Video Lighting Setup: How to Set up Lighting for Video

When you are planning a video production, lighting plays a major role. In order for your cameras to clearly pick up both subjects and backgrounds, you will need a lighting plan that works with every scene. This means a key light, fill light, background light, diffusers, reflectors, and a plan to clearly light every shot you will film. Lighting in a static interview studio is a one-setup affair while lighting a narrative or a show on the road will require constant planning and setup.

For many small productions, lighting and backdrop make up the largest pieces of equipment you will need—and there's a reason why all filmmakers invest in professional lighting techniques. Video quality depends intensely on the quality of your lighting. If you want to make a video that is vivid, crisp, and immersive, then you need lighting that brings your subjects to life and immerses the audience into the lighting of the scene itself.

The importance of video lighting

Great lighting can make or break a good video project. You can have an amazing script, great guests or actors, a rehearsed show, a great set, and still make an unwatchable video if the lighting is wrong. Great lighting makes your content pop while drawing the audience into the scene. You want lighting that is coming from the right direction, properly illuminating your subjects, and creating the mood you want to inspire at each point in your video.

Music videos are often lit with heavy shadows for drama or with hazy lighting for a dream-like quality. Interviews, reports, and how-to videos should be lit for clarity, minimizing shadows while bringing the subject(s) into focus. Cinema, including movies and television, light based on the script, time of day, and mood of each scene. Clear and moody lighting will draw in your audience while too-dark, bright, or flat lighting, confusing lighting, or lighting that highlights the wrong things will break immersion and lose your audience.

That is why filmmakers put so much into lighting design for every scene.

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What lighting equipment do you need to get started lighting videos? Anyone can begin selfie vlogs with a simple ring light, but you'll want a larger rig for shooting scenes.

  • Stage lights
    • Open-face lights
    • Tungsten lights
    • HMI lights
    • Fluorescent lights
    • LED lights
    • Floodlights
    • Spotlights
  • Light stands — You will want lights at high and low angles, and will need adjustable stands to position your lights off-camera around the scene.
  • Diffusers — These soften your lights and are often fabric or gel placed over the emitter.
  • Reflectors — Reflectors can be used to fill or backlight from your key light, and can be used to light an entire scene from a single source. They provide more diffused and softened light.
  • Cookies (Cucoloris) — Cookies, or cucoloris, add a cutout to your light like a tree branch or noir blinds.
  • Color gels — These allow you to change the color of light being emitted from your light stand. This can change the mood or set the scene.
  • Light shapers — Light shapers like barn doors and foldable covers help control the shape and size of your light.

Common video lighting setups

Video lighting setups can be simple or complex, depending on what you are shooting. The golden setup for most narrative or layered scenes is the three-light setup. However, you can build up to this with the three most common video lighting designs. In addition to the traditional three lights, there are also a number of effect lighting setups you can choose from.

One-light setup

  1. Key light

The first light in any scene is the key light. This is the light that illuminates your subjects from the primary angle. You can place your camera behind the key light or perpendicular to it for style but the key light is where lighting comes from in your scene and how you make sure the camera picks up on the details of your subject.

A one-light setup is usually best for small-scale and close-up scenes. The background will also need to be lit by the single key light, so you will want to plan for the right light-to-scene size ratio and to minimize unwanted shadows.

Two-light setup

  1. Key light
  2. Fill light

A two-light setup adds a fill light to your key light. A fill light is placed on the opposite side of your key light at a lower intensity. Its purpose is to eliminate or reduce sharp shadows and give the scene a glow. Fill light is often more diffuse and is almost always softer than the key light, as its job is merely to offset the key light and to give your subjects better definition from the other side.

Fill lights are measured in their ratio of intensity to the key light. For example, a fill light that is half the intensity of the key light will be a ratio of 1:2. Scenes will have a different mood and tension based on your key to fill ratio.

You do not always need a second light for a two-light setup. A reflector used at the correct angle can bounce back the key light and create a two-light setup effect.

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Three-light setup

  1. Key light
  2. Fill light
  3. Background light

Three-light setup is the golden combination for video lighting that pops from the background and provides perfect shadow control. Three-light setup starts with the key light and follows with the fill light. From there, you also add a background light which comes up behind the subject from the background. Background lights are sometimes reflected off the background elements themselves, giving the entire scene a more complete and immersive ambiance.

The three-light setup provides you with the ability to control how your actors pop out of the shot or immerse into the environment.

Other lighting techniques

  • Practical lighting — Lighting from an object, like a lamp or candle, in the scene itself.
  • Motivated lighting — Enhanced light from a scene object; like simulating a brighter candle flicker if your set candle is too dim
  • Side lighting — Lighting your subjects from the side for drama
  • Bounce lighting — Reflected lighting using soft or hard reflectors
  • Ambient lighting — Lighting that is soft and all around the subjects instead of directional. This is light that may already be present on location.

How to choose your lighting for a music video

Music video lighting is designed to fit the mood of each song and scene. Music videos tend to be more intense and colorful scene by scene than cinema or most other types of production. This makes lighting more important than ever. Music video lighting allows you to make your subjects pop from the screen, grab the listener, and pull them into the experience — figuratively. Practically, lighting separates your subjects from their environment while also creating immersive effects like in-scene spotlights and color changes.

Choosing the right lighting effects for your music video depends on the video you want to make.

Dramatic music video lighting

Dramatic lighting involves specific creation of shadows in your scene. You want to use your backlight to make the subjects glow while using a combination of key lights and hard lighting for shadows to give your subjects presence in the scene. Backlighting without a key or fill light creates dramatic silhouettes while side lighting and light cookies are popular for a simulated noir style.

Soft and dreamy music video lighting

If you're looking for a dreamy music video, go with diffuse, reflected, and ambient lighting. Soften the key light that shines on your subjects and make it seem like light is coming from everywhere. At the same time, make sure your subjects are the most clearly lit and in-focus so they own the softened landscape.

Impactful and pop-out music video lighting

If you want your artists to jump out of the scene, play with lighting and camera angles. Well-lit movement toward the camera can increase the immersive and intense experience of a music video while dramatic lighting effects increase the presence of your artist.

Quick tips for properly lighting a green screen

When using a green screen, what lighting design makes Chroma-key work best? Here are a few of the best practices for green screen lighting.

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Light the screen separately

Always, always, always light your green screen separately from your subjects. You want to eliminate shadows which means not using the same lighting that is pointed at your subjects. Try to keep your key light from affecting the green screen light too much.

Create even lighting over the entire green surface

Carefully create the same amount of even light over the length of your green screen. For Chroma key to work best, you want the exact same shade of green for the entire surface. Use multiple lights if necessary.

Use a diffuse backdrop light

A diffuser is your best friend when lighting a green screen. You don't want a central point of light that radiates outward, you want an even cast of light over the green screen surface. Reflectors and diffusers can help accomplish this.

Eliminate wrinkles and shadows

If your green screen can wrinkle, keep an eye on it and keep your steamer at hand. Eliminate wrinkles and prevent any shadow from being cast on the green surface.

Lighting effects and their benefits

Color gels

Color gels allow you to cast a color of light from a single light source. You can mix colored lights or use them to give a certain hue to your entire scene. A color gel on your key light will strongly affect the look of your subjects while a color gel on your background or fill lights will reflect a certain color back into the scene.

Strobe & flashing lights

Flashing lights can add intensity or immersion to the scene when used correctly. You can achieve this with a light shutter or by switching your lights. The correct move will often depend on the type of light you are using.

Light cookies & light shapers

Light cookies cast a shape or shadow into the scene while light shapers control the outer size and shape of your light. Both provide excellent effects when used in an immersive way. A light shaper, for example, can simulate a door opening or closing with light spilling from the other side.

Hard light & soft light

Hard light creates hard shadows while soft light diffuses and removes shadows. This can be used to powerful effect when you know how to control exactly the shadows you want in your scene.

Brightening videos after filming

Can you brighten up a video after filming? Many filmmakers, even experienced directors and cinematographers, sometimes realize that lighting was not quite right after a scene has been filmed. Can you fix a scene that is too dark or one that is washed out after you film it? Fortunately, yes. Professional video editing programs like VideoStudio have light balancing tools that can help you partially re-light a scene. In fact, video editing technology has advanced to the point where you can even add some simulated lighting to the scene if you know how to use the tools.

With video editing, you can change the contrast, re-balance the colors, add a color filter, and adapt the focal point of each shot. This makes post-production critical for perfecting the lighting impact of a scene, even if you are a pro at lighting setups.


Video lighting is an important part of creating any kind of video, from a personal vlog to music video production to professional filmmaking. Great lighting starts with good light design and ends with professional video editing software.

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