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6 Lighting Reference Ideas for Animation

ben marvazi 2020

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Elevate Your Animation Lighting Reference Game

Lighting is more than just a component of animation; it's a storytelling tool, setting the mood and bringing scenes to life. In the world of animation, understanding and effectively using lighting can transform good work into something truly magical. 

This is where the concept of a 'lighting reference' becomes crucial. A lighting reference, essentially, is a guide or inspiration that animators use to mimic real-world or artistic lighting effects in their projects. 

light filtering through three windows

Cover GIF by Devon Ko via GIPHY

In this blog post, we'll dive into seven innovative lighting reference ideas that can help animators capture the essence of their scenes more vividly. 

1. Natural Light Sources: Capturing Real-World Lighting

When it comes to lighting in animation, there's no better teacher than the natural world. 

The way sunlight filters through leaves, the subtle changes of light at different times of the day, and even the stark contrasts during a sunny versus an overcast day provide invaluable lessons in lighting. 

For animators, using these natural scenarios as a lighting reference can add a touch of realism to their work.

  • Observing the Sun: Take the time to observe how sunlight behaves. Notice the variations in intensity and color at sunrise, midday, and sunset. These observations can serve as a versatile lighting reference for different scenes in animation.
  • Shadow Play: Pay attention to how shadows are formed outdoors. Shadows can tell a story of their own, and understanding their nature can help animators in creating more dynamic and realistic scenes.
  • Weather Effects: Different weather conditions affect lighting dramatically. The diffused light on a cloudy day or the golden hue just before sunset can be excellent references for setting the mood in animated scenes.
  • Capturing Moments: With today's technology, it's easy to capture these lighting scenarios using a camera or smartphone. Build a personal library of lighting reference stills by photographing natural light at various times and settings.

Using a natural lighting reference not only grounds your animation in reality but also opens up a plethora of creative possibilities.

2. Artificial Light: Understanding Studio Lighting Techniques

While natural light offers a range of dynamic and organic lighting scenarios, artificial light allows for controlled and precise illumination that can be crucial in animation. 

Understanding studio lighting techniques and using them as references can significantly enhance the visual appeal of animated scenes.

Studio Lighting Basics: Familiarize yourself with the basic setups of studio lighting, including key lights, fill lights, and backlights. These setups can be replicated in animation to create depth and dimension in characters and scenes.

Experimenting with Angles and Intensity: Different angles and intensities can drastically change the mood and focus within a scene. Animators should experiment with these variations in their work to see how they affect the overall feel of the animation.

a woman sitting by candle light


Color Temperature: Artificial lights come in various color temperatures. Understanding how to use warm or cool lighting can help set the right atmosphere in animated sequences.

Reference from Photography and Film: Many photographers and filmmakers excel in artificial lighting. Studying their work can provide valuable insights and inspiration for lighting reference in animation.

Creating a Mini Studio: If possible, set up a mini studio to experiment with artificial lighting. This hands-on experience can be an invaluable reference for understanding how different lighting setups impact a scene.

By incorporating artificial lighting reference techniques into your animation work, you can create more polished and professional scenes. 

3. Cinematography in Film: Learning from the Masters

The cinematography in film is a treasure trove of inspiration for animators, especially when it comes to lighting. 

The way cinematographers use light to tell stories, convey emotions, and create atmosphere is artistry that animators can learn from and emulate.

  • Study Iconic Films: Look for films renowned for their exceptional use of lighting. Classics and contemporary films alike can serve as excellent lighting reference material. Notice how lighting contributes to the mood and narrative.
  • Understanding Light as a Narrative Tool: In film, light is often used to convey emotions or highlight important moments. Analyze how changes in lighting affect the storytelling and consider how these techniques can be adapted in animation.
a woman's face exposed to a flashing red light


  • Behind-the-Scenes Insights: Many films release behind-the-scenes footage showing how specific lighting effects were achieved. These insights can be incredibly useful for understanding practical applications of complex lighting setups.
  • Interviews and Commentaries: Listen to interviews or commentaries from cinematographers. Their perspectives on lighting decisions can provide a deeper understanding of the craft.
  • Recreating Scenes: As an exercise, try recreating lighting reference setups from your favorite film scenes in your animation projects. This practice can help you grasp the intricacies of lighting in a more hands-on way.

4. Photography: A Resource for Dynamic Lighting

Photography, much like animation, relies heavily on lighting to create impactful images. 

Animators can draw immense inspiration from photography, using it as a lighting reference to understand light and shadow dynamics in a still frame, which can then be translated into moving scenes.

  • Understanding Light in Stillness: Study how photographers use light to enhance their subjects. Notice how different lighting setups affect the mood and tone of the photographs.
  • Building a Reference Library: Create a collection of photographs that showcase a variety of lighting scenarios. This library can be a quick go-to resource for lighting ideas and inspiration.
  • Playing with Shadows: Photographs are excellent for understanding how shadows work. Pay attention to the shape, sharpness, and intensity of shadows in different lighting conditions.
a woman with a camera bending down to take a photo


  • Exploring Different Genres: Different photography genres, like portrait, landscape, or street photography, use light in unique ways. Exploring these genres can provide diverse lighting reference ideas.
  • Experiment with Photography: If possible, try your hand at photography to gain firsthand experience with lighting. This practice can help you understand the nuances of light and how it interacts with different subjects and environments.

5. Digital Tools and Software for Lighting Reference

In today’s digital age, a variety of software and tools are available to help animators simulate and understand different lighting scenarios. 

These digital solutions offer flexibility and control, allowing for experimentation and precision in lighting design.

  • 3D Modeling and Animation Software: Programs like Maya, Blender, or Cinema 4D offer sophisticated lighting tools. These allow animators to experiment with and visualize different lighting setups in a 3D environment.
  • Lighting Simulation Plugins: There are various plugins available for animation software that can simulate real-world lighting conditions. These can be extremely useful for achieving realistic lighting effects in animation.
black and white 3D rendering of blocks


  • Interactive Lighting Labs: Online resources and apps offer interactive lighting labs where you can adjust lights and see their effects in real time. This is a great way to learn about lighting without needing a physical setup.
  • Reference from Video Games: Modern video games, especially those with advanced graphics, can be excellent references for dynamic lighting and shadow effects.
  • Online Tutorials and Courses: Numerous online platforms offer tutorials and courses focused on lighting in animation. These can be a great way to learn from professionals and see how they approach lighting in their projects.

6. Creating Your Own Lighting Setups

For animators, hands-on experience with lighting is invaluable.

Creating your own lighting setups not only helps in understanding lighting concepts better but also fosters creativity and innovation. Here’s how you can start experimenting with lighting reference in your own space.

  • Start Simple: Begin with basic equipment like lamps, reflectors, and diffusers. Understand how different light sources affect the subject and the environment.
  • Experiment with Shadows: Play around with the positioning of lights to see how it changes the shadows. Notice how the mood of the scene shifts with these adjustments.
  • Use Color Filters: Experiment with colored filters over lights to understand the impact of color in lighting. This can add an emotional layer to your animation scenes.
  • Document Your Experiments: Keep a record of your experiments. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. This documentation can serve as a personal guide for future projects.

Add Quality Lighting Reference To Your Animator Skillset

a woman washing away her own shadow


Lighting plays a pivotal role in animation, impacting everything from the mood and atmosphere to the realism of a scene. By exploring various lighting reference ideas, animators can greatly enhance the visual storytelling of their projects. 

Whether it's drawing inspiration from the natural world, studying cinematic techniques, experimenting with photography, utilizing digital tools, or creating your own lighting setups, each method offers unique insights and learning opportunities.

If you’re an animator who’s looking to start your own studio or grow your career, check out our blog on How to Start an Animation Studio and GET FREE TRAINING to kickstart your animation career today.

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