Cinematography Production

Manipulating Hard Light

Hard Lighting techniques

Photo by: Okko Pyykko

Light can be manipulated as it travels from the light source to the subject. Let’s discuss the manipulation of hard light into shapes and patterns.

A break-up pattern is very often used to give texture to the background of a shot. Breaking up the light with a tree branch, gobo pattern, Venetian blind, window pattern, or just random streaks of shadow gives the image greater contrast and tonal variation and helps set off the foreground subject. The gaffer may want to exploit whatever shadow-projection possibilities are offered by the set and set dressing: foliage moving in the wind, a slow-turning fan, water running down glass, lace curtains, or a banister. For the pattern to be cleanly defined, the pattern maker must be as close to the surface as possible.

You get a cleaner shadow:

  • From a point source than from a larger one.
  • From a stronger light placed further away.
  • From a Fresnel fixture than from an open-face reflector fixture.
  • At full flood than when spotted in.
  • From the edge of the beam than from its center.
  • By removing the lens from the fixture altogether (though you also lose intensity and flood/spot control).
  • By using a donut to remove the edges of the beam with ellipsoidal and xenon lights.
  • Of Venetian blinds from a Fresnel if you place a C-stand arm through the center of the beam a foot or so in front of the fixture. (No one ever believes me on this one. Just try it.)

The distance also affects the size of the projected shadows. When close to the subject and far from the light, the pattern is of only slightly larger dimensions than the pattern maker itself. When the pattern-maker is very close to the light, however, the pattern is projected over a large area, extremely enlarged and distorted in shape, more expressionistic. Therefore, the size of lamp used, the size of the pattern-maker needed to cover the beam, and the distance of the light and the pattern from the subject must all be taken into account before placing the light. In fact, these considerations may have to be taken into account when designing and placing the sets. For example, if a light is to shine through a window and needs to be placed a considerable distance from the window, ample space must be provided for lights around the set.

Film Lighting Techniques

photo by: Relaxkid55


A cucaloris, also called a cookie or cuke, is a plywood flag with odd-shaped holes cut in it. It is used to break up the light into random foliage like splotches. A celo cuke is made with painted wire mesh and creates a more subtle effect because the mesh reduces the light rather than blocking it completely. A cookie does not look convincing if it moves during a take. For realistic moving foliage, use a branchaloris.


A branchaloris is nothing more than a leafy branch placed in front of a light on a C-stand. It breaks up the light, projects the shadows of branch and leaves onto the scene, and can be made to move naturally, as if in the wind.

Tape on an Empty Frame

To make lines through the light (to simulate the frame of a window, for example), take an empty frame (18 × 24 in., 2 × 3 ft, or 4 × 4 ft, depending on the size of the source and the frame’s distance from it) and run strips of black tape across it. It is easiest to build the pattern with the fixture in place and turned on, so you can see the effect it creates.

Excerpted from Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook by Harry C. Box © Elsevier, Inc. 2010

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1 Comment
   Roy Nigra said on April 26, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Nice Harry. We’ve come a long way my friend!

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