5 Tips for Good Lighting

There's no substitute for good lighting. I'm always surprised at how many producers count on software to fix poor lighting in post.

The GIGO principle certainly applies to lighting. The fact is, if you start with grainy, poorly-lit footage, your end result will be compromised. No matter what people tell you, it doesn't matter how good your camera and editing software may be, if you are a lazy lighter, your productions will suffer. Knowing this, the best thing you can do to increase the production quality of your videos is NOT to buy a better camera or a new color-corrector. The first thing you should do is learn to light. While these five tips can't possibly cover all there is to know about lighting, my hope is that they will inspire you to learn to light like the pro that you are.

Three-point lighting is the time-tested standard for lighting talent for TV and film (Figure 1).

Three Point Lighting

Three-point lighting consists of Key, Fill and Back lights.
Figure 1

A three-point setup consists of a key, a fill and a back light. The key light is typically positioned to the front of the subject, slightly to one side. It provides the primary source of illumination in this setup and its quality and characteristics help to establish the mood of the scene. The fill light is less powerful than the key light. It is positioned on the side opposite the key and serves to soften (or fill-in) the shadows created by the key light. The back light (or hair light) is positioned above and behind the subject so that it casts light on the subject's head and shoulders. This adds depth and separates him from the background. Learning and using three-point lighting isn't difficult. It will make a huge difference in the look of your footage and in the overall professionalism of your productions. If you're not using it, it's time to start.

When a bright key light is positioned close to the camera, the result is "flat" lighting (Figure 2a).


A key light at the 6:00 position creates a flat, "ordinary" look that is absent of emotion. This look is often used for lighting news setups.
Figure 2A

Flat lighting is emotionally neutral. If you're doing news, this may be fine. But if you want to add emotion, merely flooding your subject with bright, flat, light isn't enough. Lighting can be used to move and manipulate shadows to create the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional screen. To add depth, position the key light so that it strikes your subject at an angle (Figure 2b).

A key light positioned at the 4:30 (or 7:30) position adds the illusion of depth without being overly dramatic. This is the preferred position for the key in most three-point lighting setups.
Figure 2b

Once the key is positioned appropriately, use the fill light to soften its shadows to your liking.

The hardness or softness of a light can be determined by examining the shadows that it casts on your subject. A hard light casts a dark shadow with a sharp edge transfer (Figure 3a). 


Hard Light has a narrow shadow edge
transfer and a dark, dramatic shadow
Figure 3A

Soft light has a wide shadow edge transfer
and a softer, lighter shadow.  Soft light is
typically preferred for lighting faces
Figure 3B

Soft light casts lighter shadows with a wide gradient shadow-edge transfer (Figure 3b). Soft light is more flattering to the face than hard light and is preferred in most setups. Hard light can make a subject look intense and even wicked. Small, focused lamps cast hard light and shadows. Larger and more diffused lamps cast softer light and shadows. You can soften the effect of a light by adjusting its distance from the subject or by adding diffusion to spread the light.

Some people are inherently more difficult to light than others. The top three problems you'll run into are: people wearing glasses, bald heads and dark skin. While the solutions are slightly different, the problem is essentially the same: bright reflections and specular highlights that create unattractive, glowing, hot-spots. When lighting a person with glasses, lights placed anywhere near the camera create specular highlights on the lenses of the subject's specs (Figure 4a). Bald heads are less of a problem, but you'll still get small hard light spots across the cranium. When you expose subjects with dark complexions properly, you often end up with hot spots on the tip of the nose, forehead, cheeks and chin. 

Lights positioned anywhere near the
camera will create ugly, distracting
reflections on the lenses of glasses.
Figure 4A

Eliminate specular highlights in spectacles
by moving lights out to the sides
and raising them higher on their stands.
Figure 4B

For glasses, the solution is to go up and out. Raise your lights higher and position them as far to the sides as possible until the reflections are gone (Figure 4b). People with bald heads or dark skin need to be lit with very large, very soft lights positioned very close. The goal is to make the specular highlight larger than the subject's face, bathing them in soft light.

The job doesn't end when your subject is lit. You're not done until you've lit the whole shot. Save a light or two for your background. Pinch your barndoors down to create a shaft of light across the background or add a gel for a splash of color. Taking a little extra time to dress your set with light will greatly improve the look and feel of your shots.