Decorative triangles
Decorative triangles

Lighting 101: Give Your Videos a More Professional Look

By: Olivia Petrac | January 30th, 2013

If you are wondering how to improve video quality, start with lighting.  Good video lighting will produce a more professional result, regardless of the video camera you are using.  How you approach lighting your subject will depend on whether you are shooting indoors or out.

Types of Lighting
Natural Light:  The sun is the best source of natural light for outdoor videos, but it comes with challenges. Avoid making videos when the sun is directly overhead as it will create harsh shadows across your subject’s face.  The best time of day for outdoor videos is mid-morning or mid-afternoon when the sun isn’t as bright.  Cloudy or hazy days will provide a softer, more even light source than the sun but often require additional lighting to keep the subject from appearing too flat against the background.

Artificial Light:  There are four commonly used bulb types: Incandescent, Halogen, LED and Fluorescent.  Each has advantages and disadvantages (I’ve listed them below) so use the one(s) that best fit your situation and budget.

PROS:  Warm light, low cost, dimmable.
CONS:  Short life span, generates heat, not energy efficient.
PROS:  Compact, dimmable, great for spotlighting.
CONS:  More costly, generates substantial heat, touching the bulb lowers the life span


PROS:  Long lasting, super efficient, low-cost operation, emits little heat. 
CONS:  Expensive to purchase, not all are dimmable, some bulb types do not emit light evenly.


PROS:  Efficient, bright, generate little heat, newer bulbs give off warm light.
CONS:  Brightness fades over time, expensive purchase price, some are not dimmable, contain mercury.

Three Point Lighting
One of the best ways to light a subject is the Three-Point Lighting method. This involves placing 3 lights at specific locations around your subject with varying degrees of intensity to create a well-lit and natural look.


Key Light:

This is your main light source and is usually set at a 45-degree angle from the camera to light about  2/3 of your subject’s face.

The reason this light is not placed directly in front of the subject is to create some definition to the edges of the subject’s face and shoulders.
Lighting placed straight on to the subject will flatten out their features, giving the video an over-exposed look.

Fill Light:

Once in place, the key light will create dark shadows on the portion of the face not fully lit.  The fill light ‘fills’ in the shadows but doesn’t completely erase them for a more natural appearance.  You can accomplish this by placing the light source at a similar 45-degree angle on the opposite side of the camera and diminishing the intensity of the light. This can be accomplished by using a lower wattage bulb or by moving the light farther away from the subject.  A neutral intensity gel can be placed in front of the bulb as another way to soften light intensity.

Back Light:

Key and fill lights give an overall even light to your subject but fail to differentiate them from the background, resulting in a smooth, uninteresting look.  To make your subject pop a bit, you’ll want to add a backlight.  Place your light behind the subject, raised and off to a slight angle, so that the light flows over the subject but not into the camera lens.  The object is to create a soft glow around the head and shoulders and a bit of dimension on one side of the face, so use a lower intensity light here to avoid a harsh look.

White Balancing Your Camera

After placing your lights, the next step is to adjust your camera’s white balance to make the colors in your video as accurate as possible.  If you are using a DSLR camera, check the manual to see what predefined settings are available.


The most common include: Auto, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight, Cloudy, Flash and Shade.  In most cases, these presets deliver fairly accurate colors and are easy to use.  Some DSLR cameras allow for manual white balancing, giving you the ability to tell the camera what white looks like, forming a reference point for all other colors.  Manual (or custom) white balance is generally considered your best option when color accuracy is critical.


Basically, all you need is a calibration target held in front of the camera to set a neutral point of reference.  Using a calibration target is also valuable for back-up color correction during post-production editing.  (If you’re on a shoestring budget or don’t have time to shop, I’ve heard of people using everything from a sheet of paper to coffee filters as targets, with surprisingly good results.)  Once you take a still shot of the target, follow your camera’s instructions for setting manual white balance based on that still shot.  The process is usually quick and easy.  Once you have established white balance for the light conditions in which your video is being shot you won’t have to make any further adjustments.  If you go from indoor to outdoor lighting, resetting the white balance is advised.

Here is the same subject after white balancing.  The yellow cast seen in the previous shots is gone for more accurate color rendering.

Jamie Bidwell is a team member at Covideo provides video email software that helps companies build relationships quickly and reinforce their brands more effectively with easy-to-make video emails that truly communicate.