How to Use Lights in After Effects

One of the biggest benefits of After Effects is its ability to create studio 3D animation. Along with that is the ability to create lights, similar to more fleshed out 3D programs like Maya or Cinema 4D. But how do lights work in After Effects and how do you use them? Let's dive in and check it out.

Graphic artist at work

After Effect's 3D Is 2.5D

After Effects version of 3D is not really 3D as you might think of it in the terms of a Pixar movie or a video game. It's really 2.5D — made up of objects that have height and width but not any depth although you can stack them on top of each other and create an illusion of depth.

It's much more like South Park's style (although South Park is created in Maya). It's as if you have pieces of paper that you can prop up and put in Z space; they themselves don't really have any depth to them but you can create a scene with depth in it. It can be a little tricky to wrap your head around but stick with it because once you understand how the 3D works in After Effects you can create some really neat animations and effects with the program. 

Creating Your Composition

So pop open your After Effects program and let's make a new composition by selecting Composition > New Composition or by using the keyboard shortcut Command + N. That will bring up the New Comp window. Title it "Light Test" or something clever like that so we can try to reinforce good organizational habits when working in After Effects. Make it 1920 by 1080 (which should always be your working standard). Set the Frame Rate to 23.97 and make it around 10 seconds long. Once we've done all that click OK.

Creating a Light

Now that we have our composition set up let's create a light. In your drop-down menu at the top of the screen select Layer > New > Light. You can also right-click on your timeline or workspace and select New > Light, or use the keyboard shortcut Shift + Command + Alt + L.

Once we've done that you should see the Light Settings window pop up on your screen, here we can control what kind of light it is as well as what its features are. We have a few options, Parallel, Spot, Point, and Ambient.

Parallel Light

A parallel light is something kind of light a lightbox. It creates a plane that projects out the light from it, rather than it being an individual point. Parallel lights usually case a more evenly distributed amount of light in a wider area with a more gradual fall-off out from the center.


A spotlight in After Effects works just like a spotlight in real life; it's a single point that you can aim around and point at things. They are usually smaller, more circular focused lights that you can control how wide or narrow it is as well as how sharp the falloff is. Spotlights are usually used to highlight a specific part of a frame; the rest is in black shadow with a fairly sharp fall off.

Point Light

A point light is as if you took a light bulb and suspended it from a wire and used that to light your frame. It's a point of light that you can move around, but without the added features of the spotlight like the ability to adjust the width. To control the point light's area, you control its brightness, so the brighter the point light the more of the scene it's going to show, but it will also start to blow out anything that is directly around the point of that light.

Ambient Light

Ambient light will create lighting for your entire scene, but without the ability to maneuver or place that light or control it's cone or falloff directly. Ambient light is most closely relatable to the sun; it will light your entire scene, but you don't have much control over it. An ambient light would be used most often if you want to affect the lighting of the entire frame.

Applying the Light to Your Scene

To learn how to use lights in After Effects, let's use the Spot Light option because that will have the most options within it for us to play around with and learn from. The same techniques apply to all the other forms of lights, they'll just have a few fewer options than the spotlight does but all the same principles apply to them as do the spotlight.

Select Spot from the Light Type menu and let's check out its other features. We have the color of our light, changing this will change the color of your light.

Next, we have intensity, a measure of how bright the light is. For now, let's keep it 100%; going lower than that will make it dimmer and going higher will make it brighter and blow out the very center of the spotlight.

Next, we have the Cone Angle and Cone Feather, the cone angle determines how wide the spotlight is, so the higher the angle the bigger the circle will be and the smaller the angle the smaller it will be. Cone feather determines how sharp the edge of our light is, so a feather of 0% will be a hard line, and higher 100% will be a gradual fade out of the light rather than the sharp edge.

Falloff, Radius, and Falloff Distance are all similar to cone feather, only they apply more to the outside of the light rather than the edge of the light. A smooth falloff with a high radius and a large falloff distance will seem like a much bigger light that slowly becomes darkness rather than a sharp, focused spotlight.

Casting Shadows

This gets its own little section because it's an important element in making your lights. Odds are if you're making lights in After Effects, you'll want them to be casting shadows. To do that, we'll need to be sure that our Casts Shadows box is checked here in our Light Settings window.

Once we check that Shadow Darkness and Shadow Diffusion will become available to change. Darkness is obviously how dark the shadow is, and diffusion is how soft or sharp it is. A high diffusion means it will have a fuzzy edge to it whereas a low diffusion will create a crisp line at the edge of the shadow. For now, let's put diffusion at 10. Once we click ok you'll see your light appear in your composition.

Controlling the Light

Once our light has appeared in the composition we can start to move and position it if that's part of the light options (remember ambient lights you can't position).

With the spotlight, you'll see that we have our standard red, green and blue arrows attached to it as if it were any other 3D object created in After Effects. These control the X, Y, and Z positions of the light. You can click and drag on each of these arrows to help move and position where you'd like your light to be.

You'll also notice with spotlight we have a line and a dot coming off of it. This controls where the spotlight is pointing. That is the spot light's Point of Interest. We can animate and move both it's position and point of interest separately, so it's as if we have a real spotlight and can slide it around on the floor as well as adjust its aim. 

All the controls can be found within the light, and anything we're not happy with we can tweak even after we've created the light. The Transform option in our light's drop-down menu within our timeline controls all of its positioning and rotation, and the Light Options drop-down controls everything from the settings window we experienced earlier so we have plenty of ability to mess around with it until we get the digital light effect we're after.

Having Lights Affect Your Objects

Since our scene is just light right now, we'll want to create something for it to affect so let's create a new solid for it to light. Choose Layer > New > Solid or use Command + Y to bring up the Solid Settings window. We'll make it a full 1920 x 1080 so it fills our scene and makes it whatever color you'd like then click OK.

You'll notice when we create our solid it looks like a giant block of color, not being affected by the light at all. Even if we drag it below our light in the timeline it still isn't being affected.

That's because to get a layer to react to lighting it must be a 3D layer within After Effects. So in our timeline, we'll need to toggle this new solid layer to be a 3D layer by clicking the empty box underneath the logo of a 3D cube. That will put a cube into this empty box and turn our layer into a 3D layer and you should see it be lit by your light as soon as we toggle that on.

Creating Shadows Between Objects

Now let's take it one step further and create another object so we can see an After Effects shadow in action. Do the same technique of creating a solid (Command + Y) and then we'll take that solid and slide it over a little bit to the left.

Now, we need it to be a 3D layer so that it will accept the lighting, so toggle that same empty box beneath the icon of the 3D cube to switch that layer to a 3D one. We'll need to pull it away from our original solid as well, to create some distance between the two so they're not stacked right on top of each other.

Click and drag the blue arrow or go into the layer's transform options and slide the Z position, so that we pull this new solid closer towards our light and off of the other layer. You'll notice right away that there doesn't seem to be any shadows happening. No matter where you positions or angle your light you won't see a shadow, that's because you need to turn on the ability for layers to cast shadow visual effects in After Effects.

Click the arrow next to the layer's name to bring up the drop-down menus, then do the same for Material Options. You'll see Casts Shadows is set to OFF by default, so toggle that to ON. You should see a shadow appear behind this layer and on top of your other one. Here we can also control many aspects of how our layer accepts lights as well as if it casts off any light similar to a reflective surface.


So there you have it, those are the basics of creating light in After Effects. After you've done that it will simply be a lot of trial and error to figure out what settings you like set to what values to create a shadow or light that you think lights your scene the best. Remember, there's no right or wrong way to light something so go wild and try to create some really dynamic lighting!

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