Basic Lighting in a Video Centric World

Draco Halo Plus ring light.jpg
Draco Halo Plus

If there is a nexus between art and science in video production, it’s in the control and quality of light. Creative manipulation of light can elicit stunning images from a basic iPhone, while poor lighting will cripple the most expensive, state-of-the art digital cinema camera.

Light transforms the dull, nondescript two-dimensional video image into the three-dimensional illusion that can stimulate the imagination of an audience. Whether it be a dreary, stormy, terrifying night or a sunny, warm, cheerful day, lighting is the key factor to what we see in the video image.

Today, most of us make some form of video, whether it be for Zoom calls, home video, vlogs or professional quality video productions. To look good, all need nuanced light.

Ross Lowell, the late lighting innovator and founder of Lowel-Light Manufacturing, published one of the definitive books on lighting called Matters of Light & Depth. In the book, Lowell says the aims of lighting are “to enhance mood, atmosphere and drama; separate planes; suggest depth; reveal character and texture; enrich and, occasionally, bedazzle.”

The minimum aim of lighting, he adds, is “to motivate microchips and silver halides.”

As the definition suggests, truly creative lighting is an art form learned through years of study, experimentation and imagination. But that doesn’t mean anyone can’t learn the basics of simple lighting for one-person Zoom calls or simple two-person interviews.

There are no formulas for good lighting. Each situation is different and requires a combination of basic knowledge, good tools, common sense and the willingness to experiment.

Today’s lighting can be simpler than ever, with inexpensive LED fixtures and the development of ultra-sensitive camera sensors. The word “quantity” has been replaced by “quality” in the lexicon of lighting. The days are long gone when video cameras need mega-watt blasts of light just to make an acceptable image.

It’s the modeling of light, use of shadow control, diffusion and color that are now used to create the mood of an image.

However, it is a mistake to conclude that the low light capabilities of today’s cameras are a reason not to take care with lighting. The fact that a camera can make a flat, dull two-dimensional image in almost no light is fine for the occasional emergency news gathering shot, but it means nothing in the creation of compelling images.

Lowell, who was a working documentary cameraman, outlined some simple lighting set-ups that hold true to this day. They are based on one-light, two-lights and more for small scale video shoots.

The One-Light Approach

Lume Cube Light.jpg
Lume Cube Light

The one-light configuration uses a single, large, soft light source to produce a dramatic image. For home office users, consider natural lighting anywhere that the room is bright enough to see and work comfortably without turning on any additional lights. You may not need a light at all.

Turn your desk or computer to face a window. The natural light from the sun will give you the front lighting you need to light up your face, as well as the background.

If artificial light is needed, consider a ring light, which is used to lessen shadows and diffuse light evenly on your face. Because of its ability to distribute light so evenly, it is a good choice for close-up shots.

The worst place to position that light is on top of the video camera. Such single-source lighting close to the lens-subject axis results in textureless, characterless illumination with washed out foregrounds, distractingly shadowed or totally black backgrounds and little sense of depth.

For those without a choice (again the news crew example), users should at least diffuse and reduce the intensity of the camera-mounted light so that any existing sources are not overwhelmed and shadows are softened.

When working with one light that is not camera mounted, it is advisable to use a relatively large, soft source, preferably one with barndoors or an egg crate. If an umbrella rig is used, it is a good idea to have flags or cards to control lens flare and to provide subtle shading of parts of the subject or background.

The flags can also be positioned to reduce overall subject brightness, allowing more light to fall on the distant, presumably darker background in order to reduce contrast, increase separation or prevent the background from disappearing.

Conversely, a flag can be set to reduce an overly bright wall, perhaps making it darker toward the edges or top of the frame.

The reason a soft source should be used in preference to a hard one is that the large, diffused source helps to convey the subject’s character as a result of subtle gradation between broad highlights and soft shadows. Also, spill from the soft light can provide fill illumination that will reduce contrast ratio.

There is no one perfect position for the single light that is appropriate to all subjects and moods, yet the exact position of the source is important. Movement of the light or subject by only a few degrees can change the overall look significantly.


Two-Light Technique

Lowel Tota LED.jpg
Lowel Tota LED

There are some situations where one light cannot adequately model complex, multiple-plane forms or illuminate and separate foreground, middle-ground and background or control contrast. A second light source can help solve some of these problems.

Traditionally, the second light is used to soften the harsh shadows and dark areas left by the first source. If there is a lot of spill from the first light or if you want dark shadows and high contrast this may not be necessary.

If the subject does need fill light, the second source should be soft enough that it does not introduce any new shadows. The amount of fill should be appropriate to the subject, mood and medium of reproduction. Avoid overkill-fill.

If the dark edges of the subject disappear into a black background, there are two ways to create some separation. The second light can be put to work to brighten the background behind the subject. The light should be positioned above and/or to the side to emphasize shapes and textures and to avoid casting the subject’s or a microphone boom’s shadow on the background.

Another way to separate the subject from the background is with backlight. Position the second light above and somewhat behind the subject, aimed toward the camera. Keeping flare out of the lens is generally accomplished by adding an extension flap to the top barndoor on the backlight or using an opaque flag near the light or camera.

Backlight is essentially glare light, so a little bit goes a long way. It is most successful when it seems to be motivated by credible sources within the shot.

If the main source creates excessive shadows or contrast, the second light may be needed for fill. In this case, it should be a soft, relatively shadowless unit, perhaps with diffusion material added. Otherwise, new and confusing shadows may be introduced.

Another use for the two-light approach is when photographing two people who are facing each other (like in an interview), especially if reverse angle, over-the-shoulder shots are planned. Generally, each subject is lit by a separate source from the opposite direction.

The unit that illuminates the front of one subject can perform double-duty and backlight the hair and clothes of the other. Barndoors, half-scrims, nets or gels can be positioned to reduce the backlight relative to the front light. Some fill illumination, perhaps from a reflector or large white cards, will be necessary.

Complex subjects such as appliances, furniture and machinery with many planes often require a second light. Try not to have both sources at equal heights, angles or intensities. Symmetry in lighting is seldom a virtue. Each plane or surface of the subject should have a different brightness with the top or side planes, perhaps, appearing to be lighter than the front.

A second light should be used: 1.) if contrast is too great; 2.) if the subject doesn’t separate from the background; and 3.) if a single-source can’t successfully model multi-plane forms.

Sometimes Several Lights Are Necessary