In the beginning was the story and then came the light. As any director of photography will tell you, the essence of stills and film footage is light, it can add shadow to create drama, it can separate the villain from the hero, or safety from danger. It can focus light on strategically placed props to foreshadow important details or events. A couple fighting in a brightly lit diner as opposed to a dark diner with ominous shadows tells two dramatically different stories.
Light has been used to help set scenes since the dawn of storytelling. So, here’s a quick summary of the basics in lighting for video.
High Key and Low Key Lighting
When it comes to setting the tone of the story there are two basic types of lighting in film and video: high key and low key.
High key is bright, mostly shadow free and usually used for fashion shoots, high tech, clinical or light, bright and sunny stories. Low key is dark and usually used for suspense, thrillers and dramatic events. And of course, there is natural light. Working outside in natural light has many advantages and disadvantages; but the most important factors to consider in lighting are strength and direction.
Basic Three Point Lighting
The most basic of steps in lighting direction is the three-point set up: the key light, the fill light and the back light. This key light is the dominant light; it could be one that you set up, or one that is naturally placed such as the light from a big window, an overhead light, or if you are outdoors, it will most likely be the sun.
The fill light is usually set up on the opposite side of the key light. This helps to reduce the shadow on the areas that the key light does not reach, a bounce card, or reflector card can work in the place of a fill light. The back light is set up behind the subject and can create a nice glow; however, too much back-light can cause your subject to be cast in shadow and appear too dark. This might work well for the villain of a murder mystery, not so well for the Chairman of the Board.
Choosing the right location is one of the most important decisions we can make, especially if we have a small lighting crew and budget. Shooting near a body of water can help add light to your scene as the light reflects off the water; however, if your subject is facing the water and too much light is thrown back it can result in blowout of the subject’s light colored clothing or face.
Shooting outdoors may not give enough light to add shadow or depth to the subject or entire scene. You can harness shade, from a tree for example, and add extra light close to the subject. By adjusting the color balance to be slightly warmer than natural daylight, your subject will be bathed in a warm ambient glow. By playing with the placement of the additional light, you can add depth and contrast to your subject. There are many potential disadvantages to shooting outdoors; clouds, lack of complete control and quickly shifting and disappearing light can all disrupt a good days shooting.
Shooting interior scenes is a whole lot easier. For a start, you have control over all light sources. The first step in lighting should be the placement of your subject. Once you have determined placement, the next major factor is your key light source. Once you have the key light source working for you, you can focus on adding smaller lights to help fill in shadowed areas. This is easier to manage than trying to light the whole area with one big light that might blow out sections of your scene.
Directing the Viewer
Adding accent lights can help the overall ambiance of the scene. Putting lights behind a chair or focusing a light on strategically placed props can help direct the viewer’s gaze to key points you don’t want them to miss. Even in corporate video this can help set the tone, for example, if you want to portray a friendly image of your interviewee you could cast a subtle light on family portraits hanging on the wall.
The story you want to tell can help determine the type of lighting you use and where you place your additional lights.
Using Light to Determine Space
Quite often in corporate video productions, the shoot will take place in an office or a place of work that may not be the most scenic of locations. This is where lighting can add value to your video. If the space is messy or unattractive in any way you can focus the light on the subject, isolating the subject from the rest of darkened room. This can leave the viewer thinking the space is big or small, but it won’t detract attention from the message you are trying to deliver.
Lighting can add a lot of value to your video production, and it’s well worth the effort, time and extra care needed to light your scene and help tell the story.