The Basics of Lighting in Video Production

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Lighting is the bedrock of video production. Yes, I said that. Without good lighting, you might as well switch off your camera and find something else to do. Here’s the thing, lighting makes or breaks your video. To a large extent, the lighting part in videography is an art as much as it is a science.

What are the basic rules to follow for video lighting? First, the natural light is arguably the best lighting for any video shots.  Besides that, using different camera angles is always a great idea.  In case natural lighting is not good enough, putting the three-point lighting system to work is crucial. This lighting system is often considered the backbone of video lighting. If you complement the three-point lighting system with the correct color temperatures, your final cuts will always be top quality. Moreover, if you pick the right backgrounds, or use the available ones correctly, you will always produce crisp and quality videos.

In hindsight, I have always been a stickler to the basic rules of videography. On most occasions, the basics will always solve all your lighting issues. If they don’t solve them, you can trust these basic rules to curtail them from becoming a reality!

Let’s cut the chase, here are my 5 most important basic things to consider in video lighting.

 Natural lighting

Shooting with the sun’s light is liberating. Natural light is great for all kinds of videos. Unless you absolutely have to shoot with artificial light, using natural light will always work. However, even with great natural light, shooting is not all about switching on your camera and getting the groove on.

Camera sensors are set to the severity of the sun’s light on default.  No one can control how bright the sun shines. But you can always to control how much effect the sunlight will have on your video. In so much as the severity of this light is concerned, you can easily reset the camera’s aperture width, either to take in more light or to take in less.

What’s the best time to shoot using natural light?

The highest quality of natural light is available during “the magic hours. ” This is just a fancy name for mornings and evenings when the light is soft and the sun falls behind you if you position yourself. Some producers call it “golden hours.” Others call the same time ” blue hours.” Simply put, it is just the time when the sun is at its weakest, and its rays hit the earth low angles.

Here’s the thing, the mornings and evenings are the best time to take those video cuts because the sun casts light at an angle. When the sun is directly above your subject, you will often see unwanted shadows in the video cuts. If the angle is good enough, you can use the light to produce nice silhouettes or to light up your backgrounds.

Around this time too, you have longer shadows, which you can use for some great dramatic views and sharper contrast. Besides, it is significantly easier to expose a person’s facial tones when the light is soft, and the shadows can easily be manipulated to their advantage.

Using natural light

Different shooting environments call for different reactions to natural light. On most occasions, your focus should be on reducing the severity of the sunlight, rather than using it to light up the shooting surface.

In case you choose to shoot in the outdoors, you should always try to use the sun as a back-light rather than an on-screen lighting source. This is as easy as placing your subject in front of the sun, with the sun behind them. If you are lucky enough, the sun might just strike from the back of their heads. This will give you a very nice hallo in the video. Moreover, it will also light up the whole face with no shadows, and your subject won’t be forced to squint either.

Here’s one great trick if you are shooting using the sun. Always shoot with your camera pointed into the shadows. It works wonders on your video quality and the contrast value.

Most filmmakers use reflectors and flags while shooting in natural light. It is a rather inexpensive way to manipulate the available light and put it to good use. Mostly, there are situations where you will need to fill in the light or to create some form of negative fills in your videos. On these occasions, using simple cardboards and other reflective material to bounce the light around works wonders to the final quality of your video.

Artificial lighting options

Fine, natural lighting is great, almost therapeutic and simple to use. However, it is not always there. If it’s always there, the blue hour is not every hour. In any case, natural light in the indoors can be rather drab too. Therefore, you have to invest in a good lighting set.

The mistaken notion among most beginners is that artificial light are expensive, and useless is entirely baseless. I did not want to sound harsh, but that is generally the truth. It is crucial to find good lighting. If the sun can’t give it to you, make it on your own.

Lighting sets comprise a handful of equipment. You require clamps, studio lights, light balancers,  and backgrounds. If you shoot regularly, consider buying the whole set of equipment. It comes in handy a lot of times.

The price range for such equipment need not be exorbitant. Some of the tools sell for as low as $10 on some e-commerce sites. Besides, you can always rent them out to other producers in case you are not using them.

With artificial lighting, you have to learn the subtle art of light balancing, and choosing your color temperatures right. However, just as with natural light, using artificial light requires you to put your brains into action.  Set up the lights to complement the camera’s lenses rather than to compete with them. Besides, considering the comfort of the subject during the shoot is pertinent. Don’t force the subject to squint throughout the video.  You either get the whole system right, or you produce horrid results.

Given that you have to play with the bright spots and the shadows in equal measure, you probably need to know how three-point lighting works. In case you don’t already, here you go.

Three-point lighting

There’s an infinite number of arrangements to use when lighting up a video scene. While they are all different, all of them arise from the primary three-point lighting system. Simply, three-point lighting is the backbone of artificial lighting. The rest are just improvements and straws of the same.

How does three point lighting work?

First, you need to have three different lights in mind when setting up your lighting system.

Key light

The key light is the most important of the three lighting sources in your systems. It should be the brightest. Aside from being the brightest of the three, it should also strike the subject and the background directly. While this often causes a little discomfort on the subject’s part, using a large key-light ensures that you have lighter tones and lower color temperatures.

Fill light

The key light will have a few shadows and shadow here and there. The fill light will balance this out. In practice, the fill light should be a little less intense than the key light.  The exact value is always put at either two or three stops dimmer than the key light. To a far extent, always use softer tones on the fill light than the ones on the fill light.

Some video producers use two fill lights, each on either end of the key light to remove all the shadows in the lighting system, While this is often considered the best way to do, it should not pass your attention that this means buying more light sources. However, the two opposite lights balance out pretty well. However, for all intents, fill lights should always strike the subject or the background from an angle equal to or less than 45 degrees

Back light

Often, you will hear producers refer to the back light as the ream or the shoulder light.

Backlighting is the trickiest part of lighting. You either get it right or ruin the whole setup. You need to find a way to separate your subject from the background color. This means that you have to light up the whole background in brighter light than the one in the foreground.

Often, this implies the use of undiffused light as a back light. In fact, the whole point of any back light is to make sure that the light covers the whole background surface from the back, and forms no shadows. The principles backlighting work hand in hand with those of natural lighting. If you are creative enough, you can experiment with the back light tones to give better contrast, or shadows if you need them in your video.

Variations to the three-point lighting system

Yes, you should definitely learn the rules. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t break them. Video production is more of an art. Trust you me, art follows no specific rules.

While keeping the foundation of this lighting system is always great, experimenting with a few things brings really interesting results. For instance, you can include a fourth source of light from the side to increase the texture of the shot. Moreover, toying with the keypoints where you position the lights can also change your video significantly.

Color temperatures

How much do you know about videography? If you know enough to get you by, you definitely understand the gist of color temperatures and how lighting affects the general color temperatures in every video.

Different color temperatures carry different meanings in video production. If you choose a particular color temperature, you should have some artistic reasoning behind it.

In retrospect, the color temperature is all about the intensity of the lighting you are using.  It is just a complicated way to describe how the light affects the depth of the material color subjective in the film.  The temperature value is measured using the Kelvin scale.

Each color comes with a different level of depth depending on the intensity of light used on it. The needed temperature informs what kind of light source you ought to use on the three-point lighting rig. Generally, smaller light sources have a higher light intensity. This means that the final color temperature of the videos shot in such lighting will be high.

The softest color temperatures can be achieved while shooting in soft sunlight. Once again, we are back to natural light. However, the sunlight can be a little abrasive, if you don’t have a way of controlling the contact angles and the severity of the available light on the subject.

Most video producers prefer LED lights to halogen lights today. On one hand, most professional photography LED lights come with good controls, which can be used to change the color temperature of the shoot on the scene. Halogen lights, on the other hand, have a lot of dark spots, glare and high affinity to unnecessarily high temperatures. 

Camera   and lighting angles

Camera lighting is directly complementary to your lighting system. In fact, I should say that the shooting angle, though not technically a lighting as on itself is so related to lighting that we can’t leave it out of the discussion. However, the angle of your camera should always correspond to the lighting angle.

How do you shoot? How do you angle your light to bring out certain features? Do you place your camera high, to focus on the facial features of the subject? If you are shooting a corporate video, you probably should.  In the same videos, you should set up your lights on the same angle. However, if your intention is to shoot a YouTube video, you are doing it wrong. You don’t want to look too officious on a comedy skit meant for the web.

Do you shoot with your camera above the subject? If you want to take advantage of the shadows, you probably should. Besides, overhead shots of someone walking, or seated look pretty cool when you are starting your video. However, if the video is all about facial beauty, you are all wrong.

If you shoot from under, directing the light to make the subject appear bigger and more imposing would be a great idea. Lighting from a low angle brings out a lot of dramatic effects.


Here’s the deal,  you might set up the best lighting system around, if you don’t have a great background to work with, all the effort counts to zilch!

For videos, clean, plain backgrounds work really well. They produce the best video quality. Besides being clean, backgrounds that absorb light will force you to use more power on the lighting. On the other hand, those that reflect the light will produce a lot of glare, which you don’t want to deal with.

Sometimes, you don’t have access to such backgrounds. You, therefore, have to use whatever is around you. Dressing your subject in pieces that contrast with the background will probably solve most of the background issues. If not, you can always change the scenes, or increase the change the lighting set up to create a light background and place more focus on the subject, without the inclusion of the background on the whole set.

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