If Terrence Malick can get such gorgeous images using almost entirely natural/available light, why do filmmakers bother with artificial lights?

From behind-the-scenes material, you learn that much of the time on a set is spent waiting for gaffers to set up lights. In addition to the equipment itself, that's a huge cost--the time of the gaffers and the waiting non-gaffers. Of course, relying on natural light can be costly, as you wait on the right sun/cloud combo, but Malick and others get great images off of available (i.e., there anyway) light bulbs too.

From The Revenant to Barry Lyndon to Swingers to selected scenes in Amadeus and The Bourne Identity, natural/available light is used seamlessly and beautifully.

So, why do the other 98% of movies spend millions of dollars a piece on seemingly unnecessary equipment, labor, and time? What benefit is there that I'm overlooking?


I guess I didn't make my question clear. It's not "explain light to me" or "does artificial lighting produce a different image". Those answers are all obvious and unnecessary. The question is more about a cost/benefit analysis. So let me clarify:

How much time/money is spent waiting for gaffers/cinematographers vs how much time/money would be spent waiting for natural light or using available light that would yield a similar --but not identical-- image? Of course this will vary based on the setting, time of day, etc., but if you have some estimates of particular scenarios, that would be great.

It's clear from the comments/answers that many people value a stylized, deliberate visual aesthetic. I don't. I prefer the look of available light and, perhaps more importantly, incidental camera placement. I would expect these two strategies to be very cheap and fast. And since I am --at best--ambivalent whether a scene is "well-lit" or has a distinctive color palette or a purposeful mise-en-scene, then I was thinking that those things are an unnecessary cost. Therefore, since moviemaking is a business, I would expect more films to favor incidental camera placement and natural/available light. Since they don't, I'm wondering what my knowledge/logic gap is. Which of the following may be true:

  1. I overestimate the relative cost/time of lighting a set/location;
  2. I underestimate the value that others place on the visual aesthetic;
  3. Lighting practices are vestiges of a time when inferior film technology necessitated massive lighting setups, and inertia has kept them around;
  4. Studio contracts require the filling of potentially unnecessary positions (in part, because of option 3)?

From the answers so far, my thinking is that at least the first three are true, with number 2 being the most important factor.

What other variables am I not accounting for?

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    There could literally be hundreds of reasons and cases for using artificial lighting. Not every movie subject lends itself to locations or timing to provide the type of natural lighting that is needed for a scene.
    – sanpaco
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 18:42
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    @Tom that's pretty much my point, there are so many different reasons why someone would choose to use a particular lighting source, from the type of film, to the location or setting of the scene, to the film maker's personal preference, etc. In short, just because some scenes/movies look great with natural lighting doesn't mean EVERY movie will look so. Using natural light in The Revenant adds to the overall feel and atmosphere of the film.
    – sanpaco
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 19:48
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    As a note... on sets they do often replace bulbs in light fixtures but if you want a room to look dim and you want the lampshade to be a calm yellow glow when seen on camera - you're going to put a 20 watt bulb in it because when you put a 100 watt bulb it's going to be bright white and difficult to look at. If a light source is visible on camera, you have to be careful about how much light it's emitting because it will flare on you.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 19:58
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    You actually do appreciate artificial lighting (enhancing natural lighting). In most movies, the vast majority of the time, artificial lighting is done well enough that you don't notice it. If it was not done well, you might notice it. If it was not done at all, you would notice it. Given unlimited time and budget, major directors can essentially mimic artificial enhancement to natural light -- even surpassing it. This question is a lot like a recent Photography question about professional photos: those guys use natural light but may go back to a site for weeks to get just the right light.
    – Wayne
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 11:45
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    Are you asking for a cost comparison of a movie shot with artificial light vs the same movie shot with natural light? That's impossible: the movie was only shot one way so we don't know what it would have cost in a parallel universe with different production decisions. Are you asking about costs associated with natural light in general? That's impossible because nature is not predictable. Are you asking about average differences in cost between artificially and naturally lit movies? That's impossible, there's too many other variables affecting costs of different movies. Seems too broad to me.
    – Jason C
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 17:13

4 Answers 4


The short answer is: You've picked three of the most talented and, significantly, indulged directors in history (Stanley Kubrick, Terence Malick, Milos Forman) and asked "Why doesn't everyone work this way all the time?" Most filmmakers can't take a year to shoot, and artificial light is more consistent, and can be used in places where there isn't any natural light, like sound stages, where a substantial (most?) filming is done.

Longer answer to follow, on the topic of natural conditions, generally, as well as lighting:

There's a reason Hollywood's in Southern California (as perfectly parodied in Steve Martin's L.A. Story): The weather is very consistently sunny and warm, and you don't have to worry as much about a delayed schedule pushing you into a cold, rainy or snowy season, or, as in Florida, a hurricane season.

Even so, you might note that this weather is primarily used as a blank canvas. It's sunny and warm, but we're shooting a cold, windy, rainy scene, so we add wind and rain and put our actors in coats. Or we drop in fake snow. Why? Why not go for "natural" conditions?

  • Primarily, natural conditions can't be counted on. The sunniest day may turn cloudy, even in So. Cal, forget about some place like England, New or Old. Shooting in natural conditions means placing yourself at Mother Nature's mercy, and she's a real bitch. Even in So. Cal, you can get screwed because delays pushed your shooting from early fall into early winter, and all of a sudden, you got El Nino making it rain for a month. Now you're even more delayed. The more delays, the greater the cost,the greater the chance you'll hit scheduling problems with the talent and, for non-Kubricks, the greater the chance a production will just be scuttled outright. Artificial light is a PITA, sure, but compared to losing a day because some unexpected clouds rolled in? And that's not even considering the fact that shoots are done out of sequence, often weeks apart.

  • Natural conditions are uncomfortable and dangerous. Weather is hard on equipment. You've got a lot of electrical cabling around, even if you're not lighting. Nature is full of moisture, and increases hazards to cast and crew.

  • Natural conditions, and this especially applies to lighting, are limited. There's nothing natural about making a movie. This is, essentially, the point David Raksin was making about "Lifeboat". This is the most salient point and is worthy of elaboration.

Have you ever filmed anything? Or taken many pictures, even? I really haven't. Maybe a few thousand pix and a few hours over the years of family, or scenery or what have you. Even so, pictures and especially video can end up appearing darker than you saw them with your eyes, creating a kind of dullness you didn't want.

Here's an interesting web page showing a girl lit in three different ways. You can see the difference between "proper" and "improper" lighting pretty plainly. But note the first and second pictures, especially:

enter image description here

Look at the effect of the light in those first two pix. The second one is naturally lit, but doesn't it "say" something to you? I mean, compared to the first one: The first picture is just a neutral picture of a pretty girl smiling. In the second one, her face is cast in shadows.

If you're a filmmaker, light is your primary tool. Your first job, above all, is to make the picture visible. But that's just slapping paint down. Your next job is to use that paint to say something.

So many great movies would just flat-out be impossible with natural lighting, at least in any recognizable form. Like, the third man:enter image description here

Entire directors are inconceivable with natural lighting, like David Fincher, whose style often involves completely shadowing peoples' eyes and faces.

enter image description here

I would make a perhaps odd recommendation at this point: Watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and then watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (the Tobe Hooper versions). The artificial lighting was limited by budget, and the film camera required a whole bunch of light*. The sequel is, of course, a much less significant film, but you can see Hooper had a budget, and it's lit in all kinds of insane ways—something I felt might have been a conscious reaction to the muddiness of the original film's imagery.

enter image description here

*Modern digital cameras and post-processing can throw a monkey wrench into all these things. But even if digital cameras are relatively cheap (compared to film) and far more robust and flexible (allowing for a lot more natural light shooting) post-processing can be pricey.

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    If you listen to the producers of The Walking Dead, they discuss the issues of dealing with nature. Since they film a lot outdoors, they are at the mercy of the weather and the Earth's rotation. Try filming a bunch of outdoor night scenes in the middle of Summer. You do not have much time for filming multiple takes of multiple scenes. If they could somehow use a sound stage for that, it would alleviate a lot of the headaches I am sure.
    – user9311
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 21:37
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    "The sunniest day may turn cloudy, even in So. Cal, forget about some place like England" I heard than in England, they've become so used to filming in cloudy conditions that on a sunny day they'll actually wait for it to cloud over, before starting a scene. Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 3:57
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    @AndrewThompson: I don't think there's a general practice in the UK to avoid filming in sunlight and film only in overcast. But I suppose that if the day is partly cloudy (like today is where I am in fact, maybe 70% patchy cover) then you're likely going to have to pick one and stick with it for retakes. Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 8:48
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    Just in the few minutes since I made that post, the street outside me has gone from sharp shadows to almost no visible shadows at all, and back, more than once. I would understand if the director prefers to wait for a consistent overcast than have the brightness change by an order of magnitude between shots or even mid-shot :-) Whereas if you wait for consistent sunlight today, you might not shoot anything. Believe it or not, though, even the UK has days that are clear all day, and you do sometimes see blue sky in British films! Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 8:54
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    @Tom This answer doesn't answer your question "What benefit is there that I'm overlooking" or "What other variables am I not accounting for" ...? I think it covers those very well.
    – Jason C
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 17:14

There's a lot missing with natural light and there's a lot that can't be done if you rely on natural light and most of it relates to being in control of your set.

Natural light is great... if you want natural light. It has a warm glow that feels really nice on film. It can't be beat... if that's the look you want.

Natural light isn't always what a person wants, though.

Sometimes you have a grueling scene that's going to take time to get through... meaning hours... guess what that light's going to do... That big ball of light in the sky (the sun) is going to move. And if the scene is supposed to take place in 15 minutes but it takes you six hours to shoot it... your light won't match when you go to edit the scene. It sounds minor but it can be very noticeable.

With a light kit, you control the "sun". It doesn't move. You can shoot for 12 hours straight and never move the "source" and your light will be perfect and constant.

Malick loves to shoot in real locations and, being an auteur, choosing to self fund most of his projects and producing them relatively inexpensively... he has that option. He shoots a lot outside, in actual houses... places with windows and available light to use and he shoots simply - he catches a lot "in the moment" without necessarily retaking shots... he wants it to feel real. If you're shooting this way (particularly outside), you don't need lights... or you can't use lights because you're limited by the sun (unless it's night).

Many movies (and particularly TV shows) are shot on sound stages. They're giant, dark spaces designed to keep the sun out so that everything can be controlled. Natural light isn't an option... and, often, they don't want it to be because they want that control. They want to be able to shoot night for day or day for night... if they can control the light, they don't have to shoot overnight when they need a scene that happens at night, they just cut down the lights outside the "windows" and shoot at noon. It's practical. Night shoots are expensive and people hate them.

Another thing is that it's easier to get good quality capture when things are "over lit". If you've never been on a set before, you'll be surprised by how bright it often is. You have more options in your lens's aperture settings, which allows you to choose from a wider range of focal depths. If you don't get enough light from natural light (as in shooting inside), you're limited in your aperture choices.

Light also sets moods. Sometimes you want that grainy green look of horrid florescent light... Sometimes you want a shaft of light to fall across something that's otherwise in shadow. Sometimes you want to shoot at night, which requires that you light the area somewhat. You (as a human) may be able to see well by moonlight but camera recording media (whether film or digital) is not great in low-light situations... it needs more light to record images, so lights are necessary.

You seem to be under the impression that nothing happens while gaffers are at work setting up lights.

If they're doing the initial lighting of the set, it's usually first thing in the morning and everyone else is doing other stuff. Camera is setting up their equipment, sound is getting ready, cast is in makeup and wardrobe, the director is reviewing the script, talking with the cast, the producers... everyone is busy.

If they have to adjust the lights in the middle of the shooting day, the time is often used for talent to rehearse lines or blocking, to discuss the scene and the emotion in it with the director or with each other... or to have their makeup and wardrobe touched up. The camera will often also be using that time to set up their frame, any camera movement etc.

This time is valuable and used by many different departments, not only the lighting team.

Also, if multiple sets are being used in a day, the gaffers may rig one set while everyone else is at breakfast and leave one or two people on call to "fix" stuff... and then send the rest of the team to light another space so that it's ready when they move on to that scene (assuming they have sufficient gear).

Yes, there are certainly times where you're waiting on the gaffer to fix something but it's not usually hours or even tens of minutes... unless it's a major change, you're only waiting a couple of minutes.

As to how much time you spend waiting for a gaffer vs how much time you spend waiting for natural light... well, if you're on a sound stage, you'll be waiting for that natural light for years... until the building falls apart and the light comes through the cracks in the walls.

Any sort of interior set requires lighting unless you're in a magical house with windows everywhere.

So, let's look at your points:

  1. I overestimate the relative cost/time of lighting a set/location

As I've tried to explain above, you assume that this time requires everyone else on set to wait for the lighting crew to do their work. This is not the case. Keep in mind, too, that many studios own their own lighting kits for anything shot on the lots, so paying for them on a per-film basis is not really an issue. They may have to buy them to have on hand and then pay for maintenance and storage but they don't have to buy or rent new lights for every film unless the DP wants something really fancy and new... which will probably be used on future projects, so the cost gets shared.

If they're on location and have to rent, yes things can get very expensive but it really is worth the cost.

  1. I underestimate the value that others place on the visual aesthetic.

It's amusing to me that someone who appreciates Malick's work doesn't care about aesthetic. His films are all about aesthetic. The entire job of a cinematographer is to make a film look unique, special, and (usually) beautiful. Without them, everything would look like daytime TV or home movies. Trust me, you care more about aesthetic than you think you do... it's just that good cinematographers do what they do in a way that you don't recognize the work that went into it.

  1. Lighting practices are vestiges of a time when inferior film technology necessitated massive lighting setups, and inertia has kept them around.

No. In fact, digital media is (at this point) worse with light capture than film stock is or was. I discuss this at length here. If anything, shooting digital requires more work on lighting, not less. Also, with the addition of LED as a lighting option in the last 10 years or so, the choices for lighting are much more varied now than they used to be. Lights are getting smaller, lighter weight, and don't put off as much heat, so they're more energy efficient and less expensive to run.

  1. Studio contracts require the filling of potentially unnecessary positions.

These positions aren't unnecessary. Even if you shoot everything you possibly can in natural or available light, that light still has to be shaped by someone. Grips still have to flag off overly bright sunlight. Someone has to pick which color temperature of bulb to put in the fixtures on set and shade off any unwanted lighting. Someone has to be there when you want to shoot at night to use actual lights to give structure to the set.

Movie studios are cheap... and independent filmmakers (who I've worked with a lot) don't have money to waste... they know that if the lighting is good, they'll get a better product. If it was more cost effective to not spend a huge chunk of budget on lighting and crew, they'd do it... it's very much worth it to spend money on lighting and gaffers.

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    +1 but "It has a warm glow"?? Are you in California?... I don't work on shoots with a warm anything - most times it seems to be still freezing in June, sideways rain, at best, flat grey skies... would more adequately describe the average shoot day in London .. [just joking] ;-)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 20:38
  • Texas ;) "warm glow" is being nice about it. :P
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 20:44
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    @Tom That's fine... just keep in mind that aesthetic is utterly subjective and not something we can really discuss in an "is this better" sort of way here... If you only like natural light aesthetics, that's fine but that doesn't mean that it's a better or more valuable one than a dark, gritty aesthetic or even a simple 3-point lighting setup. The type of film often determines what the aesthetic has to be... it's difficult to get the mood of a hardboiled crime film with natural light.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 22:34
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    @Tom I'm going to be honest. Your question seems like a rant against movies that happen to have aesthetics that are different than your own. All I've done is point out that your aesthetic is not shared by everyone on the planet and you can't expect it to be. Just because you see no value in the aesthetics of projects that use other-than-natural lighting does not mean that there is no value in it.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 23:23
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    @Tom: You "made a point" and then dismissed it. Several of us are telling you this, but you refuse to accept it. People make movies (as a business) to attract viewers. Viewers -- even those who, like you, claim to not care about the look -- want something that looks good and appropriate, and shooting without lighting enhancement does not look good except under ideal (and expensive) circumstances. BTW, "discussing" your guesses as an update to your question, then name-calling when people try to help you us the ultimate narcissistic pretension.
    – Wayne
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 20:43

As @sanpaco commented, there are many reasons for using artificial lighting:

  • Any set on a sound stage will intrinsically have no lights (or just lights way up on the ceiling). It will need to be artificially lit.
  • If a daytime scene is being shot at night time, it will need to be lit.
  • If an outdoor nighttime scene is being shot, moonlight will not be bright enough for a camera and artificial lights will be required.
  • If a scene has to be shot several times from several angles, natural light will continue to change and the shots won't match when edited together. This will be especially true if reshoots are required days or weeks later.

Mainly, as a former filmmaker and current YouTuber myself, I use light artistically. Colors of light (warm/cold for instance), light direction, the use of shadow, light streaming through a window ... these are all artistic touches as much as set decorations, costumes, makeup, camera work and even acting. I just think of lighting design as one more artistic tool to help convey a mood and a message, and the more artistic control I have, the better my art will be.


You also have to consider hard light and soft light. The first is direct and makes skin look hell, so fashion photographers doing a bikini shoot on a beach might have to erect diffuser screens to soften the sun - or block it out altogether to use flash.

Then there is light direction. If you do 100 takes that are supposed to be part of a 2 minute scene, then they all need to have the same light. This won't be the case if you simply shot all day with sun light - shadow direction will change, light intensity, light colour, and the length of shadows.

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