Feeling a bit flat? Forget the 3D glasses.
If you’re not thinking about lighting when you shoot a social media video, you really should start. Cameras work by gathering light, but just putting your subject under one doesn’t always give you the flattering results you need to stand out. Imagine any truck stop bathroom you’ve ever been in. How good do you look in that mirror when lit by a simple flourescent light in the ceiling or dim incandescent bulb mounted just above the sink?
You can add more dimension and visual texture to your videos using the time-tested art of three-point lighting. It’s been used in film, television and even portrait photography for years, and it’s really not that difficult to pick up. Go watch just about any show or movie on TV tonight and watch how the subjects are lit, especially as they cut between camera angles. Interviews on news magazine programs or documentaries will really demonstrate this concept. Chances are you’ve seen three-point lighting a million times without even knowing it. But once you know about it, you won’t be able to ignore it and the dimensionality it adds to whatever you’re watching.
The basics of three-point lighting
So what is it? It’s a way of lighting a subject using three lighting sources at distinct angles. It’s not so much about what lights you use. You don’t need expensive lighting kits like the pros use. It’s more about the placement of the lights in relation to your subject. Simple table lamps, desk lamps or even task lights will work.
The main source of light is known as the key light. It is a bright light focused on one side of the subject, typically the side opposite the camera if you’re shooting them from an angle. This light does the major share of illuminating the subject.
On the opposite side from the key light is the fill light. It is typically a dimmer light source, meant to brighten up the side of the subject that would otherwise be darkly shadowed by the angle of the key light. Having it dimmer than the key light adds a great deal of dimension to the subject.
The third (and probably the least considered) light in this equation is the back light. The light from the back light is typically higher than the subject, draping illumination over the back of the subject. Not everyone thinks about backlighting their subject, but it is pretty important. It adds a warm glow to the back of the subject that outlines the subject and sets them apart from the background. Put someone in a dark colored shirt and put them in front of a darkly colored or dimly lit background, and they’ll often blend in or disappear into the background. Adding the slight backlight subtly stencils them and pushes them more prominently into the foreground.
Harness natural light
What if you’re shooting outdoors? There’s no better key light than the sun.
Have you ever seen behind-the-scenes stuff from a professional photo shoot like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue? Chances are you’ll see someone flanked to one side of the model, opposite the angle of the sun, holding a large, flexible reflector screen. They’re using the sun as a natural key light, and the reflector bounces stray sunlight back at the subject like a fill light. This smoothes out the harsh directional shadows and fills in the opposite side of their face with soft, less intense light.
But what about the back light? Usually you’ll have no need for a back light in this situation. The background is so illuminated by the sun that there’s no need to outline the back of the subject with a back light. Just make sure you position your subject so the direct sunlight hits one side of their face. Don’t put the sun at their back, as you’ll probably cause silhouetting.
Soft versus hard light
One other note about three-point lighting, especially in the field, on the fly and on the cheap: Be aware of the intensity of light coming from the fixture you’re using. If you’re using a table lamp with a shade, the intensity of your light will be softer and more diffused. This is generally more pleasing than fixing a desk lamp with a bare bulb aimed square at your subject’s head. That produces a direct, sharp light with crisp, defined shadows. You can soften this direct light by improvising some light diffusion. Put something sheer between the light source and your subject — a white sheet, a large, thin piece of paper. You can even bounce light off a wall onto your subject. Don’t be afraid to play with your light sources. Experimenting in a real-world situation is a great way to build your understanding of lighting for video and photography.
Again, it’s not about the light you use. It’s just thinking about how you light them. It’s taking the time to put your subject in the best light possible. Trust me. When they see how much better they look because you took the time to stage a pleasant stage of light, they’ll thank you for it.