Western Films Lighting Techniques

Sunset Cowboy image by Rob Duffy from Fotolia.com

Western or cowboy movies are a genre associated with the development of the American film industry. Many of these films are a nostalgic tribute to the early untamed, American frontier years. Westerns are one of the oldest genres and were most popular between the 1930s and 1960s.

In the 1990s there was a brief resurgence of the genre when movies such as "Unforgiven", "Tombstone" and "Dances with Wolves" were popular. Lighting techniques used in Westerns depend on what atmosphere the filmmaker is trying to create.

Low-key Light or Noir Style

This technique, developed in the 1930s, focuses on the shadows of a scene to create an atmosphere of dark mystery. For instance, a spotlight would be directed from above, to light up the cowboy's hat and only his chin, leaving the rest of the face in dark shadows. This style would be used to emphasise the mysterious character of the hero or villain. As many movies of the time were shot in black and white, this lighting technique added to the artistic impact of the film.

High-key light

High-key light is when a bright light is used to highlight all effects. As many scenes in Westerns are shot in broad daylight, the sun was typically used as the primary light source. Fill lights were used to highlight shadows when needed, to emphasise the bright sunny day.

Back light

Western movies often used back light to create silhouette effects. A cowboy and his horse would be shot against the sunset to form a contrasting silhouette.

Three-point lighting

Three-point lighting was the standard lighting scheme for classical narrative cinema in the 1950s and was commonly used in Westerns. Three-point lighting was especially used in indoor scenes, for instance in a saloon or other building. This technique uses light from three directions: a backlight picks out the subject from the background, a bright key light highlights the subject and a fill light from the opposite side eliminates dark shadows.