Film lighting techniques can be used to fight the winter blues

Film lighting techniques can be utilised to tackle the long, dark and dreary months, maintaining a sense of balance and wellbeing throughout. 

Seasonal mood, or the winter blues, affects many people during the holiday period, causing our disposition to be altered during the months with less light. In its most pronounced form, the winter blues can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder – or, aptly, SAD. This is where depressive symptoms can arise (or become more noticeable) during this time, and this can have all the hallmarks of major depressive disorders, damaging quality of life.

For most, however, it is not so extreme, but it can still be far from cheerful seeing the sun dipping below the horizon an hour before you finish work, and spending your time at home with the curtains drawn to keep out the night. Motivation and personal energy can suffer, diets can go awry, and our normal troubles can feel magnified. Given how much time we spend in the dark months, especially the further north or south from the equator we are, it can be worthwhile preparing for this time of year. Lighting, in particular, can make a difference.

In film-making, the most basic lighting setup is the three-point system. This is used to make sure that the subject of any shot is sufficiently illuminated and to avoid shadows and contrast, and it is done with three specific lights of differing intensity. This system can be applied to your home, but instead of being directional – to light a subject for example – it can be adapted based on the individual strengths of each light.

The Key Light will be your main light in the room, filling as much of the area by itself, whist also being strong enough to read with. This light should also be closest to the main areas you tend to find yourself in a room.

The Fill Light will be the counterpoint to the Key Light, and is best employed in the darkest part of the room after the Key Light has been positioned. It will generally be less intense than the Key, but strong enough to eliminate the larger dark pockets of the room, and reduce any contrast in the lighting that the Key might produce. The Back Light will be the least intense light. It is best positioned where the most shadows remain after the other two lights have been set up.

The distribution of lighting in your home is essential to maintaining a good homely mood, and in this setup, reflected or diffuse lights are the winners. You can bounce light lamps off walls to soften the glow, or change lampshades to Chinese paper lanterns to mellow the output. As a general rule, if you can see the bulb, you need to make a change. The more contrast there is, the worse. Shadows should never be straight lines.

Altogether, the three lights should be distributed in a rough triangle in any given room, and most lights are generally best positioned towards the walls. This lighting system is the opposite of what is generally established in homes, where one single strong light is central to each room. In the three-point system, lights are generally floor based or raised, and the main room light is not used.

Fairy lights – always available around the festive season – can also improve the lighting in a room, and are flexible in that they are not so centrally positioned. They are not just for Christmas – use these all through the darkest months. These lights make excellent Back Lights, of which you can have a multitude.

A three point light system is a basic setup, but can be expanded and increased in many ways; experiment to find the best way to use extra lighting. The idea is not that a room is flooded with light; instead, lights should be strategically positioned to get rid of deep shadows. Adding light is not as important as reducing darkness.

Lights positioned in front of mirrors can create a lot more light for the room, and large white or lightly-painted areas on the walls should be prime areas to set up bounced light, from, say, a large lamp. If you are up for a paint job, very soft non-white colours make for a warmer home atmosphere, and stark white walls should be reconsidered if your rooms are naturally somewhat dark.

Different parts of the room can be illuminated differently; for example, a reading area can benefit from stronger lights. If you have an outdoor area, especially with plants or shrubs near your windows, consider illuminating these with some outdoor lights – solar lights can absorb energy during the day and give it out at night. This will also have the function of putting you in touch with the outdoors from the comfort of being inside.

Film Lighting My Good Planet SAD

Of course, your lighting scheme only really applies to the rooms that you will be spending most of your downtime in – practical utility rooms such as small kitchens or the bathroom rarely need a change, and bedrooms should have simple diffuse lighting and table lamps. Candles in the bedroom are, naturally, inadvisable, but should be used generously in your main room to create pools of ambient light across the area.

In terms of the bulbs you use, whilst your first choice should always be an eco-friendly one, these come in so many varieties now that you will be able to find one to fit. Bulbs can simulate tones which are similar to daylight, and be frost-coasted to soften the glow. Harsh straight lights or overly strong bulbs can damage the warmth of a room.

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Other forms of lighting therapy have been investigated, and modern appliances such as sunlight mimicking bulbs and dawn simulator alarm clocks are designed to work in this sphere. The bright light therapy itself involves exposure to a particular wavelength of light in order to convince the brain that the body is in the presence of sunlight, while dawn simulators gradually light up the room over a certain period – usually a half hour – to create the illusion of sunrise. These can be used as a replacement for a traditional alarm clock.

Our bodies are geared towards lighting – it can affect our biochemistry and circadian rhythms, which manifests as different moods. Paying serious attention to home lighting in the dark months of the year can make the winter months cosier and, if you do get the blues, much more manageable.

Steve Wright

With a masters in Science Communication and a background in media, Steve Wright is an authority on all things scientific, as well as sustainability and consciousness. A Junior Designer and Contributor to My Good Planet, Steve specialises in making complicated material seem accessible and simple for all.