5 Ways to Not Suck at Lighting

The reason you would bring a van full of stuff is to be prepared for anything. So, the main reason the lighting in your video might not be not so good is you were not prepared. Maybe you didn’t spend enough time considering the existing lighting, maybe you didn’t bring enough fill light, maybe you forgot to set up your camera properly or maybe you you just don’t understand how to get good lighting.

1. Understand Bad Lighting

The first step in being prepared is to understand what bad lighting is and how to avoid bad lighting. That begins with brutal honesty when viewing not only your own work but the work of others. Whenever I edit my own projects I do a post mortem. It involves critically examining my imagery through the eyes of an un-biased audience. I carefully examine what is good and more important what is not so good.

It’s no so difficult to spot problems like too dark, too light or too contrasty, but it’s a bit more involved to recognize subtle problems like confusing color shifts or strange lighting patterns.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the project and pat yourself on the back but you need to remove the rose colored glasses and really be honest with yourself and adopt a “no excuses” attitude. It’s no so difficult to spot problems like too dark, too light or too contrasty, but it’s a bit more involved to recognize subtle problems like confusing color shifts or strange lighting patterns. Learning how to identify these problems is the first step to avoiding them.

2. Accurately Monitor Your Shots

The most common problem for beginners is video that is too dark, which usually occurs from improper camera settings or relying on the camera’s automatic settings. Sometimes the camera and the viewfinder get it wrong, so the first thing to do is familiarize yourself with your camera’s exposure settings and more importantly with the viewfinder settings. So how does the viewfinder get it wrong?

You may shoot plenty of video for a project only to find yourself back at home on your editing suite tweaking the exposure for your video. If you’re constantly increasing the exposure in post, then it’s possible the viewfinder doesn’t match the camera. You can go into the camera settings and fix that so you are getting the most accurate image possible.

3. Understand Your Camera Settings

Now that you have confidence that the viewfinder reflects accurately the exposures your camera makes, you’re ready to familiarize yourself with the camera’s exposure settings which will help you avoid the biggest mistake commonly made in photography/videography; the back light looks great but the subject might as well not have even been in the shot because there is no light! This has been going on since George Eastman was making pictures of his favorite puppy.

Camera settings are there for a reason and the sooner you are comfortable with them the better. Make sure the camera is properly set up and you know how to override the automatic settings and you will overcome many of simple hurdles to better lighting.

4. Add the Right Fill

Another common mistake is too little fill from the side, which is usually unflattering. Exposure adjustments alone can’t correct bad lighting and you may still end up with lousy images, so why not bring along a few lights or as least a few reflectors. Used in conjunction with a little fill light, adjusting the camera exposure settings can work wonders.

Here’s an example: You visit a famous museum and want to have it in the background of your video but the lighting is too contrasty. Perhaps you adjust the camera angle and the position of your subject to accomodate for the lighting and make appropriate exposure adjustments for the background but it is still not what you want. Maybe the lighting comes from an odd angle but you still want that angle because it shows the museum really well. Get out your on-camera fill light, adjust the camera exposure for the existing light and let the fill light bring up the shadows. You can do this by adjusting the power of the light or the aperture of your lens.

5. Look for Creative Solutions

Frequently, it’s unrealistic to adjust the lighting and it’s impractical to move the subject or the camera. Maybe it’s too much to fix the situation or maybe time is of the essence and you need to move fast. This is where a bit of creativity comes in.

The past few years have brought about a change in esthetics and what used to be unacceptable has become the latest trend. This movement has been enabled by technology, particularly in DSLRs, which have large sensors and thus large aperture lenses which allows the videographer to select very large apertures and put the background out of focus. This often solves the problem of a poorly lit background.

There really is no reason to have weak lighting. Very high-end cameras with large apertures can be found for sale in department stores and reflectors can be folded up and stored in your bag along with small LED lights. You have all the tools right at your fingertips. All you need to do is apply the lessons you learn along the way and you will shooting like a pro in no time!

Contributing editor Terry O’Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide

Adam Vesely
Adam Vesely
I have been working as a DP and editor in video production for over 10 years.

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