You want your blog or YouTube videos to make a good first impression, but getting the lighting right can be challenging even with the best digital technology. You’ve tried office lights, clamp-on shop lights or even professional soft boxes, and it still doesn’t look right. The good news… video lighting is easy once you know how!
You can get professional-looking results without spending a lot of money. Here are five lighting tips for making great-looking videos:
- Amount: Use a lot of light
- Position: Light one side of your subject brighter
- Temperature: Don’t mix daylight and warm light
- Blowouts: Avoid them
- Background: Light it just enough
What if you can’t change the lighting in your environment? You might be in a small space, in someone’s home, without all your gear, etc. That’s a problem documentary filmmakers, including myself, have faced. You can usually still improve the way your video looks. If you’re in that situation, read my tips for getting the most out of ambient lighting.
Note: In this post, we’re mainly discussing typical blog videos, with one person talking directly at the camera. Also, I’ll assume you’re going to leave your camera on auto-exposure or you know how to use the manual exposure. I may cover topics like that and other settings in another blog.
Why is video lighting important?
Your blog or YouTube video might be a prospect’s first impression of you or your company. You wouldn’t meet with them in person looking like a slob, would you? You’d make yourself look presentable before you even left the house.
Speaking of your house, ordinary home or office lighting tends to create awful-looking video. That’s because the camera and the eye “see” things differently. Cameras are not as sensitive as our eyes, they can’t detect as many levels of light, they can’t adjust for multiple color temperatures at the same time, and they can’t read depth.
Your lighting setup has to compensate for all of that so the camera “sees” the world more like we do. The good news? It’s pretty easy to do. Among other things, I’ll show you how to set up “three-point” lighting that pros use all the time!
1. Use a lot of light
Even with HD video, you’ll want more than average room lighting. Although newer cameras and phones work OK in low light, they’ll still create better images with more lighting, especially when people watch it on a large monitor.
With enough light and a little practice it’s easy to go from newbie to pro, like this:
Light your subject with the equivalent of at least 300 watts incandescent (about 45 watts LED), not including backlighting or ambient lighting. Keep the lights fairly close (about 3-4 feet) from your subject. Moving them further away greatly reduces the amount of light that hits your subject (75% less light if you double the distance). If you don’t have professional lights, you can DIY with a trip to the hardware store. More on that later.
Soften the light if you can. Light bulbs produce harsh shadows. To soften them, safely diffuse the light. Don’t let diffuser materials get near heat or electricity and use only approved materials. If you don’t mind spending a little money, buy a pair of professional softboxes.
For closeup work like in our examples, I use Smith-Victor clamp-on diffusers with Smith-Victor professional reflectors. That keeps everything compact and easy to set up almost anywhere.
2. Light One Side of the Face Brighter
Photos and video make things appear flatter than they are. To make a face look more natural, you need to emphasize the depth with highlights and shadows. Simply light one side of your subject’s face brighter than the other, like this:
The brighter light (on the left here) is called the “key” light. It provides the primary lighting for your main subject. The other is called the “fill” light. As the name implies, it partially fills in the shadows created by the key, so they don’t look as harsh. It also provides some lighting for the dark side of the face. The resulting highlights and shadows provide a natural sense of depth.
Make the fill about half the brightness of the key. You want to see details and contours, but not harsh shadows. Also, put the key a little above the subject and the fill a little below. Point both directly at the subject. To reduce glare and reflections, position them off to the side a little more.
Note: Those are two of the three lights in a classic “3-point lighting” setup. We’ll discuss the third light later.
Here’s a comparison of key and fill lights:
If you don’t have professional lights, you might try using a few clamp-on reflectors from a hardware store. They run about $10-$20 each. Use regular LED bulbs, which produce high-quality light instantly without all the heat or energy of incandescent. Don’t exceed the manufacturer’s specs, or the limitations of your other equipment (power cords, circuits, etc.). Consult a qualified electrician if needed.
In these examples, the key has the equivalent of 200w incandescent and the fill 120w. Any less than that may create a lot of “noise” in darker areas that wastes limited bandwidth needed to define the details elsewhere. The only cure is light!
3. Don’t Mix Temperatures
Daylight (either from outside or “daylight” bulbs) is a different color “temperature” than incandescent “warm” light traditionally used in homes. Your eyes and brain can compensate for both at the same time (like when sunlight spills in through the window of a lit room). Cameras can’t do that, so mixing the two in one shot will look odd and distract the viewer.
In automatic mode, your camera will try to figure out what temperature the scene is and set the “white balance” to that. Many will also let you set the white balance manually. Whatever the white balance is set to, light of a different temperature will not look white. Here’s an example:
Fixing blue sunlight. You can shoot with either temperature. If you shoot with warm (around 3000K) lights, sunlight coming in through windows will look blue and odd. If you can’t block the light from coming in and the window isn’t in the frame, try covering it with a brown or beige sheet. That will shift the color of the light to something much closer and will look more natural.
I prefer shooting with daylight bulbs to really bring out details, obtain the truest color and sometimes use ambient sunlight from windows as a base. And I don’t have to worry about stray sunlight looking blue.
4. Avoid Blowouts!
No, we’re not talking about tires. In lighting, a blowout is something so bright, the camera (which is much less sensitive than your eyes) sees it as pure white and loses all detail. Here’s an illustration showing why bright light blows out on video:
Blowout is really distracting and once there, you can’t do much about it. A window in a daytime shot is a typical example. So is a lamp with a bright bulb.
To prevent blowout, draw blinds and shut off or move lights that are causing blowouts. If you want lamps turned on, put in lower wattage bulbs to minimize the amount of blowout, as shown below:
5. Light the Background
You want your subject to stand out from the background. The easiest way to do that is to make the background darker than the subject; but not too dark that you induce dreaded noise.
Light the background just enough so it looks natural. Don’t make it too bright, or your subject will blend in. A simple standing lamp with a bulb of the same temperature should work fine. Keep the lamp itself out of the shot if you need to avoid blowout.
Here’s an example of subtle 3-point lighting from my documentary:
Make sure the backlight is behind, not above, the subject. Otherwise, it will create a shiny spot on the top of their head or forehead (especially with a head like mine), that will be distracting and difficult or impossible to remove later.
Extra Tip: Background light can double as a “hair” light. If close enough to your subject, a floor lamp or other background light source can double as the third light (also known as a “hair” light) in the 3-point setup by throwing a little light on the shoulders and head from behind. That helps your subject “pop” from the background. (Other techniques like shallow depth of field, that I may discuss in another post, also help).
The End Result
Here’s a screenshot of the final video with all the lighting on, softened and balanced. OK, so the model isn’t so hot, but the result is much better than what we started with:
The scene for the most part looks natural. There are no blowouts, no mixed lighting temperatures, and no unnatural light or harsh shadows. With some more time, I would reduce the double shadow that the desk lamp is throwing, and might add a little more shoulder light, but I wanted to set this up as quickly as you’ll need to. Also note how the subtle highlights and shadows add dimensionality to the face.
If You Can’t Set Up Lights
Sometimes you have to make do with what you’ve got. If you can’t set up lights, try these tips:
- Find the brightest room (other than the bathroom): Kitchens and dining rooms tend to have a lot of light, so record there if you can.
- Look into the light: Shoot during the day in a room with a decent-size window. Open the blinds or curtains and position the camera between yourself and the window, with you looking toward the window. That way, the natural daylight will light you nicely. Don’t position the shot with a window behind you. Either the window will blow out or the camera will adjust for that bright light and you’ll be in the dark (literally). In that case, you might as well just make an audio recording 🙂
- Avoid overhead lights: Unless you’ve got a bountiful head of hair (I don’t), over head lights will probably shine a big white blowout on your forehead. Again, position yourself so the light is behind the camera and lights your face. Also, position the camera very slightly above you so you’re looking slightly up at it. That will help prevent the shiny forehead.
- Daylight or warm light, but not both: As discussed above, try to avoid mixing light of different temperatures. It will look unnatural, distract your viewers and make you seem less serious.
That’s it. I hope this helps you make great looking web videos. Stay tuned for tips on planning your videos, recording audio, editing and more.
I’m a web developer, marketing pro, and video producer. I’ve made various commercial and other web videos, as well as an almost hour-long documentary. I also made many a film growing up and studied filmmaking in college (before switching to engineering). Lighting has always been a big interest for me and I had to learn it the hard way. Here, I’ve tried to boil it down to the basics for blog-style web videos.