You want your Facebook, YouTube or even Zoom meeting video to make a good first impression, but getting the lighting right can be challenging even with the best digital tech. You’ve tried LED panels, 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! With a little practice it’s easy to go from newbie to pro, like this:
Five Lighting Tips
You can get professional-looking results without spending a lot of money. Here are five lighting tips for making great-looking videos of yourself or another person for YouTube, Facebook or Zoom video with almost any lights:
- 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.
How does this apply to Zoom? Obviously not everyone is going to have the time, patience or space to make a setup like this for Zoom meetings. But you can still apply the concepts. For example, instead of a “key” light, try to face a window. Maybe use a desk lamp to fill in shadows and light the background a bit (but keep visible floor lamps turned off or out of the frame to avoid blowouts). Read on to learn about those terms.
Why is video lighting important?
Your Zoom, Facebook or YouTube video might be an employer’s first impression of you, or a prospect’s first impression of 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.
Light your subject with the equivalent of at least 300 watts incandescent (about 45 watts LED), not including background 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 or (here) umbrellas 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 25-50% of the key’s brightness. 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. I bought a few boxes of 17.5W (100W incandescent equivalent) Daylight bulbs from Costco. They are reasonably priced and have a high “CRI” for good color reproduction.
Caution: 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 400w incandescent and the fill 100w. Too little light 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 (or tungsten) “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 are two examples of the same picture with mixed lighting (daylight on the left, tungsten on the right). The first is white-balanced for daylight, the second for tungsten:
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) records it as pure white and you lose all detail. Here’s an illustration showing why bright light blows out on video:
Note: A similar problem occurs at the dark end of the spectrum above. The first four shades are all interpreted by the camera as black, “crushing” any detail within that range of light. Some newer digital cameras have a wider “dynamic range”, so they can capture more shades from dark to light. Also, some can record in a “log” format to capture an even broader range, which requires more time later to make the image look correct.
Anyway, 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 blowouts, draw blinds that are in the background, shut off or move lights in the shot that are causing it, etc. If you want lamps turned on (e.g., to light your background and add depth), put in lower wattage bulbs to minimize the amount of blowout, as shown below:
5. Light (and Blur) 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 Piano Grand movie:
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. I’ve done that in my brick wall examples here.
Pro Tip: Background blur (“bokeh”) helps the subject stand out. Other techniques like shallow depth of field also help separate the subject from the background. Achieving even a slight blur (like in the Piano Grand image above) can do. You might need to “open up” the aperture to a smaller f-stop number. With the aperture open more, light comes in at more angles and creates more blur. Try increasing the shutter speed (so the shutter is open a shorter length of time), decreasing the ISO (making the camera less sensitive to light) or both, so you have to use a smaller f-stop to maintain exposure. Caution: That also decreases the “depth of field” within which objects in the picture are in focus. So, you might want to refocus on your subject and pay close attention to the entire face to make sure it has not become blurred.
The End Result
Here’s a screenshot of the final image 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 result looks pretty natural. There are no blowouts, no mixed lighting temperatures, and no unnatural light or harsh shadows. Note how the subtle highlights and shadows show the depth of the face. With an actual person and skin tones, the shadows and highlights would be more subtle.
What’s with the brick background? You’ll notice I started with a plain white wall and ended with a brick background. I wanted to show the dramatic difference that can make, especially when you blur it a little. The background is actually just a paper roll that I got at Joann Fabric for about $10 and taped it to the wall. It’s got some nice color and shapes without too much distracting detail, and it blurs nicely.
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), overhead 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.