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How To’s

by KEN ERICKSON

Basic Lighting


One of the most significant aspects of the quality of video work is how it is lit. Video, film, or still photographs rarely “accidentally” look good, so, before starting a project, one of the things that should be at the forefront of the planning is how the final product will look. While video editing software can fix many lighting issues, the quality of the final product always benefits from getting it right in the camera.


About Light

All light has a color temperature, expressed in Kelvin (K). In the latter half of the 19th century scientists noticed that the color of a heated filament changed with temperature: low temperatures being reddish, and higher temperatures being bluish to white. Ironically, what we consider “warm light” is actually a lower tem- perature than “cool light.” Sunrise and sunset are warm, around 2500 to 3000K, while midday light is between 5500K and 6500K. Artificial light also has a color temperature, and each type of light has a characteristic temperature.

This knowledge gives us two important practices when lighting for a video shoot: 1) always white balance cameras before shooting; and, 2) don’t mix light sources.

White balance

If you don’t white balance the camera your video may turn out with an unusual hue. I had to do a lot of tweaking to a video that came back from a summer missionary that was extremely cyan. You can save a lot of time and hassle by taking a few minutes to white balance at the beginning. Check the instruction manual on how to white balance your camera. If it has automatic white balance, then turn the camera on after lighting your scene, making sure it’s pointing at the scene you’re going to be shooting. If the lighting changes somehow, you can turn the camera off and back on again, and it will readjust the white balance. Setting the white balance is even more important if you’re using more than one camera. Trying to match the color from multiple cameras takes time and can be difficult, but in the end you’ll be glad you worked it out.

Types of light

There are many choices when it comes to choosing what lights to use for your project. Fluorescent lights, like in an office, aren’t a very good source. Many fluorescent lights come off with a greenish hue on camera, which isn’t very flattering. They aren’t very controllable (you can’t aim them where you want them), and they tend to phase on video. If you speed up your footage you can see the light changing over time. The new corkscrew looking lights, CFLs, are also fluorescent. If these are the lights you have, it’s best to test them out ahead of time. That being said, there are fluorescent panels designed for video and photography available.

Incandescent lights are like the old type of light bulbs and flood lights. They come in a variety of color temperatures. Some advantages are that they are relatively inexpensive, as are their fixtures and dimming options, and all this is available at the local hardware store. The disadvantages are that they produce quite a bit of heat while not producing much light output. They also consume a lot of energy.

Halogens are like the work lights found at hardware stores. These put out a good amount of light, of a good color temperature, but also generate a lot of heat while using a lot of energy. I use these because they give me a lot of light, are easy to position, and are relatively inexpensive.

LED panels are becoming more popular for use in video lighting. I have found that the cheap three-color DJ types tend to flicker on video. LEDs specifically for video are available, but are quite expensive. Manufactures are now producing fixtures that also include selectable color temperature. While the fixtures themselves are expensive, they use very little power and generate almost no heat. Every year they are coming out with new products that cost less and have more light output.

Ambient daylight is one of my favorites. And it’s free. One of the challenges of using daylight is that the color temperature changes with time, as was mentioned earlier. This needs to be kept in mind when doing long shoots or shooting different segments at different times during the day.

Using different types of light in a scene often comes off looking strange, and the camera may not deal with it well. You can compensate by purchasing sheets of color correction filter. They are available from a few different manufacturers and are produced for every conceivable situation. Again, I find it easier to avoid mixing lighting types.

Another thing to consider when choosing what lights to use is how you plan to set them.

Three Point Lighting System

The classic lighting scheme consists of three lights (Figure 1). The key light is the main light source. It is typically the brightest on the subject. The fill light fills in the shadows created by the key light. The third light is called a back light, or hair light, and is above and behind the subject. The use of a back light gives the subject a bright edge and helps separate it from the background.

When using ambient daylight I like to hang sheer material or a couple layers of clear plastic drop cloth over a window to diffuse the light (so it isn’t so harsh and shadows aren’t as sharp). A reflector on the opposite side acts as a fill. You can purchase reflectors pretty reasonably, or use a large white poster board or a white sheet. If the shoot is outside reflectors are a good idea, as is diffusion, but both can be challenging outside. The time of day will greatly affect how your project looks. The sun at noon isn’t at a good angle and is cool, or blue. Morning and evening (golden or magic hour) are great times to shoot, but you’ll have to pay attention to changing color temperature and intensity so all the scenes match (especially if you’re shooting out of sequence).

Play around with light

Experiment with different looks. Use just a key light. Move it from in front of the subject to the side to see how that changes the look. See the effect of using just a key and back light. Shoot some footage using sheer material or diffusers over the lights, then without it to see the difference. Think about what situations would benefit from these techniques. Also, when you watch TV and movies, pay attention to how they light scenes. Imagine how you could achieve the same look.

You can achieve excellence in they way your videos are lit, even if there is little money available. Being intentional about how a scene or subject is lit will pay off in the end. It takes some extra time and work, and sometimes money, but you’ll be happier with the outcome.

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