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Lights for Video Production: What Equipment Do I Need?

The biggest difference between amateur and professional video is often the lighting.

Today’s digital cameras do a great job in low light, and that gives you lots of room to play. But for truly professional results, you need to think about the quality of your light and not just the quantity.

Lighting your scenes well doesn’t have to be difficult. The following lighting tips will help you out.

NATURAL LIGHT: THE EASIEST WAY

Using natural light from incoming windows and doors is a great strategy for home movies, quick-down-and-dirty shoots and large locations that are impossible to light without a crew of twelve. Open blinds or drapes. Turn all available lights on.l Place your subject so the light falls ON their face, not behind them. Using natural light can save you time money and hassle.

The rest of this article will be concerned with how to light a scene using professional lighting fixtures.

A standard professional light kit with barn doors, umbrellas and soft boxes.
A standard professional light kit with barn doors, umbrellas and soft boxes.

Technically, a picture is nothing BUT light. This is true for video pictures as well as still images. The quality of light is the single biggest determinant of the quality of your video. Ideally, you should not only have adequate light, you should also have mood-appropriate lighting. Amazing affects can be achieved if you know how.

If you are videotaping an interview, also known as a “talking head,” the most common lighting set-up is what’s known as “triangle lighting.” For a detailed explanation of triangle lighting, click here.

Light fixtures used for professional video production can either be portable or stationary. If you have a studio, you will probably have a grid on the ceiling to hang lights and would buy stationary light fixtures. Short of that, you can use portables on collapsible stands in a studio or out in the field.

An ideal portable light kit for a one to four person professional video crew would contain at least four lights, each with its own stand and accessories.

Out of the four lights, ideally you’d have:

  • One 1,000 watt with a soft box
  • One 750 with a soft box
  • One 500 watt with soft box
  • One 250 watt with barn doors

Here is a list of accessories that go with each light fixture.

  • A dimmer capable of handling that wattage
  • A barn door
  • Gel frame for color gels and diffusion filters
  • A full color spectrum pack of color gels
  • Variety of diffusion gels and cloths
  • Clips
  • Sand bag weights to hold down your stands if out side
  • Miles of tape

OK, now pack all that up in a metal case and lug it around.

Convincing beginners to use lights isn’t easy because it can be a lot of backbreaking manual labor, depending on how portable you need to be and how much stuff you actually get. But please believe me, A FEW LIGHTS CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD. If you don’t have to march to Timbuktu dragging it with you, it’s definitely worth the effort to achieve professional results.

Here’s what all those accessories listed above do:

Barn doors: Barn doors usually automatically come with a professional light fixture the same way a car comes with a steering wheel.

A light fixture with a barn door attached.
A light fixture with a barn door attached.

Barn doors are a metal accessory you attach to the front of your light. Each of the four black, adjustable doors can be folded over the light to block the light path. Barn doors are used to direct the light to where you want it to go. Barn doors are an essential tool.

Soft boxes: Soft boxes are the most glorious thing in the photographer’s lighting kit if you’re going to shoot lots of faces. A soft box gives you soft, diffused light directed right where you need it.

A soft box goes over the light to soften it.
A soft box.

A soft box is made of special cloth that both directs and diffuses the light. The sides of the box are heavy black cloth on the outside, and reflective white on inside. This directs all the light to the front of the soft box where it passes through the thick white diffusion cloth. Soft boxes provide absolutely exquisite diffused light. However, you loose a lot of intensity in the diffusion process so a 1,000 watt lamp with a soft box is perfect for your key light.

Photographic umbrellas are another way to provide diffusion for your hot, tungsten light fixtures. Umbrellas are great if you need to provide overall, bright, diffused illumination. The hot, direct light is pointed back toward the reflective surface of the umbrella, not at the subject. The light bounces off the umbrella and gives a diffused bath of light.

Light with an umbrella attached.

The diffusion effect umbrellas provide is not as soft and nice for faces as that of soft boxes. Also, soft boxes have the advantage of directing the light whereas umbrellas just bounce it everywhere. However, in many situations, bright bounced light everywhere can be just what you need.

Color gels: Color gels come in every hue imaginable and are a cheap, easy way for your video production lighting to take a giant leap into the professional.

Color gels are flame retardant plastic sheets you place in front of your light. Lights will usually come with a collapsible metal gel frame holder. When lighting interviews, pale orange gels are often used on faces to give a warm glow. Color gels are good for lighting the background and providing mood.

The Halloween video is much scarier if you soak some of your lights in deep red color gels! The flowers look greener if you shine a strong, green, directional light on the leaves among all the diffused white light. Color gels are fun to play with.

Dimmers: A small dimmer capable of handling the high wattage of each light can help you avoid hot spots in your shot. Really large crews carry an entire lighting board with multiple inputs to have individual dimming control over each light. Small crews are more likely to use just use one dimmer per light. The kind of light dimmers you get for home lighting fixtures will not be good enough because they can not handle the large wattage load.

Snoot: Great name for a great doo-dad. A snoot is a metal lighting accessory that directs the light to a pinprick. Snoots are PERFECT for halo back lighting. They keep the light on the hair with no unsightly spill onto the face.

A snoot
A snoot

Clips: Portable light kits are a wonderful exercise in setting things up and then tearing them down. To shoot a video, you often have to take over a location and pin things up here, there, and everywhere. I always found it handy to throw some cheap wooden clothes pins in my light kit for pinning color gels if the gel frame was lost or whatever.

Adapters/Extension cords: The more portable you are, the more you have to think of all contingencies. Pack lots of doo-dads and gizmos. Here is a list of commonly needed items in a light kit.

  • Two prong/three prong adapters
  • Miles of cables and cords
  • Electrical Tape
  • Retractable knife
  • Ties
  • Clips
  • Aspirin 🙂

Natural and artificial light can be enhanced using reflectors. Professional reflectors are sold, but anything that reflects light will work. A simple sheet of white poster board can be placed opposite of your light source to reflect back onto your subject’s face and soften distracting shadows. In fact, often a fill light is nothing more than a reflector.

Shop Lights are an inexpensive alternative.
Shop Lights are an inexpensive, easy-to-find alternative to professional light fixtures.

Even lights you buy at home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot can be used effectively. Point them toward the ceiling, this bounces the light, softening it, which produces a more flattering effect on the face. Plus, bounced, diffused light eliminates eye squints and grumpy on-camera people! Pointing your lights and bouncing them off the wall is the low budget method of achieving what umbrellas and soft boxes can do for you.

Professional lighting fixtures come in many forms. Most stores selling lighting equipment pack commonly needed items into kits. Light kits usually contain three or four lights and carrying case. Often, buying a kit is the easiest and most economical thing to do.

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips.

Lorraine Grula

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Lorraine Grula


Lorraine Grula enjoyed a fast-paced, multifaceted career in the television and video business, producing, shooting, writing, and editing documentary-style videos in both news and corporate settings. Later, she got to teach media and video production in two high schools, which then morphed into instructional design and corporate training. Lorraine is now dedicated to sharing her vast knowledge with others who wish to learn the art of video making, with an emphasis on storytelling and creating professional-quality videos for the internet as simply, yet creatively as possible.

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