The Basic Lighting Setup
Key Light and Fill Light -- We are accustomed to seeing things in nature illuminated by the sun, or by artificial light from fairly strong directional sources. Strong directional light creates a highlighted side and a less bright side, the shadow.
When lighting artificially, we use the Key Light to replace the sun. If we used the Key alone, the opposite side of the face would be almost black, as there would be little reflected light to help illuminate that side of the face. So we use the Fill light to soften the deep shadows created by the Key Light. The Fill reduces contrasts in the darker areas of your composition, helping the video camera to produce a better image.
The Key is commonly located about 45 ° to the right or left of the camera. The Fill is commonly located 30 to 45 ° from the camera, opposite the Key, and at the same height.
Back Light -- Back light is used to create visual separation of the subject from the background. It creates a halo of light on the hair and shoulders of your subject, or on the top of objects you are video taping. Like the Key and Fill, it should be about 45 ° above the subject (if possible), and should be on as close to a direct line with the camera as is practical.
Position and Mood -- The height of the Key light can play a great role in determining the mood of your lighting. Natural light typically reaches us from about 45 ° above. Light from this direction combined with reflected light from below, causes soft shadows beneath the eyes, nose and chin which help define the face.
Light from directly in front, at eye level, washes out all these shadows, and makes the face seem very flat. This type of lighting is often used in movies when the intention is to make the actor look stressed and pale.
Light from below creates an erie, unnatural effect, perhaps suggesting tension and distress. Think of all the science fiction films you've seen in which the crew of the spaceship, at the height of tension, is lit primarily by light coming up from the instrument panels.
Lighting a Location -- Lets assume you have met an elderly lady from Black Diamond whose oral history of life among the coal miners you are going to tape. How to light her?
Seat her in a chair, in front of a somewhat dark background. If you place her in front of a white wall, for example, it will be much more difficult to light her, as the wall, rather than the lady, will be the brightest object in the camera's field of view.
Set up your camera, and look to see how your subject looks without any special light. Chances are, unless you are very lucky, there will not be enough light for good video. Turn on all the lights in the room and try again. Still not too good?
Put another lamp on your left, with a lower wattage bulb in it. This is your Fill Light. Look at your monitor (or in your view finder, although this won't give you as good an idea of how the finished tape will look.) If you need more fill -- if the shadow side is too dark -- try one of two things. Increase the wattage from the fill light. Or try using a reflector to reflect some of the light from the Key Light back onto the subject's face from your left.
Now all that's left is to find a small directional lamp to use for the Back Light. A goose neck lamp or desk lamp works well for this. Aim this light so that it falls on your subject's hair and shoulders. Make sure this light is not in your shot!
Once again, check your monitor carefully. Move your lights closer or further away to increase or decrease the amount of light falling on the subject. When you're satisfied, white balance your camera. If you don't white balance, all of your footage will have a yellow cast to it. This is a "must do!" If you're not too familiar with the idea of white balance, check it out in the camera portion of these tips.
And another "must do:" If light is still streaming in through the window, close the curtains or shade. Daylight is cold -- blue -- while incandescent light is warm -- yellow. Mixing the two -- e.g., a floor lamp and light from a window -- will produce some very ugly results.
A Final Note: One of the best rules for the beginner trying to light a subject is to keep it simple.
Last modified 2/10/13