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When I started out as a photographer, I knew nothing about lighting and composition. At least, I thought I knew nothing. These are the basic building blocks of photography, and I worried that being ‘self taught’ I would never truly grasp how to master them.

Now, there are lots of classes and videos and the like out there that can teach you about these topics, but they’re going to cost you money.

Don’t want to spend money? I definitely didn’t when I was starting out.

And then I realized that I’d been learning lighting and composition for years from absolute masters of the craft.

I watch a lot of movies

There’s a reason this site is called “The Nerdy Photographer”…

I have a voracious appetite for movies and television. I’ll watch anything once, and there are movies and shows I will watch over and over and over again.

What does that have to do with lighting and composition? Well, watching movies and television is like a masterclass in lighting and composition – if you’re watching people who know what they’re doing.

Learn to SEE the light and composition

There is inspiration and ‘teachable moments’ in lighting and composition literally all around you.

I want you to learn to analyze what you see and figure out how to apply it to what YOU want to do with your photos. I could post a few shots from movies or TV shows and dissect them and how they’re lit, but they might not be your style. I want you to use your brain to start SEEING the lighting and composition in what you’re looking at every day.

You probably don’t have the budget or the equipment that most filmmakers have when they’re shooting so what would be the point in breaking down how a particular big budget movie was lit? Besides, you are one hundreds of thousands of photographers out there. If I choose three specific shots from the history of film and television, it’s highly likely that none of them would fit your style.

So, if you’re looking for an article that’s going to give you a breakdown on lighting and composition of a specific type or style, this is not the post for you. If you want some ideas on how to analyze and look for great elements of lighting and composition, you’re going to need to read, observe, and analyze.

Yes, you need to actually be proactive and use your brain to see how people use lighting and composition.

Then you can start seeing the light and figuring out how to compose when you are taking your own pictures. That way, whatever YOUR style is, you can start playing with light to further hone it.

You can imitate, emulate, or innovate. I prefer the latter two options. But, you need a good base to work off of to do either of those. And establishing that base requires observation.

Stanley Kubrick

Probably one of the best of all time at lighting when it comes to filmmakers, Kubrick was legendary for using environmental lighting. This means that he used lighting that was part of the scene.

One of the most incredible stories about Kubrick and lighting is that he wanted to shoot many scenes in the film Barry Lyndon by candlelight and there wasn’t a commercial film lens that had an aperture wide enough to capture the scenes the way he wanted them lit. Then, he found out that NASA had commissioned several 50mm f/0.7 lenses to take pictures of the dark side of the moon. He bought three of them. You can read more about that story and see stills from the film over here.

In my opinion, it is one of Kubrick’s least entertaining movies, but it is GORGEOUS for the lighting and composition.

Watch some Kubrick films. If for no other reason that to see how he lights scenes using the environment – and the reason his lighting is so effective is because of his composition. Where he places his subjects, the lenses he chooses.

Sit down and pause the films, or just Google stills from Kubrick films and analyze the images…even if you don’t want to create similar compositions, you will learn an incredible amount from them.

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Orson Welles

Another giant in the world of film, Welles was brilliant at lighting and composition. While the Citizen Kane ‘clapping shot’ has become its own meme, take a moment to look at the composition and the light on Welles’s face…and the light on the man’s face in the background. He draws your attention with the light. He uses it to tell a story. You get the dichotomy of the two different reactions…

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And this shot, which immediately follows almost immediately after a quick shot of Kane standing and clapping in silhouette. Now Kane is utterly alone. THIS is storytelling through lighting and composition.

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One of my other favorite Orson Welles films is The Third Man. Fantastic film noir lighting. If you want dramatic portrait lighting, check this movie out.

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Legion

I love this show on FX. First off, I love comic book stories and this one is great, but it’s so much more psychological. It’s totally going to mess with your head – definitely not a binge watching sort of show. You really need to absorb it.

But from a technical perspective, the cinematography is brilliant, especially in the second season. In fact, you could say that the second season is very Kubrickian. Wonderful compositions and great, inexpensive, practical effects – no CGI! Watch it and see how they use simple lighting techniques, projections, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink to build the scene.

The scene below is my absolute favorite from the second season. It’s an actual dance BATTLE that represents three telepaths fighting one another…expressed through dance. Watch how the compositions change to create different impacts for sections of the dance.

Watch and Analyze

You don’t have to do it all the time, but take more time to inspect when you watch a movie or TV show. How is it lit. What’s the angle of the lighting? What’s the ratio of light? Is it artificial or natural? Can you tell?

What about the composition? How are the subject placed in the frame? How does that make you feel?

The more you break down the lighting and composition of what you’re watching, the more it will start to become second nature for you when you bring it into your work.

So, what have you been watching lately?

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