Home Video Hints: Using a Built-in Camera Light

Ideally, using the three point lighting technique of "fill, key and back" will produce an evenly lit and professional looking subject. The key light is the main source of light for a scene and is in front and above, the subject. The fill light is roughly half as bright as the key and is positioned on the opposite side of the key light. The back light, also referred to as a "hair light," is positioned behind and above to help bring your subject out from the background.

Shoot With Technique

There are many occasions when using a key, a back and a fill light isn’t an option. But you still need light and some light is always better than no light. A great tool you should consider is a battery powered on-camera light. When you shoot with this single small light, shoot with three-point lighting in mind, since the technique works with any subject and any type of light.

Some cameras come with a built-in light. The marketing literature promises that a built-in video light can get clear, colorful images even in total darkness, but the reality is less rosy. You can add more illumination to a subject, but it’s more of a fill light than anything else can. This isn’t so bad, if you’re shooting with three-point in mind and have a little ambient light to take up the slack.


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The trouble with built-in camera lights is that they run on the same battery as the camcorder, draining it drastically and thus requiring additional batteries. Small, inexpensive camera mounted lights also use batteries, but most use their own battery power. Of course, this is another battery to carry, worry about and charge, but you can find a light that fits any camera and won’t affect it’s performance.

Such small light sources, mounted on the camera, are extremely directional. Where the camera points, so goes the light. One thing about a camera light is that it can give a harsh, news like feel, to the talent in a close-up. If you don’t want that harsh look, move back a little until the subject stands out from the scene, but not so much that it is taken out of it. Then simply zoom in to reframe the close-up.

Balance Is Beautiful

White balance is especially important when using small video lights, since the auto white balance will work especially poorly in low-light conditions. As you normally would, simply take a white sheet of paper or use a white wall to set the proper balance. If your camera has presets that you’d like to use, but you are unsure of which one is the right one to use, again, find a white wall or a sheet of paper to shoot. Then run through the presets until you discover the one that leaves the white balance the whitest. An incorrect setting will look slightly bluish or orange.

Back Lighting

Battery-powered video lights can solve backlight problems. You’ll recall that backlighting happens when the background is brighter than your subject, causing the subject to be underexposed and dark. A video light can illuminate the subject with fill light and solve this problem in some situations. Again, think three-point lighting as you shoot. This is also true for night or indoor lighting. If inside, keep any bright light behind the camera, instead of in front of it.

Add-On Lights

So, on-camera lights are a great investment, for all of these reasons and more. Most camcorders have some kind of mount on top for a light. Some have special "hot shoes" that may power or communicate with compatible lights, but even just a bracket is fine. The biggest advantage of separate lights is not having to split battery power between camera and battery. This gives you brighter illumination for a longer period of time. One downside of a shoe mounted add-on light is that the shoe is sometimes required for an external microphone. In such instances, consider using a bracket mount light attached to the camera tripod. A bracket also has the advantage of reducing the "deer in the headlights" affect by offsetting the light to the side.

Add-on lights also enable for great manipulation of the light. Try diffusing the light, adding small barn doors to the light to deflect it or adding gels to alter the temperature and color of the light. In fact, even mounting the light backwards and bouncing it off a white card taped to the camera can give a more even, indirect lighting of the subject. It is very common to see even tiny softboxes mounted on the video lights of news cameras.

Not What You Got

Regardless, of whether you use a built in camera light or supplement ambient light with add-on lights, one thing to remember is that lighting a subject takes up a lot of energy, so make sure to have extra batteries. In the end, lighting is lighting, and the fundamentals are all the same. Shoot with three-point lighting in mind, even when having to rely solely on the ambient light and a video light. It isn’t really what you have, but how you use it.

James DeRuvo is producer and editor for a broadcast production company.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.