Lighting for video: The dos and don’ts

Making a video isn’t that difficult. You get a camera, plan your shots and start shooting. One of the trickier tasks is lighting the video. Without perfect lighting for your video, even the most well-composed shots can look amateurish and substandard. However, with the right technique, you can be on your way to producing projects with a plush and high-grade look you can call your own. On any video shoot, lighting should be one of your top priorities.

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Don’t buy what you don’t need

Firstly, you don’t need to spend a fortune on expensive lighting kits or equipment if you’re on a budget. Professional-looking videos are more about your technique than your tools. Different techniques apply depending on the type of video and whether you plan to shoot your project outdoors or indoors.

Do borrow techniques from photography

In short, video lighting is parallel to photography lighting. So, if you’ve done some studio photography or understand similar terminology, you use related lighting techniques in your video work to create different moods and atmospheres. Don’t worry, however, if you’re new to lighting. Chances are good that you can make great videos simply by paying attention to a few key lighting details.

Chances are good that you can make great videos simply by paying attention to a few key lighting details.

Do add light to your scene when needed

Your camera needs lots of light to capture the cleanest image. You can always boost the ISO in dimly lit shooting situations, but this can add unnecessary noise to your image. The better option is to bring in additional light, regardless of if that means opening a curtain or breaking out your light kit.

Don’t use a single light source if you can avoid it

While one light is better than none, shooting with a single light source can create distracting shadows in your video.

Don’t rely on on-camera lighting

Some videographers mount an on-camera light to their video cameras. While some on-camera lights produce enough light to be useful in certain situations, most will only work with the camera very close to the subject, such as when vlogging. More light is needed in most situations.

Don’t use overhead lighting

If you can avoid it, stay clear of the overhead lighting found in most homes, offices or retail spaces. These can cast unattractive shadows on your subjects’ faces. Turn off overhead lighting when shooting video for more control over your scene.  

Do use three-point lighting

Three-point lighting uses a key light to provide primary illumination, a fill light to even out any distracting shadows and a backlight to help separate the subject from the background. You can learn all about three-point lighting in Three-point lighting — the first lighting technique to master.

Do use home lighting fixtures if you don’t have professional light fixtures

Though household fluorescent lighting can cause unsightly banding or flicker, household LEDs and incandescent lighting are perfectly acceptable for video production. The key differences between home lighting fixtures and professional video lighting are the intensity of light and the color temperature. Adding more light and setting your white balance before the shoot can eliminate both of these issues in most cases.

Woman with both a lamp and a window lighting her.
In order to shoot high-quality video, you need to give your camera lots of light. If you find yourself about to boost your ISO, take a moment to look for additional light sources, such as a household lamp or window.

Don’t mix lights of different color temperatures

Mixed color temperatures can lead to inadequate color balance and odd-looking skin tones. Whenever you have multiple light sources illuminating a single scene, be sure they match in terms of color temperature. If they don’t, consider changing your lighting setup or using correction gels over your lights to get the color temperature you need.

Do white balance before you shoot anything

Before you shoot, turn on the lights and find a plain white piece of paper or plain white posterboard. Turn on the white balance function on the camera and calibrate your camera to recognize the pure white paper in the lighting conditions of the room. This helps you to avoid blue or orange color casts in your video.

Don’t rely on sunlight if you don’t have to

The weather and conditions of the sun can change in an instant. Clouds can cover the sun or the sun can shift positions during the course of your shoot. The best shooting environment is one in which you have as much control as possible over the lighting of your video. That said, while outdoor lighting can be challenging, the results can be rewarding with careful planning. 

Do use the sun as your key light when shooting outdoors

Every shot needs a key light. Just keep in mind that the sun casts the strongest shadows in the middle of the day. You’ll also want to consider the fact that the sun will move throughout the day, potentially impacting the continuity of scenes shot over a longer period of time.

Woman outdoors with sun as key light.
If you need to shoot outside, use the sun as your key light. As the brightest source, it will serve as the main source of light. Just be careful to avoid distracting shadows.

Do choose the right location and time of day to shoot

If you’re shooting outdoors, time of day will have a substantial impact on the look of your shot. The morning sun and late afternoon sunlight offer softer, longer shadows. An overcast day can act as a filter for the sunlight and diffuse the harsh light. For those one-in-a-million outdoor wedding shots, you can make use of the sun to backlight your subjects and give them that sought-after edge light. Just wait for the sun to set toward the distance and record the image.

2 children backlit by sun.
When shooting outdoors, choose the time of day carefully. Shooting earlier or later in the day means you’ll get longer, softer shadows, and the option to use the sun as a dramatic rim light.

Do add diffusion

You can diffuse your light source to soften the light on your subject if needed. You can buy diffusion sheets specifically for photography and video lighting, or you can just use wax paper. Cut a sheet of diffusion or wax paper so that it can cover the light with at least an inch extra on either side. A plain white sheet can serve a similar purpose.

Do use a reflector

A reflector or bounce board can serve as your second light source to deal with shadows caused by the sun. A piece of white paper or white poster board can work for close-up shots. But, if you have it in your budget to purchase a good folding reflector, you should consider doing so. 

Do invest in ND filters

Neutral density filters allow you to adjust your ISO, f-stop and shutter speed to normal settings while keeping the sun from completely overpowering your shot. This will help you to capture shallow depth-of-field shots that can give your video a more cinematic look and feel. 

Do rent lighting kits and equipment before investing

Even if you plan on shooting video on a regular basis, if you’re not sure yet what gear you actually need, it’s better and cheaper to rent first. You can also reference our article on the best lights for video production for more information on choosing lights.

Final thoughts

Proper lighting techniques are essential in capturing any type of video. By playing around with camera angles and light set-ups, you can produce different moods and atmospheres in every video shoot. No single technique is written in stone or clear-cut. Certain techniques depend on the project you’re shooting and the look you’re trying to create. You can break any of these rules as long as you have a good reason for doing so.

Stephen Mandel Joseph
Stephen Mandel Joseph
Stephen Mandel Joseph is a published, professional writer and director of several Sci-Fi 3D animated shorts and a short drama film.

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