Imagine you’re at your home with the curtains closed, and you see a glow coming from the window. Odds are whether it’s morning, evening, or noon–you’ll be able to tell. You can determine if it’s raining, snowing, or foggy based on one single thing–the quality of light.

Light is a thing that is so integral to our lives, but it’s something that we take for granted every single day. A light’s color, intensity, and source can create a powerful sense of mood, which is why its one of the powerful weapons to the filmmakers’ arsenal.

Before photography and video, painters were the masters of light. It is no surprise that painters — who were devoted to studying and scrutinizing every detail of color and light– continue to be an inspiration to filmmakers.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a French painter and a founder of the impressionist movement. He understood how lighting affects mood. He often painted the same scene in different light, capturing different feelings of the same place. For example, Monet made 30 paintings of the Rouen Cathedral exploring the power of light and mood.

Notice how each painting moves you differently, notice how you can tell what time of day it is, what the weather was like, all based on only the colors and contrast. Notice how the darker images make you feel cold, wet and gloomy. The red one evokes sunset on a warm and relaxing day. The blue one feels like winter–like a snowstorm is imminent. All of these are paintings of the same building, but each of them conveys completely different emotions.

Rembrandt was a prolific Dutch painter and printmaker. He is considered one of the most innovative and great visual artists in history. He liked to paint himself–a lot. Here is one of his self-portraits:

If Rembrandt were to live today, he would have been a filmmaker. His lighting style as you see in the image above was moody, evocative. The soft light that fills one side of his face and then only taps the right cheek is his signature style. The look he created has had a tremendous influence on modern filmmaking. To this day we use the term “Rembrandt lighting” to describe his beautiful style and aesthetic. 350 years later, and he is still impacting culture and new technologies. The guy is good!

Today, in the world of filmmaking the painter is now the Director of Photography (DP).

A DP holds a very crucial role onset. They are responsible for everything related to capturing an image with a camera. From the lights to the cameras, lenses, rigs, framing, to moving the camera, all of this falls under the direction of the DP. But the one thing a DP does is harness and use the power of light.

The DP’s paints like Monet, or Rembrandt except instead of using paint, a DP uses light. A DP uses light, shadow, and color to create mood and to craft a story. Often a DP will begin with a dark room, then turn on one light, which like a painter’s brush stroke, will be a brush stroke of light. Each subsequent light continues to paint the background, creating an overall mood. An alternative to using brushes, a DP uses small and large lights to paint. Instead of using black to darken, he or she would use black cloth to take away light.

Here is an easy case for us to explore. Take Scarlett Johansson for example, based on one image alone you can tell the mood, the environment, the time of day and much more.

The image is glossy, seductive, and mysterious. We can tell she is indoors, at night, in a smoky club perhaps? The dramatic lighting is evocative, making the audience drawn to her character. It leaves us wanting to know more.

This next image is the complete opposite of the previous. It feels cold and dirty. The desaturated colors cause us to feel monotony or to have a feeling of dread. You can tell it is overcast, with the sun peeking through. All the effects come together to make the audience feel uneasy.

Notice how the shadows on her face are subtle and soft, unlike the former image that takes place at night.

Here the lighting evokes something from the past, it feels like an old photo, it evokes nostalgia, glamour and the warm colors evoke romance.

Black shadows and blue colors tell the audience immediately this scene takes place at night, you feel cold and uneasy. The image is dark, which clues us into the time of day. It’s possible she is being illuminated by the moonlight or the ambient glow of the city.  

As you can see shadows, colors, and quality of light have a tremendous impact on our emotions and perceptions. In the film world, this is why having a master DP who understands proper lighting and how it affects us is pivotal to the look of any film or video project.