Quick Guide to Video Lighting

How many DSLRs does it take to change a light bulb? None apparently, because the ability for these new cameras to capture HD video in low light is so amazing so you don’t need to light anything anymore. Right?
No, No, No, No!

I was talking to someone recently and telling them about the gain on one of our new digital video cameras and how high you could push it without too much grain and they said 'great, that will save having to light'. This got me thinking. Are we not in the business to make the best looking pictures we can that are artistically designed to best tell the 'story' whether that be fiction, documentary or corporate?

Lighting in film always served two purposes; to be able to see the subject AND to 'paint it in the best possible light'. Just because our new cameras are fantastic doesn't mean that you don’t have to light a scene to be able to see it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t light to make it look better and more professional.

So let's go back to basics and have a beginners guide to three-point lighting. It’s simple and it works and it’s worth thinking about if you want to give your video some quality.

Key Light

Three point lighting is the start, and it's easy. The main light is the 'key' light. In day-to-day informal shooting this would be the sun or if you're indoors, the main overhead light. On a controlled set the key light is your brightest light source, either emulating from the natural world (sun/moon or room light) or basically just any good strong source of light falling at around a 45 degree angle on your subject.

Fill Light

The second in our three lights is the fill light. This basically 'fills in' any unwanted shadows created by the key light. So this is positioned at an angle on the other side of the subjects face to remove nose/neck shadow etc and to brighten the eye on that side.

Back Light

Finally, the 'back-light'. This is not, as is often mistakenly assumed, to light the background – though backlight can be created from an illuminated backdrop. This is to light the subject from behind, from 'the back'. Why? To separate the subject from the background. A light positioned high up, shooting down on a person from behind will give a line of light along the shoulders and a slight halo around the head to make your subject - your point of focus - stick out.

Why Bother?

So where’s the skill in just sticking three lights up? The main thing to think about is how these lights contrast in brightness and intensity. It might be that your movie requires harsh shadows so you don’t want a fill light, but this should still be a conscious decision to not have a fill light so you are still using a 3-point lighting technique. Playing around with these three lights enables you to paint with light and create much, much better footage.

From this point you can go on. You can think about 'practicals' - prop lights in shot that also add to lighting the scene - and background lighting which not only helps you to see what’s in the background but also adds colour, depth and shape to your shot. And there’s much, much more. Just look at the lighting department credits on a feature film for an idea of how many people are involved in getting it right for the 'big screen'. 

When you've sorted out the basics, THEN you can think about colour grading and correction. We are artists creating beautiful pictures and the whole point of our skills is that their effect should be appreciated without being noticed. Let’s not forget that lighting, along with sound, is the most important aspect of filmmaking. It allows us to paint in this most modern medium, and keeps us in control, however sophisticated the technology.


Evan Pugh is Creative Director of Butchers Hook Video Production. His credits include directing on multiple series of Big Brother & I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here as well as many corporate productions. His fondest memories are from camera operating on The Lord of the Rings, Return of the King.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 33
HubertChen
By HubertChen (10 months ago)

Excellent Article. Concise, easy to understand. Great Illustrations!

May I suggest a forth image: Show the light setup with the person sitting and the light be active. For me this Article is enough as I have done some studio photography. But I remember a time when I knew what I wanted, but I could not figure out where to put the lights.

And if you could add into the image the name of light and its intensity as percentage would be helpful to newbies.

Example: Key Light 100%
Fill Light : 33%
Back Light: 33 %

Please remember that some people learn by reading: Your Article is great. Some people learn by vision. Your Article lacks the 4th picture.

But I am nitpicking here. Great work!

And as I learned in a Movie I just saw: Happy! Thank you! More please!

1 upvote
Thomaschase
By Thomaschase (Nov 2, 2012)

Hi,
I am really enjoy this articles. and studied Various light setting photography

Thank You ,

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Comment edited 3 times, last edit 3 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
HubertChen
By HubertChen (10 months ago)

What is the purpose of your link ?

0 upvotes
kjbkix
By kjbkix (Jun 28, 2012)

Quick guide with great illustrated examples. Wish there were more like this!

1 upvote
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (Jun 12, 2012)

Nice easy intro to lighting any photo or video. Well done.

2 upvotes
TomHeaven
By TomHeaven (Jun 12, 2012)

The back light is pretty weak here. I had to look close to even notice the difference it made. I'd bump it up at least half a stop, if not more.

1 upvote
HubertChen
By HubertChen (10 months ago)

The back light is quite strong in this example. Compare the top of the hair of the last picture with the previous picture. If you bump it up, more of the heir highlight will be burned.

0 upvotes
TxCamFan
By TxCamFan (Jun 12, 2012)

Very nice article - succinct, well-written and easy to understand. A great primer or reminder.

1 upvote
Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Jun 11, 2012)

Cor, I remember Photoshop's lens flare effect. Nice to see it back, and so subtly as well ;)

Comment edited 9 seconds after posting
1 upvote
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Jun 12, 2012)

I try my best. But it's rare that my Photoshop genius gets the appreciation that I'm convinced it deserves, so thanks!

0 upvotes
hammerheadfistpunch
By hammerheadfistpunch (Jun 11, 2012)

it was on okay introduction, but the end result isn't very flattering, the key/fill ratio is all wrong and it makes the face appear flat. The backlight/hairlight is too strong as well. I use lowel U for a quick primmer, same principles with interactive tutorials and better technique.

http://lowel.com/edu/

0 upvotes
John Paul Bichard
By John Paul Bichard (Jun 13, 2012)

Have to agree, there is a lot of really good information on the web and I am surprised how DP as one of the more respected blogs put something up that is so amateurish and undermines it's own premise (that good lighting is key) - thanks for the link!

0 upvotes
HubertChen
By HubertChen (10 months ago)

I have to disagree.
This is a one page Article with three illustrations. Each is making the point. The whole thing is very concise and writing is excellent. Maybe the effects are a little over the top, but then again if you want to teach do newbies, better to be too accented than too subtle. There already one post in here where someone could not see the effect of the back light.

I appreciate your link and will use it as material to teach others on video lighting, something I have to do these months. So thank you.

But is it necessary to make derogative comments to the efforts here. I believe that for the length of one page, this Article is brilliant indeed

Please also simply check how many likes you earned versus others.

1 upvote
peevee1
By peevee1 (Jun 11, 2012)

"Let’s not forget that lighting, along with sound, is the most important aspect of filmmaking."

Sorry, but for most people you are totally wrong here. The most important is the plot, the rest is the cherry on a cake.

0 upvotes
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Jun 11, 2012)

You're right, but I think you may have missed the point of this article...

4 upvotes
Ashley Pomeroy
By Ashley Pomeroy (Jun 11, 2012)

A film with no lighting and lots of plot isn't a film, it's a radio play!

5 upvotes
EOSHD
By EOSHD (Jun 13, 2012)

The image isn't a cherry, it is critical in serving the story! Shouldn't prioritise one above the other in my opinion they are both equally important and both an art.

0 upvotes
HubertChen
By HubertChen (10 months ago)

@ Ashley: You made me burst out in laughter, thank you!

0 upvotes
Lee Jay
By Lee Jay (Jun 11, 2012)

"We are artists creating beautiful pictures and the whole point of our skills is that their effect should be appreciated without being noticed."

That's an assumption, and for the most part an untrue one for most amateur shooters of video on digital cameras.

Rather, we tend to be more like documentary photographers seeking to shoot what's already there without altering it. I shoot some video - not a lot, but some - and not a single one of my shots has been staged yet. They've all been candid shots, and so this sort of thing (off-camera illumination) is totally irrelevant.

When I saw the headline for this article, I was hoping for something about on-camera illumination and/or post-processing since those are the only types of light modification I can use when shooting candids.

1 upvote
Alberto Tanikawa
By Alberto Tanikawa (Jun 12, 2012)

Candids aren't everything, you could coerce or suggest your subject to perform in a certain spot (or you could relocate too), where you can capture the subject under more favorable lighting. You are staging it a bit, but it won't look so.

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
1 upvote
ptl-2010
By ptl-2010 (Jun 11, 2012)

I've done similar with a 2 light setup. I had 2 250w lights with umbrellas, one was aimed at the talents face at a 30 degree angle, and the other light was used as a hair light and the spill from it lit up the backdrop. The backdrop was just a textured one that was about 5ft away from the subject, it made for a nice vignetted look with good subject lighting.

0 upvotes
paul13walnut5
By paul13walnut5 (Jun 11, 2012)

To my eye the Key is off by about 90 degrees, should be on the left (our left) of the models face, and the ratios are wrong.
Fill should be half the key and back/rim.

There also appears to be some daylight seeping in.

Mixed lighting is almost as bad as no lighting.

If you are going to control the light, then control the light.

This guide is just a bit poor!

0 upvotes
Kim Letkeman
By Kim Letkeman (Jun 11, 2012)

Enjoyed the article. Short and to the point. Might have been useful to show the "gained up" high ISO image beforehand, for comparison purposes. Perhaps also a short clip showing a few seconds of all four lighting setups as actual video.

3 upvotes
marike6
By marike6 (Jun 11, 2012)

Since in general you're not using a meter when lighting for video (or are you?) I assume things like ratios, where you have the key and fill light at different stops, are not an issue. I'm wondering lighting if simple video lighting is done more by eye than with still photography.

On a side note, I sure wish Nikon or someone made a small, short barreled shotgun mike similar to the Nikon ME-1 shown above but with XLRs instead of a 3.5mm mini-plug. I'm looking for a shotgun mike for my D800 but I don't want one that is so long as to appear in the shot with my wide angle zoom. Unfortunately the ME-1 is not a shotgun mike.

Anyway, thanks for the useful article. The setup looks much, much better with the back-light.

0 upvotes
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (Jun 12, 2012)

Metering is just as important for video.
Keep in mind that one big difference between video lighting and still photo lighting, aside from requiring continuous light for video, is that if the light is very close to the subject, subject movement may not only change the lighting of the subject a lot, but the lighting equipment may show up in the frame. To the extent that your video is about motion and the subject may often not be stationary, the lighting may need to be placed at more of a distance than for still photos.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (Jun 12, 2012)

I think I see where you are coming from. Those of us photographers who often deal with strobes, may forget that with continuous lighting it is much easier to eyeball the lighting effect without a test shot. I find that my rather dim strobe modeling lights don't help nearly as much as I would like in predicting resulting lighting of the shot. Hence the need for a test shot. With a meter, the outcome is pretty predictable. With continuous lighting it is pretty much "what you see is what you get".

1 upvote
pdcm
By pdcm (Jun 11, 2012)

This would have been a better tutorial if a diagram had been included. I've always struggled with 3 point lighting for video. Mind you, so have channel 5 looking at some of their studio footage. So for me, this article didn't quite go far enough. Hopefully the author will follow it up with more information.

0 upvotes
Francis Carver
By Francis Carver (Jun 11, 2012)

If you are already shooting your videos with a DSLR, just about any quality is good enough, anyhow. And true videographers using pro-class video camcorders probably already know about lighting their subjects already. But this is still a great little summary of the main issues, thanks for posting it!

0 upvotes
marike6
By marike6 (Jun 11, 2012)

Fairly ignorant comment.
There are "true" videographers who use DSLRs and those who use RED or ALEXA cameras. It all depends on budget, and subject, not the camera. For example, in Act of Valor they used 10 5D Mk IIs because they are small, light, and easy to mount in a variety of ways, i.e. car mount, helicopter, etc. It didn't dramatically change their lighting gear.

In Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky had a 12 million dollar budget yet he chose to work with Canon 7Ds, among other cameras. I doubt his cinematographer said, "Oh, where using DSLRs, so you can light Ms Portman with a 60 watt tungsten desk lamp".
No. They lit the project professionally irregardless of the camera.

Except for differences between lighting for film vs digital, basic high quality lighting is done no matter whether the project is shot using an Alexa film camera, a DSLR or a RED Epic.

8 upvotes
andyroo770
By andyroo770 (Jun 22, 2012)

Irregardless isn't a word.

0 upvotes
kff
By kff (Jun 11, 2012)

the best teacher for it, would be Ingmar Bergman and his films...

0 upvotes
Leswick
By Leswick (Jun 11, 2012)

Kff, I take an issue with giving credit to a director (though I respect Bergman's work) while you completely omitted Sven Nykvist who created the 'film reality' on Bergman's sets.

Leswick

4 upvotes
pundit
By pundit (Jun 11, 2012)

This is not a very inspiring example to illustrate an article on three point lighting. As already stated the lighting is too flat. The fill looks a stop too hot. I would also reverse the positions of the fill and key. If the first shot had been with ambient room light only it would have illustrated the changes better with the addition of each light in the subsequent shots.

2 upvotes
Total comments: 33