Lighting can make or break the quality of a film or video. Whether you’re creating an amateur documentary or a generously funded feature film, you’ll need to find the right lighting equipment to achieve compelling shots. You’ll also need to ensure your lights are perfectly angled to achieve the desired effect. A tense horror film, for example, will require a very different lighting arrangement from a corporate promotional video.
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the prospect of film lighting or video lighting as part of your video production workflow, don’t fret. While it’s perfectly natural to feel intimidated by the vast array of lighting options on the market, you don’t have to be a professional filmmaker with amazing film equipment to achieve a great setup – even on a small budget! To help you get it right the first time, we’ve put together a handy guide to lighting for video and film below. We explore everything from need-to-know terminology to the clever tricks that could help your films stand out from the crowd.
First things first: Why is video lighting so important?
Lighting can help to shape your film in the following ways:
- It helps to create an atmosphere for your film or video. If you’re planning to produce a commercial video, for example, you’ll need to create a space that feels neutral and professional. If, on the other hand, you’re building a film studio to film a thriller, you create somewhere you can experiment with dark and suspenseful lighting.
- Lighting helps to guide the audience’s gaze. If you want to attract attention to a specific prop, person, or animal, you can use lighting to your advantage.
- Lighting can affect how your characters or subjects look. Some forms of lighting will make your subject look as smart and groomed as possible, while others will make them look stressed or tired. The type of lighting you use will, of course, depend on the purpose of your video!
- Lighting can affect how professional your film looks. Without good lighting, the finished product will probably look drab and uninspiring.
What are the key types of film & video lighting?
- The key light
- Fill lighting
- Bounce lighting
- Practical lighting
- Soft light
- Hard light
- High-key lighting
- Low-key lighting
- Ambient lighting
- Motivated lighting
Most of us don’t give lighting a second thought while watching our favourite shows and films, but filmmakers can spend hours contemplating and discussing what kind of light will best suit a single scene. To make smart decisions, you’ll need to learn about the main types of lighting used in mainstream filmmaking and how to use them. With this in mind, here are some key terms to remember:
1. The key light
A key light represents the primary source of lighting in a scene. It is likely to be the strongest light on your set and can be moved around to create drastically different effects. Placing the key light behind an actor or subject, for example, will generate a much gloomier and more suspenseful atmosphere than placing it in front of your subject.
Key lights are often used as part of a three-point setup, in which three light sources are carefully positioned around a subject to create a multi-dimensional effect (more on this later!). Here are a few top tips for making the most of your key light:
- Set up your key light before setting up any additional lights.
- Avoid placing the key light too close to the camera, as this will make your video look dull and lifeless.
- Use key lighting to draw attention to a person or object.
2. Fill lighting
A fill light helps to eliminate shadowy areas on your set, thereby adding visual depth to your film. Fill lights tend to be weaker and softer than key lights, ensuring that your set looks as natural and visually appealing as possible. LED lights tend to work well for brightening gloomy areas of the set, although you can also use a reflector if you don’t have multiple lights to hand. Simply place the reflector about ¾ opposite the key light, ensuring that the soft light is evenly spread. Here are a few things to remember when setting up your fill lighting:
- It’s vital to check that the fill light doesn’t create any unexpected shadows. If necessary, you should play around with positioning before filming.
- Often, your scene will look great with just a key light and fill light. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it by adding more lighting elements!
- You can use fill lighting to boost exposure or decrease contrast in your scene.
As the name suggests, backlighting hits a subject from behind and is often used to enhance its depth and shape. If your subjects look a little flat, a backlight could help bring them to life. Broadly speaking, you should place your backlight a little higher than your actor or object. While backlighting tends to be one element of a three-part setup, you can use it on its own to create a silhouette or halo effect. Other key issues to consider when using a backlight include:
- It’s possible to use the sun as a backlight. You’ll just need to use a foam board or reflector to diffuse the light.
- Backlighting can create unpredictable effects, so remember to experiment before you start shooting.
- Overexposure is common when backlighting. If the light is too harsh, dim it down.
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You can use a sidelight to highlight the sides of your subject or object and add texture to a shot. While not as commonly used as backlights or fill lighting, a sidelight is perfect for filming dramatic, sexy, or tense scenes. If you’ve ever watched a noir film, you’ll know that creating high-contrast images with a sidelight can add a sense of danger and intrigue to any scene. We recommend using a sidelight without a fill light. Alternatively, you can adjust the intensity of the fill light to round around an eighth of the sidelight.
5. Bounce lighting
Bounce lighting involves reflecting light using a foam or silk board, a wall, a ceiling, or a reflective surface. The surface you choose as a reflector will determine the intensity and quality of your lighting. A foam board, for example, will create something soft and gentle, while highly reflective silver materials will create very harsh lighting.
6. Practical lighting
Practical lights are lights that are visible within the scene you’re filming, such as a TV set, candle, torch, or household lamp. Practical lighting can be difficult and unpredictable to work with, but you can get around issues such as overexposure by investing in a dimmer switch or placing diffusion gel around bulbs. Other points to consider include:
- Candles are often very poor forms of lighting. If you want to create an atmosphere with candles, you’ll need to subtle illuminate your scene with fill lighting.
- Practical lights are great if you want your subjects to change the lighting effects mid-scene.
- Practical lights are perfect for creating a spooky atmosphere. Just think of the flickering lights used in films such as David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out or John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place!
7. Soft light
You can probably guess what we mean by soft light, but it’s worth taking note of when and how to use it. Soft light is often achieved with diffusion equipment or a large light fixture, creating soft or barely-there shadows. Soft light tends to be the most flattering, meaning it’s great for promotional videos, romantic scenes, interviews, and much more.
8. Hard light
While soft lighting in film is versatile and flattering, hard light in film is very tricky to use. It creates harsh shadows and sharp lines that can be aesthetically jarring (and a little off-putting for your subjects!). Small lights tend to produce hard light, which usually requires diffusing. Occasionally, hard light may be used to create unique and experimental effects.
9. High-key lighting
High-key lighting is very bright and tends to fill an entire scene. Forget lighting ratios and careful diffusion – high-key lighting is all about generating an all-encompassing brightness that feels a little otherworldly. High-key lighting is often used for close-up cosmetic commercials, music videos, and sitcoms. If you want to use high-key lighting in your film, you’ll need frontal lighting.
10. Low-key lighting
You guessed it – low-key lighting is pretty much the opposite of high-key lighting. If you choose to use low-key lighting, your scene will be gloomy and contain a high proportion of shadows. Horror filmmakers often use low-key lighting to create a sense of dread, although it can also be used for dramatic interviews or other atmospheric scenes. To achieve low-key lighting, you’ll need a hard light source and a high lighting ratio. You should avoid using fill lighting and, if possible, use only one light source.
For more practical tips on achieving low-key lighting, check out this excellent video:
11. Ambient lighting
Ambient lighting refers to light sources that already exist in your filming location. Good examples include neon store signs, moonlight, sunlight, or street lamps. If you’re filming during the day, why not make the most of natural sunlight? Natural light is often soft and flattering (not to mention totally free!). Beware of the midday sun, however, as this can be overbearing, harsh, and could even affect the well-being of your actors. Other factors to consider include:
- Sunlight can fluctuate in colour and intensity throughout the day, which could present continuity issues when filming.
- If you’re unsure about what kind of lighting style will suit your scene, start with ambient lighting. It works for a wide range of moods and won’t take hours to set up.
- You’ll need to incorporate factors such as weather, so remember to check the forecast before heading out!
12. Motivated lighting
Motivated lighting can imitate or brighten natural light sources such as moonlight or sunlight. It can also be used to enhance practical lighting. One of the most common uses of motivated light is to replace natural light as it fades towards the evening, helping you avoid continuity problems. If you need to use motivated lighting, here are a few tips for getting it right:
- Remember that natural light can change in colour as well as intensity throughout the day. If you want to brighten your scene in the evening, apply colour-correcting gels to your light source.
- It can be tricky to replicate natural light. If possible, invest in filters, diffusers, and other types of light modifiers to help you achieve the perfect effect.
- If you’re struggling to achieve the type of light you need, wrap up filming for the day and start again tomorrow. While this may affect your filming schedule, it’ll help you achieve optimal results!
A step-by-step guide to setting up your lights
So, now you’re well-versed in the various types of film and video lighting, what are the practical steps involved in setting up your shoot? If you’re feeling a bit lost, we’ve listed some key steps you’ll need to remember.
1. Come up with a plan (and a backup plan!)
Before you head to your location, you’ll need to plan for every eventuality. There’s nothing worse than having to call off a shoot due to inadequate light conditions or faulty equipment!
You can start by doing a bit of location scouting, then once you have a place in mind, check out the natural light conditions and even experiment with some of your lighting equipment. Checking out the lighting situation beforehand will reduce setting-up time on the big day and ensure you capture all the footage you need.
If you’re filming outdoors, it’s also a smart idea to download a weather app that alerts you to changing lighting conditions throughout the day. Don’t check the weather a week in advance and expect the forecast to remain the same. It’s unlikely to be accurate and could ruin your shoot!
2. Choose your lighting carefully
Obviously, you’ll need to hire or invest in the right type of lighting well in advance of your shoot. If you’re planning to film using natural light, you may not need much equipment – great news if you’re on a tight budget! However, natural light can be inconsistent and inadequate for filming purposes, so make sure you have some backup equipment to hand. Here are some options to consider, depending on your budget:
Practical lighting such as lamps can be relatively cheap, although they may not achieve the required results. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of affordable LED and ring lights on the market, many of which are light and portable.
It’s worth noting, however, that cheaper lights may lack adequate dimming control and can create rather harsh forms of light. It may also be tricky to control the colour of the lighting. If this is the case, you may wish to tape diffusion paper over the lighting (or even translucent tracing paper!). While there is plenty of fancy equipment on the market, amateur videographers can experiment with a range of techniques to achieve the light they need. Need to reflect some light? Why not bounce it off a wall, door, or ceiling? Don’t be afraid to try some off-the-wall strategies.
If you’re planning to stick to household lights, check out this clever video for excellent hints and tips:
If you want to invest in some mid-range lighting, there are plenty of options on the market. Mid-range lights will be a little larger than budget options. After all, bigger lights are better for achieving soft and flattering lighting. If possible, try to find a lighting kit with an adjustable stand to ensure your setup is as smooth as possible. You should also look for features such as dimming switches that will give you some control over the quality of light.
For those planning to work in a tight space, there is also a range of powerful compact lights on the market. These mid-range lights are great for recording professional-looking YouTube videos at home or filming interviews with people while you’re out and about. Again, look for premium features such as adjustable colour temperatures and dimming switches, as smaller lights tend to need more adjustment. Think about how these features will compliment the other creative aspects of your set-up, such as the background ideas for your videos.
Prepared to go all-out to capture the perfect shot? Great news! There are plenty of excellent products on the market for those willing to pay a higher price for their lighting. Pricier studio lights tend to be much bigger than low-budget options, so you’ll need to consider how you’ll transport them to your shooting location. You could also consider renting a big-budget light online to reduce costs or test your options before investing.
Key features to look out for in big-budget lighting include wireless controls, full-spectrum colour options, excellent diffusion capabilities, strong output, and comprehensive dimming options. Before you splash out, however, you should consider whether expensive lights are worth it. With a little experimentation, you can achieve fabulous effects using natural light or budget options. What’s more, you won’t see the full effects of an expensive light if you don’t have access to a premium camera. Unless you’re planning to produce a blockbuster, it’s worth thinking economically! Consider checking out our film camera buying guide for more advice in this realm.
3. Learn about three-point lighting
Worried we’d forgotten about the three-point setup we mentioned earlier? Don’t worry! We’ve got you covered. Three-point lighting is by far the most common setup for professional videographers, comprising a key light, a fill light, and a backlight.
One of the easiest ways to understand the three-point setup is by thinking of a clock face. If your subject is at the centre of the clock, the camera is at six, the key light is at four, the fill light is at eight, and the backlight is somewhere between one and two. The key light should produce most of the light, while the fill light should help to subtly eliminate dark shadows. The backlight should be adjusted to create depth and will produce hard light.
Naturally, you’ll need to adjust this setup to suit your needs. However, it should provide a great starting point if you want to create an aesthetically pleasing and natural-looking scene. If you’re planning to create a tense, ethereal, spooky, or weird atmosphere, you’ll need to experiment with a different setup.
4. Adjust the colour temperature of your lighting
The colour of your lighting can significantly alter the look and feel of your video. Warmer (or orange/yellow) lighting will often create a friendlier or more inviting atmosphere, while cooler (think harsh white and blue) lighting will create a more unnerving or tense atmosphere. We recommend avoiding mixing different colour temperatures, as this will make your shot look confused and unprofessional. Many LED lights come with adjustable lighting features, although you can also purchase filters and gels to adjust the colour of your bulbs.
5. Beware of glare!
If any of your subjects or actors wear specs, you’ll need to watch out for glare, particularly if you’re using hard forms of light. You can avoid glare by placing your lighting fixtures higher up and using the camera viewfinder to ensure their glasses look great from your chosen angle. If you’re struggling to get rid of unsightly reflections, try moving your lights further away from the camera while ensuring the three-point setup remains in place (if applicable). If all else fails, try asking your subject to remove their glasses if they’re comfortable doing so.
6. Remember that you may not get it right the first time
If you’re new to the world of videography, you may not get your lighting right straight away – and that’s okay! Over time, you’ll get better at experimenting with lighting for film and knowing what works for certain situations. Keep at it, and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from your friends, colleagues, and family members.
Get to grips with film and video lighting today!
Whether you’re a rookie filmmaker or part of an established video production company, it’s always worth thinking carefully about your lighting setup. Even minor mistakes can significantly affect the overall quality of your video. So, keep this guide to hand when you’re hiring, purchasing, or setting up your lights. And don’t be afraid to experiment!
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