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Basic lighting setup for video

You don’t need a better camera — you need better lighting. In this video tutorial, learn how to achieve the look you need with the lighting you have.

The function of lighting

Lighting plays a starring role in making or breaking your videos. Lighting helps set the mood of the video and ultimately helps us communicate our message. The effect of your light sources may seem subtle but directly impacts what your viewer sees and feels.


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Basic lighting setup

When it comes to lighting for video, the main rule is that there are no rules, only guidelines. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need high-end, fancy gear to achieve good lighting. All you really need is a general understanding of the basic lighting setup.

The basic lighting setup consists of four lights:

  1. Key light
  2. Fill light
  3. Back light
  4. Background light

Keep in mind that these four “lights” refer to the function and placement of each light source, rather than to a specific fixture or piece of equipment. The best lighting is whatever is most convenient for you, and the basic principles of this setup will help you get the most out of it.

1. Key light

The key light is your primary light source, illuminating the subject and telling the viewer where to look. The key light sets the overall look of your shot and is the basis for all your other lights. Ideally this should be the first light you set up. Place the key wherever you want to get the look you need, but the conventional placement is on one side of the camera at a 45-degree angle above the subject.

2. Fill light

The fill light, or bounce light, goes somewhere on the other side of the subject and fills in the shadows created by the key light. The trick is to make sure it’s not as bright or intense as the key so that you’re filling in the shadows without creating more. This is when placement makes a difference. Keeping your key and fill closer together, on either side of the camera or even on the same side, will create frontal lighting which downplays shadows on the face. Moving those lights away from the subject will soften the light as well. Rather than using a light fixture for your fill, you can use a reflector to bounce light into the shadows. You can buy professional bounce reflectors or make your own using a white bedsheet, poster board or aluminum foil.

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3. Back light

The back light is also known as a hair light or rim light. It is used to separate your subject from the background, so it’s usually positioned to hit the head and shoulders of the subject. You usually see back lights used in darker scenes or if the subject’s hair or wardrobe blends into the background. Again, you can place the back light anywhere, high or low. Just be sure not to position it so high that it casts shadows down onto the face.

4. Background light

Background light illuminates the background and adds a bit of depth to the shot. You don’t want your background to be as bright as your frontal lighting or subject, but you also don’t want your background to be drastically darker than the foreground. Using practicals—such as desk lamps, wall lights, LED strips, etc.— is a resourceful way to dress up your set while adding pools of light that enhances the backgroun’s texture and color.

Now you know the basic lighting setup! Don’t take this setup as gospel. There’s no one-light-fits-all and every video shoot calls for something slightly different. These are simply the basic fundamentals of lighting a subject. You may not need to incorporate the entire setup in every video. Maybe your key light is enough to get the look you want. Maybe you’re using a ring light that serves as both your key and fill light, so all you need is a pop of background light. More lights doesn’t mean better lighting, so be resourceful with what you have and practice using available or natural light to your advantage.

The main take-aways are:

  1. No matter what, you need a key light.
  2. If your shot is dark, add a back light.
  3. If there’s too much contrast, add a fill light.
  4. Don’t forget your background.
Keep these things in mind and you’ll be in great shape. All that matters is making everything on the screen look good!


Kathryn Price

Kathryn Price is a video producer and designer at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.