The person responsible for the design and execution of a film's lighting is the director of photography (known in Britain, tellingly, as the "lighting cameraman"). This feat cannot be accomplished alone, however, so directors of photography, or cinematographers, need to work closely with their own support teams as well as with a range of collaborators in other departments. The cinematographer's main assistant is the gaffer, who is responsible for designing and supervising the rigging of the lights that are required to produce the effects the cinematographer desires. The gaffer is, in turn, assisted by the best boy and a range of electricians and grips who handle the often substantial array of equipment.

The range of lights used can, in themselves, require a large crew. First they must be positioned round the set, either on stands or supported overhead, a task performed by the riggers. During filming, the lights need to be operated, which may include dimming or moving them. Some types of light, such as carbon arcs, require constant monitoring by a dedicated operator. As well as the lights themselves, the lighting department uses a wide range of other apparatus that needs to be set up, monitored, and maneuvered. Flags or gobos, screens that come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, each with a different name, are used to prevent light from shining into the camera lens or onto areas of the set where shadows are required. They also may be used to help prevent microphone stands and other set equipment from casting shadows into the frame. Reflectors are widely used, especially for outdoor shooting, to redirect light in the desired direction. The different colors and substances used to make reflectors determine the type of light reflected. A choice can therefore be made between a sunlight and moonlight effect, for instance. Diffusers—translucent screens, often made of fine mesh or textured glass—are used to soften a hard light source. When shooting with artificial lights, it is possible to place a small diffuser close to the light source, but for sunlight shooting far larger screens may be needed.

Whereas gaffers and grips deal with the mechanics of delivering the lighting, its design is a product of the cinematographer's collaboration with the director. Although some directors have only a limited understanding of lighting equipment and technique, most have clear ideas of the kinds of effects they are looking for. Normally, they seek to create a particular atmosphere as part of their film's look. They also direct the movements of the actors and the camera, and the lighting must respond to each of these for reasons of visual clarity as well as compositional effect. The lighting styles of some directors can be as individually distinctive as those of top cinematographers. Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969), for instance, had very specific ideas about the way his protégé Marlene Dietrich should be lit in films such as Dishonored (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932) (both photographed by Lee Garmes [1898–1978]) and Blonde Venus (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934) (photographed by Bert Glennon [1893–1967]). More recently, Clint Eastwood's work as a director has been defined by unusually low-key lighting, irrespective of film genre. Like Sternberg and many other directors, Eastwood has shown a preference for repeatedly collaborating with cinematographers who are experienced in delivering his preferred visual style. His most regularly used cinematographer in the 1970s and early 1980s was Bruce Surtees (b. 1937), who was responsible for such films as The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Sudden Impact (1983). Surtees's former camera operator, Jack Green (b. 1946), then continued in the same visual tradition for thirteen films including Bird (1988) and Unforgiven (1992). He, in turn, was later replaced by his former chief lighting technician, Tom Stern, who photographed Blood Work (2002), Mystic River (2003), and Million Dollar Baby (2004).

The camera operator is another crew member with whom the cinematographer must work closely. In America, the director of photography often supervises all aspects of cinematography, including the camera and its operator. In Britain there is a greater separation of roles so that the operator is more likely to take instructions from the director. Irrespective of the line of command, though, a close relationship between lighting and camera is crucial. This is partly because the lighting design and camera placement must respond to one another, but also because the film speed (the type of film stock used and the amount of light it needs to register a clear image) affects the level of light required. The exposure time (the duration that the camera aperture is open) and the lighting levels must also be in accord with one another.

Furthermore, the cinematographer must collaborate with the members of the crew who are responsible for the appearance of the people and objects that are to be lit. Early discussions between the production designer and/or art director and the cinematographer can prove immensely beneficial, although they do not always occur. Set design can have important implications for the type and number of lights that are used, and for their positioning. The presence or absence of walls and ceilings in studio sets are especially critical in determining where lights can be positioned. Sets may be designed in such a way as to conceal light sources within the frame. Alternatively, they may incorporate visible light sources, such as table lamps, that suggest a logical motivation for the lighting used. Sometimes the set design may even include cheated lighting effects, such as painted shadows.

Expressionist lighting in The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955), photographed by John Alton.

The use of particular colors in set design, costume, and makeup may also have ramifications for lighting design. Most lights are not pure white but have a slightly colored hue, known as their "color temperature," which can change the appearance of the colors in front of them. This affects black-and-white as well as color photography, since two very different colors may photograph identically in monochrome, or else the same color may appear quite differently depending on the color of the light. For trick effects this has occasionally been used to advantage. One of the most famous instances of a special effect achieved through colored light was the transformation scene of actor Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), which was accomplished without any cuts or in-camera trickery. Instead, the effect was obtained by painting the actor's face with colored makeup. During filming, different-colored filters were moved in front of the lights, the technique gradually revealing the dark shadowed effect of his face paint.

The juxtaposition of dark and light surfaces may also raise lighting issues, since providing the correct amount of lighting for extreme contrasts can prove difficult. White bed sheets, for instance, may "burn up" in a dazzle of reflected light. Illuminating the scene at a lower level is likely to result in the face of someone in the bed appearing underexposed. Colored linen has often proved preferable, therefore, especially when shooting in a black-and-white, a situation that requires cooperation between the cinematographer and the art department.

As well as collaborating with other members of the production crew, the director of photography will normally try to foster a close relationship with the laboratory that develops the film. Both the apparent lighting levels and the color tones can be adjusted during the process of timing (or grading, as it is known in Britain). By deciding in advance how far this potential will be exploited, the cinematographer can choose to forego difficult on-set lighting setups in favor of emulating their effects in the lab.

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