where you can see the subject that you want to light, if you can see it, the light is in the right spot
  • Remember that the closer you are to the subject the narrower your beam of light will be
  • Control the spill of your lights, you don’t want them bouncing off the walls and ceilings and flying all over the place
  • Always shape your light
  • You can use your curtains to create interesting shadows and movement (with a help of simple box fan)

All video edited on HP Z840 workstations and HP Z24x DreamColor monitors.




Night Interiors: The Finesse


Anytime you’re dealing with the sheers, if you notice I’ve put grey sheers in here, if you’re doing night interiors, night exteriors – grey sheers are the secret. Because if you use white, it just explodes. It completely overexposes and this overexposes so much that we can’t get the right level of light down on his face.

Grey sheers are the secret

So, when you go with grey, they end up looking white, but they don’t blow out, and we actually are able to get the nice level of light that we want on his face. I can show you that – I’m gonna use a piece of silk.

Putting in white silk instead of grey sheers

We’ve put a double scrim in the light. It’s still a little hot, but we’re going to dial that in. But, this is what a white sheer would look like. So imagine if this was in there, how much brighter this is to the eyes. Now let’s do a comparison by separating the beams on each window – one with the silk and one with grey sheer.

We are shaping the light paths to demonstrate the comparison

I’m gonna see the false color on my Flanders monitor. Look at what’s happening with the white sheer.

You can see the difference of exposure between grey sheer – on the left – and white silk

You can see the difference just by the naked eye

I have the grey curtains that are perfect – they’re still a little too hot, but that’s just because we need to put another single in there – but look at what’s happening with this white. That white sheer would explode that. I want my eye to go to him, I don’t want it to go to these white curtains. That’s why grey curtains at night are your absolutely your recipe for success.

I used grey sheers in “Deadfall”

Now let’s look at what it looks like when we use this celo screen cucoloris, or “cook” or “cookie” as the grips like to call it. You use it to create patterns and depth in your lighting. The way they made it look like this is they went through it with a blow torch so it melts together and it creates different textures and different stops – like 1 / 3 of a stop difference throughout the cook.

Celo screen cucoloris

You can see it playing on that wall over there, it just creates a really nice effect on curtains. And I don’t play it this close because then you can tell it’s a cucoloris. You wanna play it a little further from the window and closer to the light, so you’re making the cello cook a little softer and more natural.

Cookie shadows on the wall

Now let’s put double scrims in the lights. That’s nice, it takes the edge off.

Additional double scrims on the M8s took the heat out the windows

Now show me with cookie out and with cookie in.

Cookie out

Cookie in

Great. Now we have to make sure we have enough light on him.

I have to make sure we have good exposure on his face

Now let’s go take the cookie out and go back to our original setup.

The last thing I like to go for is I like to add a little fill from the ceiling so it feels like that ambience. Not so much the green (metal halide) ambience, because I want to color contrast that. So let’s try a Select with a honeycomb on it, so it only does a portion. And maybe we’ll rise it up slightly higher, so it only hits a specific area.

Eric: Do you want it downstage or upstage directly above our talent?

Shane: Well I want to make sure that we don’t flatten the light on the talent and that we keep it off the wall. And we have to work within this room.

Eric: So maybe we put it in this bottom corner here so the light falls inside the room.

This will be the best placement for the Select

So I’ve gotten to a really nice point. I love what’s happening with the Westcott here. We’ve matched the color temp that’s coming from the barrel shade. We have set our urban vapor lights and matched that perfectly to our metal halide color out in the street.

This is what we have so far, we are at a nice point

Shot from A-Cam

Now the last finishing touch is the fragility of the room. Right now it’s very contrasty. It’s either light or dark.  What I want to do is, I want to just infuse a slight cold tone into the room and I’m going to do that with a Select LED from Kino Flo. So we’re gonna punch this in, into the 12×12 that we put overhead, and we’re going to raise it up and turn it on. And let’s go for about 4800K. We have our camera set to 4000K, so we’re trying to introduce an 800K shift in colder tone.

The Kino Flo Select fills in the bottom of the bed nicely

We’ve set our A-Camera back here and what I’m feeling is I have a 24mm lens on that and I feel like I’m outside of the room. I don’t like that. I feel like I’m on a set because our dolly is outside of the room, the walls are 16 feet, so we need to come in more into the room.

Moving in on a dolly makes us feel more like we’re in the room

But now how is our frame? See, we’re not able to catch our practical and we’re not able to catch our second window. So this really wants to be an 18mm, so let’s put an 18mm Cooke on.

The 24mm is too tight, we are losing important stuff in the frame

We also want this MoVI shot where we’re looking top down and directly overhead, and we have our 14mm Xeen on this. So let’s go to a 14mm Cooke on the MoVI.

This is the shot from “Fathers and Daughters” that we are recreating here

So this is a really cool adapter that we’ve made here. It turns your MoVI into a high angle. You can put it on a Mombo Combo, send it 28 feet in the air, you can put it on Menace Arms, junior pin to a Ninja Star, Toad in the Hole. It just gives you so many cool options.

With this adapter, you can attach your MoVi to a menace arm in 5 seconds

Junior pin to Toad in the Hole adapter that we made

I was just in Prague and I needed a high wide. We couldn’t have a crane so we just took a Mombo Combo and sent it 28 feet in the air and the two characters come to greet each other in this massive warehouse that we’d never be able to get. We’d have to put a Ladder Pod up there and it would be a huge deal. This way we were able to do it in minutes. We’re gonna take an advantage of that here and have Dave rig it to his menace arm.

Shot from “The Adventurers” that was done with a MoVI on a Mombo Combo stand

Now that we have our 18mm up, let’s go back to the monitor and we’ll take a look and see if we feel like we’re still in the room.

24mm to 18mm comparison

Ok, let’s go to a 21mm on that, a 21mm on the A-camera. It just feels like I’m still not in the room.

Now let’s crank up our MoVI for our overhead shot.

It’s so easy to bring the MoVI up on our menace arm!

Oh that looks kick-ass! Overheads really need to be top down, they’re so much more graphic.

We want to be a lot more overhead than this

Like this shot from “Drumline”

So we want to make his head somewhat the center, so we’re going to go and get really steep on this angle and I think it’s going to look much more graphic when we do that. With that wide angle lens all that stuff just comes right up towards the camera.

This is looking great, I just need a little more height

Dave, can you give me more height out of that menace arm? I need just a little more height.

See? Look at that. We’re going to be in slight rotation as he’s freaking out and having a seizure.

This height is perfect

So now back to my A-Camera. If I pan to the right a little bit, I’m still getting the end table, I still feel just a little sliver of that window now. I think it’s a nice weighted frame and you still feel like you’re in the room. On that 24mm, we were like 8 feet back and it just felt like you know, the guy had a 20,000 square foot bedroom.

We feel much more like we are in the room

With the 24mm you just felt like he had a 20,000 square foot bedroom

This is what you always want to be thinking about when you’re working on set. It’s so important to keep within the parameters, because the ability to just move walls and fly them out of the way are so easy. When you do that, you want to still keep within the parameters of where the set wall was. The lens is within the set, and the dolly and everything else can be back away from the set.

You always want to keep your lens within the set

So on this camera we have a nice frame over here, we’re just catching the practical. We’re just catching a little of the window here. It is nice, it shows that we have two windows. This is coming across and just highlighting the edge of the bed and we have a nice light coming right across his face.

We have a nice frame going on here

Now the fill still feels a little hot. What I like to do is, I like to – once I get the room pretty much in the ball park, all those different lights – I then start to take the fill light that we hit into the ceiling and turn in on and off just to see exactly what it’s doing. Now this is the secret to cinematic lighting. Without that fill light, it looks way too contrasty, everything is just blending into the black. When I hit my false color, there is nothing in there.

We are losing all the information in the shadows

And the image is way too contrasty

Ok, now when we pop the fill light back on, I’m starting to see a little more detail in there. So what’s the percentage on that? It’s 50%.

Select at 50%

Now let’s go to 65%. Yeah, I think that’s where we have to be.

65% gets me where I want to be

The fill is giving it nice cool tone and it’s bringing out the shadows

The space around the bed is still gonna be black, which we could help with going a little higher with our Westcott, but then that’s going to look kind of unrealistic.

Eric: What do you think about a match stick down here? We could hide it behind the bed. But we’d have to keep it off the floor for the overhead, that might be tricky.

Shane: Yeah, so let’s try reflecting our light coming through the second window.

We brought in a silver reflector board to bring up the foot of the bed

Reflector board helps with our deep shadows

Now to recap what we’ve learned:

  • On night interiors always use grey sheers, they will keep your exposure on the right level and not blow out the windows.
  • Use additional tools to diffuse and structure your light – like the cucoloris.
  • Always keep your cookie away from the subject and closer to the light.
  • When you’re shooting on set, make sure your framing is natural and it feels like you’re in the room.
  • You achieve that by having your lens always inside the set, although your dolly or crane can be outside.
  • Use your MoVI to the fullest! Be creative with your tools, you can mount it to anything! That way you can create low budget crane and dolly shots, or really high or overhead shots.
  • Use a small fill light with a different color temperature to bring depth and dimension to your image and fill in the darkest shadows. I use the KinoFlo Select.

Video edited on HP Z840 workstations and HP Z24x DreamColor monitors





Night Interiors: The Shoot

As we’ve gone over previously, lighting night interiors takes time and patience to get it right. There’s a specific mood that you don’t want to feel as forced or artificial on your subjects. You want this feeling of cinematic-realism, this feeling of immersion, and this feeling of the source. What do I mean by “source?” Well, you want to figure out what’s lighting your subject and room. For us, we are utilizing an urban lights feel flooding in through the exterior to interior.

Lamp Light Gag

Night Interior Lamp Gag “On”

Night Interior Lamp Gag “Off”

For me, lighting from the outside creates a sense of a world beyond the frame. It creates spacial awareness and that helps sell the shot and the actor’s performance. Always consider that when lighting any time of the day. How can you help establish the world?

Flanders Scientific DM250 False Color Levels

In this video, you’ll see that we utilized a certain lighting technique, but we also made sure the composition/ movement of the shot helped advance the character’s story. With a slow, counterclockwise turn on top-down shot, when Russell Crowe’s character starts to seize, everything unhinges with the movement. Gabriele Muccino and I always talked about how these simple movements will help tap into our character’s performance.

Kino Flo Select “On”

Kino Flo Select “Off”

Lastly, when lighting your scene, consider all the pockets of light in the room. How can the ambience add texture to the objects within the frame? Just pumping another Kino Flo Select 30 into the ceiling helped pull out that bed mattress and frame just a little bit more. It added dimensionality to the shot and helped balance that composition. It’s the minor tweaks of light that really help package the scene together. It’s not always about that key source flooding in through the windows, it’s about that slight ambience and fill that levels out the mood.

Consider all of the possibilities when lighting for night interiors. It’s not easy, but when done right, it’s fulfilling and magical for the audience.



Points to remember:

  • Utilizing a “Lamp Gag” can make all the difference:
    • It’s all about the transition from the lamp being “on” and turning “off.” You have to see what the room looks like and how it affects the levels.
    • There should be a distinct shift and you should have enough detail once the light is off to still see what’s going on.
  • Shaping light for dimensionality in the dark is absolutely key:
    • Adding another Kino Flo Select just punched in enough light to bring in added texture.
    • Remember that you want to create depth and texture with the objects in your room. This will help layer in your subject appropriately.
    • Consider your key source. For us, that’s the light spilling in through the windows and how it’s affecting your space. Using the shears to control the streaks of light helped add pockets and slivers to create a more dynamic look.
    • Understand what your key source is supposed to be and how you want it to affect your space. For us, we wanted that effect of urban light spilling into the room. It helped create that world outside his own space.
    • Filling in your shadows helps to set the room tone, which will make your scene seem more natural.
  • Always, always, always light your scene in layers:
    • Finessing each light layer can create that 3-dimensional image you want for cinematic storytelling.
    • We live in a 3-dimensional world and you want that to translate on a 2-dimensional screen.
  • Blocking with actors is essential:
    • Making sure your actors know what’s going on with the lighting will help get their performance in the pocket.
    • Rehearsals will let you see what’s working and not working before a take rolls. This time in rehearsal is important for all department heads to see what needs to be done.
    • Block and rehearsing will always render the best results.
  • Always think efficiently on set when lighting:
    • Sometimes the best tweaks are the minor ones. Adding more lights usually doesn’t solve the problem. Consider shaping the light or how block, props, or set dressing could help fix any issues.
    • Think carefully before adding or taking away light.

All video edited on HP Z840 workstations and HP Z24x DreamColor monitors.



  1. SAMAO 7 months ago

    this is one of the best lesson and very helpful on my workflow…Thanks master Shane …you the best..

  2. frank 3 months ago

    great tutorial Shane! As a fellow Masshole I must say it was worth every penny. Night interiors is something I feel like I struggle with but this really put things into perspective time to put these light mats to work!!!! I feel like i owe you some more money. 5STARS!!!!

    • Author
      Shane Hurlbut 2 months ago

      Hi Frank,
      HA HA, SO glad you are loving it. The content in 2019 is 10 times better, if you can imagine that. Our team at Hurlbut Visuals is really getting to the core of educating our members by boiling it down to just two or three big ahh ha moments.

  3. Author
    Shane Hurlbut 2 months ago

    Hi SAMAO,
    Thank you so much for your kind words, so glad you enjoyed it. Love this one as well

  4. Jose D 1 month ago

    Thanks Shane!!!!! GREAT Tutorial… Your My “Sensei” I can’t wait to see what you have to us on 2019!!! THANK YOU!!!!

  5. ashley 3 weeks ago

    Shane, what you are doing here is incredibly cool. I’m viewing your content for use in still photography, not cinematography. Anyone can pick up a camera, purchase a softbox or two and press the shutter button.

    I feel cinematography stands in stark contrast to still photography. I can’t really know and understand how to light a scene on the level of a professional DP. What DPs and gaffers do is completely esoteric and inaccessible to all but a lucky few who happen to live in the right place or know the right person.

    Thank you so much for a window into this world. I feel like a lot of photography is lacking lighting nuance, and more still photographers would benefit from crafting light on a CINEMATIC level. Thank you Shane!

  6. Imran 2 weeks ago

    This is incredible, do you have any thoughts on what monitor LUTS I can use for my night interior? using a Canon c100mk2

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