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Lighting Tips

Lighting is a complex topic. There are books, videos and websites that explore lighting in depth. 

We're going to just focus on a couple key tips that will improve your videos.

Soft vs. Hard Light

Light that comes from a single, small source like the sun or a bright LED light will create harsh shadows. At the very least, it can make for unflattering contrasts on your subject. Often, the bright spots will be overexposed or cause the shadows to be under exposed. This is called hard light.

Soft light is light from a large source, ideally larger than the subject itself. Soft light "wraps" around a subject and eliminates hard shadows. In most cases you want to film in soft light.

An example of very soft light shot under a shade cloth.
An example of very soft light shot under a shade cloth.

Indoors, a good way to film in soft light is to set up so that the subject is next to a window using natural light. If the side opposite the window is dark, setting up a silver reflector on a stand (or held by an assistant) will help to evenly illuminate a face or object. This technique also works for taking shots of small objects, especially shiny ones like leaves.

Outdoors, any time the sun is directly illuminating the subject and the sky is clear you will have hard light. Filming in overcast conditions will soften the light as the entire sky becomes a light source. If it is sunny, try filming in the shade or under a white pop-up tent.

Mid-Day Light

As a rule, morning and evening present the best light to film under. Unfortunately in Extension we tend to have a lot of outdoor events in mid-day. This creates some challenges with lighting.

Interviewing subjects (or even filming yourself) in bright, mid-day light will either:

  1. Bathe a face in so much light that they cannon keep their eyes open (facing the sun, front lit)
  2. Brightly light one side of the face and leave the other in deep shadow (sun to the side)
  3. Obscure the entire face in shadow (sun behind, backlit)

If you must record in mid-day and there is no shade here are some tips:

  • If the sun is overhead use a diffuser over the subject to make soft light. (This is the stiff, internal part of a 5-in-1 reflector.)
  • Shoot with the sun over the person's shoulder and use a silver or white reflector to light the part in shadow. (Usually needs an assistant to work since the person will move while talking.)
  • Use a white reflector to light the face with the sun behind the subject. It's fairly easy to pull this off without an assistant if you're not too far from the subject. You can use gaffer's tape to hold the reflector on to your tripod. Sometimes the angle works out that you can lean the reflector against your legs. In a pinch, the subject can hold the reflector at their waist out of view of the camera.

Example of using a reflector to correct mid-day backlighting
Example of using a reflector to correct mid-day backlighting

Using a diffuser to soften harsh, mid-day, overhead light.
Using a diffuser to soften harsh, mid-day, overhead light.

Examples of Challenging Lighting

Situation Uncorrected Corrected

Back light

Used silver reflector, white also good.

Watch for reflections in glasses!

A backlit face in shadow
A well lit backlit face

Side light
(over shoulder)

Used white reflector close to face; held by assistant

Hard light from the side
Reflected light to soften

Overhead light

Used a diffuser over her head held by assistant — see image above.

Notice the dark shadows under the nose and chin.

Bright light in face
Soft light on face under a diffuser

White Balance

Light has a color. Warm light, like that coming from an incandescent bulb, has an yellow-orange color. Cool light, like that from many LEDs has a blue color. Your brain adjusts for this so it isn't noticeable without looking for it.

An easy way to see this in action is to place a white piece of paper in natural light. Get used to that paper so that it seems white. Not turn on an incandescent light. You will see a yellow color.  Close the window so the only source is the light bulb and your brain will adjust so the paper is white again. 

In a good picture, the image will be recorded so the color of the light source is compensated so that colors appear true. This is called white balance. Just like your brain, cameras attempt to correct the light balance. When the lighting all comes from a similar source like a window, it usually takes the picture in a way that accurately represents color. Smartphones are especially adept at correcting white balance.

If you are recording a video with only 1 light source, your smartphone or camera will probably correct for this color cast. In this case life is easy.

When the lighting is mixed, that's when problems happen. Mixed lighting occurs when you have artificial and natural light, or when there are multiple sources of artificial light such as fluorescent and LED. A common situation is filming in a kitchen with a window. The natural light pours in from the side while the counters and other upward facing surfaces will be lit from artificial lights above that be very different.

Your camera will do it's best, but expect strange effects that may change while you record. 

Slightly off white balance can be corrected during your edit, but the quality will not be as good as getting it right to begin with.

Example of mixed light sources. Camera is set for daylight, but a warm orange fill light is coming from the side. The subject's skin looks unnatural.
Example of mixed light sources. Camera is set for daylight, but a warm orange fill light is coming from the side. The subject's skin looks unnatural.

Fluorescent lights in offices can be terrible light sources to film under because the tubes may be different brands, ages, or spectra. They can also have strong green or pink tint. Avoid fluorescent lighting when you can.

If recording with a camera, consider using a gray card (or at least a piece of gray cardstock) to manually set your white balance.

Low Light

Smart phones have small sensors that do not do well in low light with video. In fact almost all cameras record video best when the light is bright, soft, and even.

If the light is low you will need supplemental lighting. 

In daytime, the easiest way is usually filming between a window and silver reflector, but that is not always possible.

When more light is needed, consider using artificial lighting. There are many options, but the least expensive are LED lights. Cheap ones can be found that work well for under $30. They are mountable on tripods, light stands, and camera flash shoes.

Most of these LED lamps are cool lights. They are white balanced nearly the same as natural sunlight. Most inexpensive ones are a little bluer than sunlight and work best in light shade or indoors.

If your predominant light source is tungsten incandescent bulbs, the white balance of the LEDs will not match your other lighting. Some lights come with an orange colored filter that can be added to the LED. (It's called a CTO gel.) This will correct the light so that it is all the same color. You may want to set your camera's white balance to the lightbulb icon to ensure it gets the color right. 

Many LED lamps are slightly too blue and make faces look pale or purple. Sometimes adding a 1/4 CTO gel to the light will make the subject look great, especially if you can make the light source soft. 

To soften a LED light, turn it up to full power and shine it through your diffuser or a sheer piece of white fabric.


Special thanks to 4-Hers Natalie and Amelia Blakey for helping out as models in this course!