Advanced Video Camera and Editing


Learn more about the iKan Light Kit

Lighting is a powerful tool in DV storytelling. It can set the mood and style of a documentary. But good lighting is also a good production value. Lighting can be described as an art, and the best way to learn is simply to experiment and see what happens. However, the goal is to make the lighting appear motivated and natural, increasing the overall illumination without casting harsh shadows. 

Shooting Under Low-Light Conditions

Many three-chip pro-sumer video cameras can shoot reasonably good images in low-light conditions. But the image you see in the viewfinder should be equivalent to what you see with the naked eye. When the available lighting is inadequate, remember these tips:

  • Make sure to turn off the neutral density (ND) filter and open up the lens to its widest aperture.
  • Decrease the shutter speed to 1/60 to let more light enter the lens. However, any lower than 1/60 will cause motion blur.
  • Set the telephoto lens at its widest to get more light into the camera. Or instead of zooming in or out, move the camera forward or back.
  • Finally, when you've done everything you can to let more light into the lens, you can use the gain function.

Using the Gain

The Gain is often misunderstood and many students seem to think that it allows more light to enter the lens, which it does not. Rather, the Gain strengthens the video signal, making the image appear brighter. It functions the same as the gain that controls the volume in your audio playback, which is why gain is expressed in terms of decibels. Again, the Gain controls the signal strength (whether video or audio).

Gain is used only under low-light levels.

Our camera uses three settings for gain: L, M, and H. Each of these settings can be preset in the menu with a specific value for gain. The L setting should always be set to 0 dB (decibels), which is no gain, or Off. You don't need to use gain when the lighting is adequate, especially outdoors under sunny skies. So make sure the gain is off.

Once you start to use gain, the values may range from 3 dB to as high as 32 dB in some cameras. However, turning up the gain too much can reduce the picture quality just like too much gain can distort audio.

The higher the gain, the more the image appears grainy. Therefore, gain should be used minimally.

When there is inadequate lighting for good picture quality, then additional lighting must be used. Any light is better than no light, even if you have to improvise with desk lamps. It's just a matter of where and how you set up the light. Some locations can be lit effectively using a single light, while others may require three-point, or even four-point lighting setups. That's why it's better to use a light kit for this purpose.

Anticipate your lighting needs. If you're going to shoot indoors, then you might need a light kit.

Before setting up any lights, look over the location and note the main sources of illumination. Decide how these sources can motivate your own lighting setup. But not everything in the shot has to be evenly lit. There can be dark areas, where there is minimal lighting. Sometimes for dramatic effect, you want the subject to be partially in shadow. Experiment.

Three-Point Lighting for Interviews

Also known as Triangular Lighting, the Three-Point method involves the use of three lights. But as long as you're using a light kit, then you shouldn't have to rely on the room lights. When you light a subject, it's important that you first turn off all lights in the room and block off any unwanted light coming in from outside areas or from windows. It's not always possible to block off the windows and you might find that sunlight can be used as another light source even when setting up lights indoors.

As the name implies, Three-Point Lighting uses three lights.

The Key Light

The main source of illumination on the subject is the Key Light. This light is placed at roughly 45 degrees from the camera on the same side as the interviewer (in the guest's lead space). As a rule, never use direct light on an interview subject. The bright illumination produces harsh shadows, and not only does it look unnatural, but it will make your subject squint and feel extremely uncomfortable. Instead, always place some diffusion material in front of the lights to soften their glow. Or you can "bounce" the light off a reflector, a foam core board, a white poster board, or a wall. Ultimately, the key light should be soft.

The Fill Light

The second light is the Fill Light, which is placed roughly 45 degrees on the other side of the camera opposite the key light. The fill light fills in the harsh shadows that are produced by the key light. But be careful that you don't make the scene appear flat or that you blow out the person with too much light. Many photographers can do without a fill light, sometimes using a reflector to bounce the key light onto the other side of the person's face. Or you can simply open up the aperture a bit more to catch detail in dark areas on the face.

The Back Light

Finally, the Back Light, or Hair Light is used, to separate the person from the background and give your picture some dimensionality. The back light is generally a small light that is set above and just behind the person and is on the side opposite from the key light. The objective is to form a nice rim of light that outlines the person's head in contrast to the background.

Below is an excellent video about setting up three-point lighting for interviews. Produced by Stray Angel Films, this tutorial covers the steps you should take when setting up the lights.

Check out the video below to learn about a slight variation to three-point lighting. Produced by Curtis Judd