Video Lighting Guide Part 3: Basic Lighting Setups

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This piece is part of a series of three articles covering the basics of lighting in the context of videography:

The first article covers the main types of lighting used in films and video clips
The second article looks at lamps and light accessories in greater detail
The third article covers different types of lighting setups from 1-point lighting to 4-point lighting

Good lighting makes the scene. Knowing how to use light to advantage is crucial if you want to get good footage.

In this article, I’ll guide you through the basic light setups for video – from 1-point lighting to 4-point lighting.

The information is meant as a kind of recipe to get you started. In reality, though, nothing beats real-life experience. Actually putting the information to good use and experimenting is up to you.

By the way, if you’re looking for some budget-friendly lighting kits, you should take a look at our article 8 Best Budget-Friendly LED Lighting Kits For Video.

What is a lighting setup?

Lighting setup guide illustration
Editors note: in order to illustrate the different lighting setups described here by Nick, I’ve created a series of renders in the free 3D-program Blender. Above you can see the full setup for the scene before any render (say hi to Bill, our protagonist). At the end of the article, you can find a poster you can download or pin for later if you want. – Jan Sørup

The lighting setup refers to the way light sources are arranged in a scene or a soundstage to illuminate the subject in your film.

There are multiple light setups you can create using a few light sources. It all depends on the look and feel of the scene you want to achieve.

First, let’s get familiar with the four main types of lighting:

  • Key light
  • Fill light
  • Backlight
  • Background light

Key light

1-point key light

The key light is the main light source in a particular scene.

Its main job is to light the scene for exposure and to highlight the shape and size of the subject, whether we talk about a person, animal or object.

Sometimes you’ll hear the terms low key and high key which refer to the intensity of the main light. If the main light is very bright and powerful it is ‘high key’.

High key lighting is often used in fashion, by vloggers, in musical and comedy. It gives the impression that everything good and the subjects don’t have a care in the world.

Low key lighting is often used in drama and mystery to create suspense (what lies hidden in the shadows?).

Key lights can be soft or hard lights depending on what kind of look you’re looking for.

For interviews, the most common choice is to use a soft light as it is the most flattering for most subjects. A fresnel or a LED-panel with a large softbox is a common choice for this type of lighting setup.

If you want to achieve a more dramatic look e.g. if you’re shooting a dramatic scene or a scene in a neo-noir short film, you’ll want to go with a hard light to create a high-contrast scene with hard edgy shadows.

Fill light

2-point lighting setup with key and fill light

The fill light is used to fill a bit of the shadow cast by the key light on a subject. As such, a fill light brings back in some of the details in the shadowy part of the subject, e.g. an actors’ face.

A fill light also reduces the contrast as well as dynamic range in a scene.

Fill lights are often soft lights with a lower intensity than the key light.

However, if you’re going for a bright high key look, fill lights can have a brightness similar to the main light.

Creating a fill light doesn’t necessary require a lamp.

For example, you can use a reflector to bounce back the key light onto the subject and have it act as a fill light.

You can also use a white wall or the natural ambient light coming from the windows. Just make sure the fill light doesn’t overpower the key light.

Backlighting

3-point lighting setup with main key light fill and backlighting

The backlight illuminates the foreground elements (such as an actor, interviewee or object) from behind in order to separate the subject from the background.

Backlights are often used to create highlight the edge of an actor’s hair and shoulders. Because of this backlighting is also known as hair and shoulder lights or rim light.

When backlights are placed directly behind a subject to create a silhouette, it is sometimes referred to as a kicker light.

Sometimes backlighting is used to create a glowing halo effect around a person to insinuate that the person is good, ethereal or angelic in nature.

Backlighting can be either natural (e.g. light coming in from a window in the background) or artificially created with a LED-panels, fluorescent tubes, car headlights, or even ordinary interior household lamps (like the lamp on your bedside table) or a candle.

Using such everyday items is also called practical lighting. When you use a typical lamp in your living room it not only shines a light on the actor but also on the background/the scene. Because of this practical lighting blur the border between backlights and background lights.

When you try to imitate natural lighting, e.g. when you place a strong fresnel outside a window to imitate sunlight or use a lamp to imitate a television, it is called motivated lighting.

Background light

4-point lighting setup with key light fill backlighting and background lights
Editors note: actually I’ve used two background lights (on the floor) on this one to get a harmonious frame, but the principle remains the same.

Background lights cast a light on the background elements of a scene to create a visual delimitation between the subject and the background elements on a scene.

Background lights are usually placed last and positioned behind the subject.

Background lights are often used to add depth to a scene or to create or ad to a certain atmosphere.

In some cases, the background light is equipped with a color filter to makes the foreground elements stand out.

It is also common to use a Dedolight with a cookie to create a pattern on the wall behind the subject.

Now that we’ve gotten to know the basic lights of a scene let’s take a look at some common lighting setups.

How to create vastly different moods with just one light source

One-point lighting setup is the simplest light arrangement a videographer or photographer can use.

If you bring your camera outside to snap a photo in the sun (and there are no other light sources around), you’re already using 1-point lighting.

However, there are a lot of different things you can do with only a single source of light.

For example, you can choose between natural light or artificial light, hard light or soft light, tungsten light or daylight balanced light, colored gels or cookies etc.

What we’re going to take a look at here though, is the direction of the light. Where you place your light source has a huge influence on your result.

Let’s take a look at a few of the common light positions.

3/4 Front Light

1-point key light

The ¾ front light is the most common way to utilize just a key light. And it makes up the basis for a lot of other types of lighting setups.

You place the key light in front of your subject at an angle between 15 and 45 degrees from the front center.

You can also place the light slightly above or below the eye level to achieve interesting shadows on the face of your subject.

This lighting setup reveals a lot of details on the part of the face which is illuminated by the key light.

The other part of the face will have shadows which are more or less hard depending on the softness of the light you use.

Have a look at the video below from DP Lumi for some examples on how to place your key light.

Now let’s move on to some more examples of how to utilize only one light source.

Top Light

1-point top light

Top light is when you place a light above your subject. The key light will cast deep shadows under the eyes, nose, and chin.

This lighting setup is ideal if you want to put an emphasis on the cheekbones of the subject. It is more suitable for scenes with a lot of suspense.

Try placing the top light directly above your subject and let the model wear a hat, e.g. a fedora. You can get a cool detective vibe from the shadows cast by the fedora onto the face of your subject.

Bottom Light

1-point underlight

In a bottom light setup, you place the key light close to the floor, illuminating your subject from below.

This setup is also called ‘under lighting’ and is often used for a spooky effect.

If you’ve ever tried to spook your friends as a kid by holding a flashlight directly below your chin and lit up your face, then you’ve already used a bottom light.

Front Light

1-point front light

In front lighting, as the name suggests, you place the key light in front of your subject.

If you’re filming your subject from the front, you can place the light next to or slightly above the camera, or you can use an on-camera light or right light mounted on your camera.

This setup will illuminate the subject directly and cast an even amount of light on his or her face. You’ll be able to see plenty of details on the skin.

When creating a front light setup, you can use both soft lights and hard lights.

Side Light

1-point side light

Do you remember the posters for the “Terminator 3” movies?

In one of them, half of the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger is illuminated, and the other half is in darkness.

This is the effect you can obtain with a side light.

You need to place the key light directly on either the left side or right side of your subject.

This will result in on side of the character will be illuminated while the other side will be in darkness.

3/4 Back Light

1-point backlight three-quarters

This lighting setup is very similar to the 3/4 front light, except that the key light is placed on the back side of the subject.

The ideal angle would be between 15 and 45 degrees on either side perpendicular to the front to back center line of your subject.

This lighting setup reveals a lot of hair details and casts a lot of shadows on the subject’s face.

Depending on the angle of the key light, you might be able to see some details on the face, but not much. You might want to use this setup for movies or pictures with a lot of suspense and mystery.

1-point backlighting

1-point backlight silhouette

When you place a single light source directly behind a subject you can create a silhouette kicker or a halo effect depending on the type of light, you’re using.

Also, try experimenting with placing the light behind the head, the back, and the feet of your subject and see what it does for the subject and scene.

How to create a 2-point lighting setup

2-point lighting setup with key and fill light

The 2-point lighting setup is also common in videography, especially for run-and-gun interviews. It consists of a key light and a fill light.

For interviews, soft lights are most commonly used when you’re first starting out. Soft lights are more flattering for your subject and also easier when positioning.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started on a basic 2-point lighting setup:

  1. Place your key light on the opposite side of where your subject is going to be positioned in the frame. For example, if your subject is going to be positioned on the right side of your frame, the light should be positioned on the left side of the camera.
  2. Place your key light at an angle of 45 degrees off axis from the centerline between your camera and the subject.
  3. Raise the light stand so that the light points downwards at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Use an umbrella or softbox to cover the light source to create a nice diffused soft light on your subject.
  5. Adjust the brightness of the key light depending on your preferences.
  6. Now place the fill light on the opposite side of the subject at a 45-degree angle.
  7. Adjust the power of the fill light to approximately 50 percent of the key light.
  8. Start with daylight balanced color temperature on both lamps.

Start with these 8 steps above to get a feel for the basic 2-point lighting setup.

When you feel you’ve achieved a good look, then you can start playing around with the positioning of the different lamps, the hardness of the light, and the color temperature.

Notice how the changing of three parameters changes look of the scene dramatically.

If you haven’t got two lamps, you can use a reflector or the light coming through a window as a fill light.

How to create a 3-point lighting setup

3-point lighting setup with main key light fill and backlighting

A basic three point lighting setup consists of a key light, a fill light, and a backlight.

The steps to make a basic 3-point lighting setup are very similar to the 2-point basic lighting setup described above. In fact, all you have to do is add a backlight.

Below you’ll find a step-by-step guide to get you started on basic 3-point lighting setup. The first seven points are the same as for the 2-point lighting setup described above.

  1. Place your key light on the opposite side of where your subject is going to be positioned in the frame. For example, if your subject is going to be positioned on the right side of your frame, the light should be positioned on the left side of the camera.
  2. Place your key light at an angle of 45 degrees off axis from the centerline between your camera and the subject.
  3. Raise the light stand so that the light points downwards at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Use an umbrella or softbox to cover the light source to create a nice diffused soft light on your subject.
  5. Adjust the brightness of the key light depending on your preferences.
  6. Now place the fill light on the opposite side of the subject at a 45-degree angle.
  7. Adjust the power of the fill light to approximately 50 percent of the key light.
  8. Place the backlight behind your subject above the head and at an angle and on the same side as your fill light. Try putting it at a 45-degree angle pointing slightly downwards. Remember, the backlight should cast a beam of light on the hair and shoulders of your subject and add a sense of depth and separation between the subject and the background.
  9. Be careful where you place your backlight. You don’t want the light stand to end up in the frame.
  10. Start by adjusting the power of the backlight to approximately 50 percent of the key light – and then adjust to taste.
  11. Start by using daylight balanced color temperature on all three lamps to ensure a balanced scene. After that, you can always experiment with gels and other modifications.

Feel free to use a diffuser with your backlight, if you think it’s too powerful. You can also use diffusion gels if you want to give the hair a particular tint like blue or orange.

If you’re filming indoors, you can simply use the sunlight coming from a window.

Make sure that your color temperature is constant by using color gels or similar accessories.

If the sunlight is too powerful, use it as a backlight, illuminating the subject from behind. You can also use it as a key light.

The three-point lighting setup is very common for interviews and other applications, but does it mean that it is always the right choice?

I recommend you watch the video below by the very knowledgable Wolfcrow, who speaks about three-point lighting and when you should and shouldn’t use it.

So in short, before you go out and create a three-point lighting setup for your next shoot, you should ask yourself, what it is, you’re trying to accomplish?

How to create a 4-point lighting setup

4-point lighting setup with key light fill backlighting and background lights

A basic four-point lighting setup consists of a key light, a fill light, back light, and a background light.

Below you’ll find a step-by-step guide to get you started on a basic 4-point lighting setup which expands upon the 3-point lighting setup:

  1. Place your key light on the opposite side of where your subject is going to be positioned in the frame. For example, if your subject is going to be positioned on the right side of your frame, the light should be positioned on the left side of the camera.
  2. Place your key light at an angle of 45 degrees off axis from the centerline between your camera and the subject.
  3. Raise the light stand so that the light points downwards at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Use an umbrella or softbox to cover the light source to create a nice diffused soft light on your subject.
  5. Adjust the brightness of the key light depending on your preferences.
  6. Now place the fill light on the opposite side of the subject at a 45-degree angle.
  7. Adjust the power of the fill light to approximately 50 percent of the key light.
  8. Place the backlight behind your subject above the head and at an angle and on the same side as your fill light. Try putting it at a 45-degree angle pointing slightly downwards. Remember, the backlight should cast a beam of light on the hair and shoulders of your subject and add a sense of depth and separation between the subject and the background.
  9. Be careful where you place your backlight. You don’t want the light stand to end up in the frame.
  10. Start by adjusting the power of the backlight to approximately 50 percent of the key light – and then adjust to taste.
  11. Add your background light. You can try placing it on the floor and let it light the wall from beneath. Or you can place it to either side. In either case, make sure the light or light stand doesn’t end up in your frame.
  12. Start by adjusting the power of the background light to approximately 30 percent of your key light and then adjust to taste. You’ll want it to help create a nice separation between the subject and the background, and add a bit of interest to the scene, but not to draw too much attention to the background at the same time.
  13. Start by using daylight balanced color temperature on all four lamps to ensure a balanced scene. After that you can always experiment with gels and other modifications. Especially the background light can benefit from the use of a cookie (e.g. if it is a bare boring wall) or some colored gels.

There you have it. Follow these simple instructions step-by-step and you’ll be on your way with creating the most common basic lighting setups. When you got the basics down, I urge you to go exploring.

Creating good lighting isn’t an exact science. It depends on the scene, the mood you want to convey and a lot of other things. So be creative.

For example, while it is common to use a fill light, it is not necessary. Look at how the lovely and talented Eve Hazelton from Realm Pictures builds a scene without any fill lights in the video below.

That being said, it is always a good idea to know the basics and then work from there. That way, if something doesn’t work, you can always fall back to a basic setup that works and rework the scene from there.

If you have any comments or questions please let me know in the comments.


About the author
Nick Gold is a content writer for hire specializing in health and tech topics. He writes regularly on multiple websites including DiscountedLabs and ExcelMale. In his spare time, Nick takes care of his cat, Zorro, and occasionally enjoys a pizza, his favorite cheat meal.
Website:
https://nickgwriter.com/
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https://www.facebook.com/nickgwriter
Twitter:
https://twitter.com/nickgwriter


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