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Lighting For Video

Three-point lighting diagram |
Simple techniques to dramatically improve your footage


Lighting For Video


Lighting for video and documentary doesn’t have to be complicated.

If you are a DIY filmmaker like me, you’re looking for: The least complicated lighting set-up that creates the best results at the lowest cost! 


The Basics: Three-point Lighting

If you’ve ever visited a movie set, you know how complicated lighting can get. But it all starts here with the basic fundamentals of the 3-point lighting set-up.

  1. KEY – The key light is your main and strongest source of light. This can be the sun or an electrical light source.

  2. FILL – This is your second light source, softer than your key light, which crosses the key light to “fill” the strong shadows created by your main light source. This can be a reflector or an electric light.

  3. BACK – The back light is used to separate the subject from background. It makes the scene look more three-dimensional. Sometimes you can use the “setting sun” as your back light or another light source.

Lighting For Video: 3-Way Lighting Diagram

Lighting For Video | Using Available Light

Using available light is key for the documentary filmmaker on a budget or short on time. Sunlight coming through a window literally becomes your KEY light. See diagram below.

Using light from a window, position your subject about 30-degrees, not directly facing the window. A 30-degree angle creates a natural look and helps bring out some details in the facial features and creates a more natural look (shining a light directly on the face “flattens” the features). 

Lighting For Video: Using Available Light Diagram

Does the KEY light create too much contrast and shadow?

If so, use a “fill” light to balance out the “key” light. A fill light can be created simply with a reflecting device such as a piece of white foam board or reflector… it “bounces” light from the key source to create the “fill” light. 



Lighting For Video | Ugly Overhead Lighting

When the natural light available is coming from overhead, like a hanging light bulb or fluorescent light, it can make the image look very flat (and ugly).

Try using a reflector in this situation to “bounce back” light into the subject’s eyes or another light source to fill in the shadows created by the overhead light. 


Lighting Equipment


Low-Cost Video Lighting Tips

Here are some additional low cost alternatives when lighting for video:

  1. Halogen garden lamps – great for flooding a room with light.

  2. A 100-Watt bulb under a large paper lampshade such as a China Lantern (see below) – creates nice soft lighting.

  3. Battery-powered lights. A cheap, battery powered light that sits on top of your camera is useful when there’s no electric sources nearby. However, a simple light on top of your camera does not create the best results (it’s just flat head-on lighting & not very natural looking). But it will do in a pinch and it’s better than nothing!


Low Cost Lighting: China Lanterns

Equipment mentioned/seen in this video:


Remember Safety!

Electric lights can be dangerous, especially tungsten lights which can get VERY hot. It is highly recommended to have a second person with your when dealing with lights. Lights are unstable and can easily fall or get pulled down.

  • Place chords out of walking areas if possible or tape them down so that people won’t trip on them.

  • Keep lights away from entrances where they can get knocked over by a door opening.

  • Make sure there is nothing flammable around the light or you risk starting a fire.

  • Let the lights cool down after they’ve been switched off. How many times have I been burned on those darn things!? Ouch!

In-Depth Video Lighting Tutorial

Video Lighting Techniques Tutorial

If you're ready to dive deeper into the world of video lighting, you might want to check out this excellent video lighting tutorial by Anthony Artis, author of The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide.  

Video Lighting Tutorial: Video Production Techniques: Location Lighting on Lynda.com


Video Lighting Kits

Continuous Lighting Kits Available For Rent from BorrowLenses


Final Thoughts

When lighting for video and documentary, even a few simple lighting adjustments can make a huge difference.

Documentary Filmmaking Gear Check-List.


Filmmaking Tools Quick Links





Return Home from Lighting for Video




Faith Fuller

Hi friend! I'm Faith, chief instigator here at Desktop Documentaries. I've been in the filmmaking/TV/video biz more than 25 years and I started this site to help super cool people like yourself get their documentaries made, seen and sold! I hope you enjoy the site and if you have any questions, please just ask!  



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