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Lighting Basics #1

Women on Video Set. Example of a Lighting Setup in a Small Room

Lighting. You can have the best camera rig in the world, but if you’re not lighting the subject properly, all that investment will be for nothing.

The first step to lighting a subject, if this is your first time wading into media creation, is the simple three-point lighting setup. This is the basis of nearly every lighting setup from this point forward, as the concepts stay relatively the same.

Should you also need a setup for Photography and Video, then this is the perfect setup if you’re rigging up a studio in a hurry. This can work perfectly for any interview or portrait shot that you need. Need to interview a subject while also getting a headshot for your website/thumbnail? This is perfect.

It is also relatively cheap to do. Disclaimer: These guides will not be designed to give you ‘the cheapest lighting in the world’ or any of those YouTube clickbait-style titles. Invest in your lighting. It is the difference between a professional-looking shot and a wannabe with all the gear and no idea. (Honestly, this can be said for many things outside of the camera itself but that’s a whole other topic!)

As already alluded to, there are three lights you need to make this setup work. The names for these lights are also ones that you will hear throughout your time on a set or working in the industry, so get familiar with them!

  1. Key Light

The Key light is the main light of your whole setup. This will be the brightest, and the primary source, of light on the subject. If you spend 80% of your money on one light out of the three, make it this one.

The Key light should not be placed directly in front of the subject. The ideal angle for this light, if you are going for a standard lighting setup, should be around the 45-degree angle in relation to your subject, as shown below.

Example of where a Key Light should be placed in a lighting setup, to the side of the camera at a 45 degree angle
(I have amazing drawing skills yes thank you for noticing ;-) , also not to scale!)

However, if you are going for a different look, you can swing this light into different angles for different styles of contrast and shadows on the subject. This is where things can get interesting! You can even bounce the light off the wall should you not have a softbox to cover the light to keep the soft light. I’ll cover these kinds of techniques in a future post!

  1. Fill light

The Fill light. In my experience, normally the most overlooked light in the whole setup. Nonetheless, how you use the fill light in relation to the key light is how you create the unique and cinematic effects one might be looking for.

If you are going for a uniform look, say you are shooting a commercial and need balanced lighting for a product, this light should be symmetrical to the Key light, on the other side of the camera.

Example of a balanced light setup shot. Happy Man Smiling Portrait
Nick looking lovely and happy in a balanced lighting setup!

(An example of a balanced shot, however this time for portraits!)

TOP TIP #1: Place the Fill further back from the subject than the key light. Although in this situation we are going for uniformity in a commercial shoot, you still need to create some depth and contrast to make the image as interesting as possible. Even doing something as small as this can help you achieve the desired symmetrical lighting, while also making the shot a touch more dynamic.

Example of where a Fill Light should be placed in a lighting setup, to the side of the camera at a 45 degree angle and further back than the key light
Amazing Drawing part 2!

If you’re going for a more cinematic shot, the idea behind this is to take your light and put it to around 55% (roughly!) of your key light brightness. This will bring out the contrast on the subject, while also still lighting the areas that the Key light is missing (this is a personal favourite of mine!).

Black and White Portrait of a Man with a low fill lighting setup
(It's Me! But as you can see, I lowered the Fill Light to create more contrast on the right side of my face)

  1. Hair/Backlight

Last but not least (most of the time) is the Hair or Backlight (these are interchangeable terms). This is normally the smallest light out of the three light set up.

This light is placed behind the subject (normally on the same side as the Key light) to, as you may have guessed, light up the subjects hairline. This gives more depth towards the subject, separating it from the background, and just adds the finishing touches to your shot.

This light is more experimental than the others. Although the Key and Fill lights are tied together normally (remember the 55% rule we talked about), the Hairlight can be adjusted to suit the look of the shot you’re going for to your heart’s content. You may come to the conclusion that for your style there’s a certain percentage of light that works best, but this is for you to find out!

Example of where a Hairlight /Backlight should be placed in a lighting setup, behind the subject illuminating their hair
Artist moment #3

TOP TIP #2: Make sure it is a small light and that you have a sturdy light stand to go with it. If you have a tall subject, you’re gonna need to raise that bad boy quite high!

And there we have it! This is the basic lighting setup that will undoubtedly be one of the most used in your sets. This will give you a good foundation in the future for any job that you may take on. Put this into your plans, and have a play around from there. In future Basics of Lighting posts, we’ll explore some more nifty lighting solutions that will undoubtedly be taken from this set-up as its base.

Want to get your own portrait session? Book in with me now!

Light Suggestions:

If you’re looking for some shopping suggestions for lights, here are a couple:

Disclaimer: These are amazon affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, should you purchase a product through this link, then I get a small kickback. This isn’t sponsored.

Amaran 100d - If you have some money to spend, get a set of these if not just one. Lightweight, made by the subsidiary of Aperture so high quality, they also have the Sidus Link app to connect all of the lights together if you have more than one! These are the ones that I personally use.

Neewer Softboxes:

This set of Two Neewer lights are perfect if you're just getting started. They're great even just to have as backup lights if you've already got a set. However, they're cheap for a reason. I've already gone through 2 sets of these. If you get them, be prepared to either get a new set soon or use them to see if you truly want to do this. If you do, upgrade!

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