Reflectors & Three-Point Video Lighting

by | Jul 14, 2022 | Lighting, Production

Over the last two years pretty much everyone was involved in some type of video streaming or at least attended numerous video meetings, or watched a documentary filled with interviews.  When venues started streaming full-time they used whatever lighting they used for their event, which looked great live but did not read well on video or the stream.  Mostly because the lighting was too bright and would blow out the image or were to dark causing graininess or to shadowing because of too much front light and no backlight.   In the video and lighting industry we thrive to create something new but sometimes the basics are the best.

Lighting, especially in video recording or streaming is a part of the video making process that, if skipped, really stands out.  Badly-lit interviews can cause the viewer to completely switch off from the conversation they are watching because subconsciously their brain is trying to right the wrong they are viewing. Done well, lighting can really add mood and texture to your story. That can be achieved by simply using something like a hair light or a bounce disk.

It always pays to spend the little bit of extra time getting it right in front of the camera rather than trying to fix a problem in post-production. 

Video making has evolved over the last 10 years from interviews looking like a news package to having a much more cinematic look to them. The release of the DSLR shooting video over eight years ago has changed the aesthetic landscape for interviews and made a look achievable that had previously only been possible on $100,000+ cameras.

So, now we have the ability to film cinematic-looking interviews or live stream on a fraction of the budget. Quite often though, lighting is forgotten about. That’s because the camera and its fast lenses are relied upon instead. But with a few hot tips and some education on industry lingo, we can make those interviews pop!

A three-point lighting technique is a great way to solve the above problems. Three-point lighting is a basic yet essential technique in film lighting, and it’s a standard method used in visual media such as theatre, video, film, still photography, computer-generated imagery and 3D computer graphics.  Some of the names you’ll hear as you use this system and grow your lighting package will be rim light, side light, eye light, catch light, and a slash or kicker light, to name but a few. These are specific lighting styles that enhance or modify the three-point lighting system.

Your lighting setup helps bring dimension to your character.  We will also need to use the three main principles: intensity/quantity of light, direction of light, and quality of light. Let’s look at how you can set up great studio lighting with using just three separate lights.

Key Light

The key light is the primary light point for your scene, most often placed in front of your subject, at an angle, thus illuminating one section of your subject.  This, as the name suggests, is the primary light, it provides the bulk of the illumination on your subject. You place this light about 45 degrees to the subject’s right or left and about 45 degrees above, aimed straight at the face.  The key light’s angle can range from 15 and 70 degrees, with 45 degrees being most commonly used. This can vary per project.

Also, don’t think that because it’s providing most of the light, it needs to be extremely bright. Check to make sure that you haven’t burned out your whites. You should get strong shadows and a good tonal range. If your key light is too bright, you need to move it back, cut down on the amount of light it’s emitting or stop down your camera’s aperture.

The three-point lighting is the elementary order in film lighting. The strongest light source is the key light, which brings the subject to be filmed into focus. It determines the direction from which the actual light comes – the so-called angle of illumination.

Fill light

The purpose of the fill light is to expose the shadows created by the key, the fill light is typically positioned at a similar angle of the key light from the camera, but on the opposite side. This will allow the fill to expose the shadow side of a subject.

The fill light is usually about only about a quarter as bright as your key light — about two stops dimmer. You place it on the opposite side from the key light, at about the height of the camera.

The most common placement of the fill light is directly opposite the main light, and it’s important to get this lighting ratio correct. Many photographers swear by the 3-to-1 ratio, which means that your key light should be approximately three times stronger than your fill light.

There may be a temptation to put it at the same angle as the key — after all, we like symmetry — but don’t do that. One thing we’re trying to do here is use shadowing to make the two sides of the face look different, so try your fill light at an angle of 15 or 25 degrees, and adjust it to suit your aesthetic.

Back light

There’s nothing worse for your minister or band than having them look directly into the sun. It causes them to squint and sweat — and neither are things you want to capture on video or streaming. 

By simply placing their back to the sun you automatically get a beautiful backlight and a light source to reflect from. This simple technique always pays dividends in shot aesthetics and comfort.

The back light is aimed at your subject’s head and shoulder from behind and above, also at about a 45-degree angle. It gives your subject a bit of a glow and provides separation between the subject and whatever’s behind them. This is often called a “defining edge.”

If you have a nice background you can also aim the back light at that. This works particularly well if the background is textured — like draped fabric — and you aim your light at it obliquely.

Some prefer to use an addition backlight or change the position on the backlight making it A kicker light which is an accent light that highlights the edges of a subject. A hair light is a type of kicker, as it is pointed at a subject’s hair from behind or the side to add non-frontal illumination intended to accent that part of the subject.

The minimum number of lights that you need to do three-point lighting is … one. You can actually do three-point lighting with a single light, by using the sun and a reflector as your key and fill. But for all practical purposes, a three-point lighting kit should have at least two lights and a reflector.

When shooting at a location chosen for the subject’s convenience rather than its scenic beauty, like a garage or warehouse, a backdrop can be quickly thrown up and three-point lighting magically transform it into a studio in a matter of minutes. Studio lighting is what makes a studio.  The rationale for the back light becomes most apparent when shooting a dark-haired person against a dark background. Without a back light, the hair vanishes into the background and you’re left with a floating face.

I know it seems strange to mention this in an article about correct lighting but, switch off the lights. This a big mistake commonly made when filming inside.

In order to create a visual mood, you need to light for that mood, and office fluorescent light always make your interview dull.  Camera shutters also can’t shutter out the hertz of a fluoro. If you film in this scenario you will get what’s called “banding” across your interview, which is subtle green and orange lines that cannot be color-corrected out later on.

Remember we are lighting to create a visual palette that complements the video or stream. By switching off all internal lights and lighting with the production house lights, external light or bounced light, you create depth, texture and mood.  A scene lit with two LED panels and a reflector, bouncing light from the window to the right and backlit from a window behind the subject can be the perfect mood you’re looking for.  When filming interviews you shouldn’t be afraid to move furniture around, switch off lights, move the subject around or choose a better location, et cetera, to get the best possible outcome for your video or stream.

You can always find depth in a shot, you can always find a better backdrop than a fluoro-lit room and a whiteboard, and you can always take 10 minutes to scout a location that’s going to complement the subject and the story.

Reflectors

A “reflector disk” or a “bounce disk” is used for that precise purpose — reflecting or bouncing light from a source onto the subject. The reflector is one of the most useful pieces of kit, as it is so versatile. You can bounce light up under the subject’s neck or chin to expose shadows correctly, you can bounce light to even up the lighting on your subject’s face or you can use it in a studio environment to direct light onto the subject instead of shining bright lights directly into their eyes, causing them to squint. 

I often see badly-lit interviews that are put down to “a lack of budget”. In other words, “we couldn’t bring lights”. Using a reflector kit and ten minutes of set-up time can easily solve this. This doesn’t negate the need for lights entirely, but make sure you always ask your production house if they packed the reflector or bounce disk kit.

Use key and back lights with a reflector for the fill. Reflectors can range from a $300 flex kit with gold and silver collapsible fabric disk reflectors, a diffuser, and an adjustable stand to hold it properly with a discount store white foam board.

A three-light kit can go from $150 up to several thousand dollars. Some come with hard-shell traveling cases, diffusers, soft boxes, etc., and others are much more basic. Get lights that fit your budget, but also take into consideration that you want a kit that will grow with you.

Many times, it’s better to get one good light than three you’ll outgrow in a year. Is it easy to get accessories for them? Do they hold their resale value? Other factors to take into consideration are size and portability — remember you’ll be carting them around and setting them up.

Any box store or online store sells Ring lights which can be great Key lights as some have very nice Tungsten Warm options which I prefer.  The new fixtures are energy efficient, so powering them is as easy as finding an outlet.

Lighting is a crucial part of storytelling and there are many variables with it. That’s why there’s an entire profession dedicated to it. But if budget doesn’t permit a dedicated lighting or “grip” department, then these are just a few simple ways to make sure your story is told the best it can be.  As the three-point lighting technique has been around for a long time, newer designed lighting fixtures with quick and easy set up will be coming out making this easier and limiting shadows and bringing all of us into the light.

Bill Di Paolo has worked in live production for over 30 years, He is the owner and technical director of Entertainment Services, a production company based in upstate New York that handles lighting, audio and video for events of all sizes in the Northeast. If you have any questions, feel free to contact him at bdipaolo@worshipfacility.com.

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