Video Lighting Techniques: An Overview
Updated on March 28, 2019
The lighting techniques in your video will make a big impact on the quality of your final image. You can use the light to:
- Control the mood of your video
- Direct the eye of the viewer where you want it to go
- Emphasize and de-emphasize elements within the frame
- Add texture and color
- Make people look beautiful, ugly, sinister, or angelic
To illustrate the importance of using good video lighting techniques, let’s take a look at where video comes from...
I frequently say that video is photography at 30 frames per second, with sound. It’s very similar to photography. In fact, if you get training on photography, that will go a long way toward helping you become skilled with video.
The word photography tells us a lot. The roots of the word are “photo” which means “light’. And “graphy” which means "writing". So, with photography we’re writing with light.
Video is similar. When we shoot video, we’re writing with light at 30 frames per second, with sound. Light is the single most important element that affects the final video image.
So let’s cover some of the main concepts that have to do with video lighting techniques...
Control the Light DirectionThis is one of the first decisions I make when I’m placing my key light: What direction will the light come from? You can play with light direction to create different effects, and even to imply different meanings.
For example, when you use three point lighting, you might place the main light directly off to the side of the subject. This is called side lighting, and it will split the subject’s face in half. If you were to use this technique in a feature film, you might be implying that the character feels conflicted about something. Or it might represent dual sides to the same person.
A common use for lighting from the side is to reveal texture. A textured surface will look far more dramatic if you light it from the side, because side lighting brings out the shadows.
For another example of side lighting, let’s look at the sun in the morning, or near sunset. If you face a tree with the sun to your side during this timeframe, you’ll notice the shadows are long. Long shadows create deep drama.
Let’s use a smaller example. If you were shooting video of a parking lot with a brick surface, you might want to bring out the texture of the bricks. What reveals texture? Side lighting. So you take a lighting instrument, place it near the brick surface and rake it along the bricks from the side. This will cast shadows in the small crevices between the bricks, and emphasize the brick texture.
Since side lighting reveals texture, it’s generally not a great video lighting technique when you’re trying to make a person look beautiful. Very rarely will revealing the texture of someone’s face make them look beautiful.
However, if someone has a face with lots of character and wrinkles (texture), then side lighting might create a dramatic look for them.
Remember that side lighting reveals texture.
Back lighting reveals form. The perfect example of this is a silhouette. If you have someone stand in front of a bright light source, then you only see their outline, their form. It’s difficult to “see into the shadows” to see their face, or the texture of their clothing.
In three point lighting, we use a small back light to separate our subject from the background. In a sense, this is another example of how a back light reveals form. It creates a white line that traces around their hair and shoulders to separate them from the background.
A more subtle way to use back light to reveal form is when you need to make rain drops (or any small particle, like dust) show up on video. The best way to make these small particles appear is to back light them. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of not being able to see the rain. This is one of the reasons you see car headlights in a frame in films when there’s rain in the image. The car headlights provide the back light that makes the rain appear.
The front light is the most common and the least dramatic. When you light from the front, you hide shadows and texture. This is one of the reasons front lighting is sometimes called glamor lighting — it can help hide a model’s imperfections.
That said, by itself, front lighting can be boring because it’s flat with no drama. It reduces shadows.
Remember there’s drama in the shadows.
Once I’ve made a decision on the light direction, then I consider the quality of the light.
Light Quality: Hard Light and Soft LightLight quality refers to how hard or soft the light is. There’s a huge difference in the image when you use a hard light versus a soft light.
What is a hard light? What is a soft light? I’ve found that many people can’t look at an image and tell the difference between soft and hard lights.
This is important: The secret is to look at the shadows. For example, look at the shadow underneath a person’s chin. If there’s a clear, distinct line along the shadow’s edge, then it’s a hard light. Hard lights create hard-edged shadows.
If the chin shadow has a soft edge that gradually fades out of the shadow area, then the light source is a soft light. Soft lights create soft-edged shadows.
Generally speaking, people usually look best under a soft light. That’s why it’s such an important video lighting technique. You need to be able to create soft lights if you want people to look good. And people usually want to look good.
So how do you change a hard light into a soft light?
You make it larger. The larger the light source, the softer the light.
I have previously shown how to turn a hard light into a soft light, so I won’t go through all the details here. But the basic concept is to put large diffusion material in front of the light, so the hard light will then illuminate the diffusion material, which in turn becomes the new large light source that illuminates your subject.
My preferred instrument for this is a soft box. This is a heat-resistant fabric box that you put over the light, and it turns a small light source into a larger light source, which means it transforms from a hard light to a soft light. Soft boxes are great for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that they’re a soft light you can actually aim. And the aim gets even better if you put a fabric grid (sometimes called an egg crate) on the front.
Here's a video that demonstrates this concept:
Light ColorYou can use color gels to change the color of the light if you want. Personally, I usually only do this when I’m lighting a background, not so much when I’m lighting a subject.
This is a matter of personal taste, but my preference is to have mostly naturalistic light, so I’m not a big fan of adding rich color to the background light, splashing purple all over plants and bookshelves in the background. The opposite of naturalistic light is the kind of lighting you see on the television show C.S.I. Look in the background, and you’ll see all kinds of rich green, purple, and blue lights. (What are these vivid colored lights doing in a laboratory? It doesn’t matter. It’s not trying to be realistic; it’s just trying to add drama, and it works.)
By the way, color gels are colored, semi-transparent, heat-resistant sheets that you put over a light to add color. They’re like cellophane, but withstand heat better. Don’t try to make your own color gels. Genuine gels are inexpensive, and you don’t want to risk starting a fire with your own homemade versions.
I keep a dozen or so different color gels in my kit, so I can add color when I need to.
Color can have a big impact on the image. It can change the mood of your footage. It can emphasize your subject by having the color contrast with your speaker’s colors (such as the color shirt they’re wearing). Or you can send subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages with the color. For example, you could have a gold background light behind the subject when they’re talking about money.
Light IntensityYou have several different ways to control light intensity. This is the amount of light landing on your subject. There are different ways to measure the intensity: foot candles, f-stops, lux, and more. I think in f-stops, so that’s what I use.
Light intensity drops off dramatically as you move away from the light source. This is important to understand, so let’s use an example situation.
Imagine you have an object two feet away from your light source. But then you move the object so it’s four feet away. You might think that it would halve the light falling on it, because you doubled the distance, but that’s not how it works. It reduces by the square. This is called “The Inverse Square Law”. So in this situation, you would only have 1/4 the light. Every time you double the distance you end up with 1/4th of the light of the previous distance.
If you have the needed room to move your lights in and out, this is a great way to control the intensity, because you don’t have to move them far to make a big impact on the intensity. Simply move the light closer to the subject to get more light, or away from the subject to reduce it.
Some lights are dimmable, but keep in mind that tungsten lights will become redder as they dim down, so usually dimming isn’t a good idea, unless you intentionally want more red in your light.
Neutral density gel is a kind of gel you can put on your lights that will reduce the intensity without changing the color of the light. It just reduces it. This is a convenient and inexpensive option for light reduction when there’s no room to move the light instruments, and you don’t want to dim because of the color changes. How you use them depends on the type of light, but for example, you can clip a piece of neutral density gel to the barn doors of your light with a couple clothes pins. I use this setup a lot.
If you’re using professional lights such as fresnels, you likely have the option to purchase scrims for the lights. A scrim is another tool you can use to reduce light intensity. Scrims are circular metal screens that drop in front of the bulbs to reduce light output. They’re inexpensive and handy, so they’re good video light accessories to have with you.
Contrast RatioWe can’t discuss intensity without also discussing contrast ratios in your video lighting. I like to think of this as an advanced video lighting technique, because you’re not just controlling the light, but you’re also controlling the shadows.
The contrast ratio is the difference between the lit area and the shadow area. If you use a light meter to take a reading on the lit side of a person’s face, and it reads an f-stop of 2.8, and then you take a reading on the shadow side and it shows an f-stop of 4, then there’s one f-stop difference between the two. One f-stop means there’s half as much light on the shadow side, so the contrast ratio is 1:2 (read one-to-two).
If the light reads the same on both sides of the face, lit and shadow, then the ratio would be 1:1. If there’s two f-stops of difference, then it would be 1:4 (Remember the inverse square law!).
When you reduce the light that’s allowed into the shadows, then the shadows become darker which increases the contrast ratio and creates a more dramatic, more contrasty image.
What’s the ideal contrast ratio in your video lighting? There isn’t one. You can experiment and decide what you want to do with your projects. A ratio of 1:1 is called “flat lighting” and might be somewhat boring. A standard ratio is 1:2, but you can feel free to play with it.
High Key Video LightingWhen there isn’t much shadow in the frame, this is called “high key” lighting. Think of situational comedies on television with their lighting all happy and saturated and plenty of light everywhere. There’s hardly any shadows to make things appear moody or serious. This is high key lighting.
The overall frame seems bright with high key lighting. This is a video lighting technique that you might employ when you’re shooting happy, optimistic subjects.
Low Key Video Lighting“Low key” lighting emphasizes shadows. There’s plenty of contrast, with lots of deep shadows, creating a moody image. Low key is great for mysteries, suspense, horror, and serious topics.
I use low key lighting for talking head shots frequently, because I like the drama the image creates with so much darkness in the frame. I use a black background, and maintain a fairly large contrast ratio between the key side and the fill side of the face.
Here's a video tutorial about using a black backdrop to create a black background in your video:
If you want to experiment, you might want to try lighting a high key situation with low key lighting. For example, maybe you’re shooting a comedy, but decide to light it with lots of shadows and mystery in the frame. Will it work? It’s been done before, so why not give it a try? Or maybe try the opposite.
SummaryThe video lighting techniques you choose depend on what you’re shooting and what you want the final image to look like. Between light direction, light quality, light intensity, contrast ratios, and high and low key lighting — you have many different areas you can adjust and experiment with.
Clearly video lighting can be a lot more complex than just putting up a standard three point lighting setup.
Play with these techniques and see what you like, and what you don’t like. And remember that what works in one situation might not work in another. That’s why it’s so important to understand the techniques and know what they do. That way you can intentionally create the looks you want.