Three-point lighting diagram | Simple techniques to dramatically improve your footage
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.
KEY – The key light is your main and strongest source of light. This can be the sun or an electrical light source.
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.
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 | 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).
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.
Here are some additional low cost alternatives when lighting for video:
Halogen garden lamps – great for flooding a room with light.
A 100-Watt bulb under a large paper lampshade such as a China Lantern (see below) – creates nice soft lighting.
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
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!
I just wanted to say that I think your website is amazing . I am a beginner with an idea, and the info and articles on your website are easy to understand and answer many questions I have. I can not wait to start filming!
- Sarah (Sydney, Australia)
I am a professional filmmaker, and I applaud this site for detailing the ABC's of documentary filmmaking. It serves as my own checklist as I continue making my own movies ... Thanks!