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Triangle Lighting for Video Production


This video demonstrates how to get easy triangle lighting, also called 3-point lighting, in videotaping a talking head video.

Triangle lighting creates spectacular lighting for video interviews. Triangle lighting is just what the name implies, light from three sources pointed at one subject.

Triangle lighting takes a bit more work but the results are worth it. Next time you’re watching any show that features lots of interviews, examine the lighting critically.  Can you see the halo effect, evidence of a back light?  How much difference is there between the bright side of the subject’s face and the darker side?  How deep is the shadow caused by the nose?  Are the eyes lit clearly?  Are glasses causing an annoying glare?  Is there a splash of dappled light on the background?  Triangle lighting is a common professional technique.

In triangle lighting, you have three light sources.

  • Key light
  • Fill light
  • Back light

The key light should be the brightest of the three. As the name implies, it’s your main light.  The key light should be placed so it illuminates the majority of you subject’s face, and this usually means having your camera fairly close to the key light.  The key light should be off to the side of the subject’s face about 30 degrees.

A softbox like this will give you nice, diffused lighting.
A softbox like this will give you nice, diffused lighting.

Your fill light should help do what the name implies, fill in the shadows created by your key light.  Generally, you don’t want to eliminate these shadows completely, you simply want to make them less dense so the key light should be less bright than your key light.
Your back light gives your subject what’s called the halo affect, a bright rim of light which outlines the head and highlights the hair.  It’s very flattering and helps your subject stand out from the background.

Setting your back light can be a bit tricky.  You don’t want it to create lots of weird shadows on the face so it needs to be relatively dim and directed well toward the back of the head.

Problems with back lighting include glare into your camera and unflattering shadows on your subject’s face or shoulders.  In order to avoid those problems, make sure the back light is placed enough to the side so it won’t cause glare.  To eliminate unwanted shadows, most back lights are fairly dim and rely heavily on barn doors.  (Barn doors are defined completely below.) Barn doors are used to aim the light precisely where you want it and keep it off the places you don’t.  If you don’t have barn doors, use aluminum foil.  A special type of black foil is sold by professional lighting companies.  It’s not very expensive and works better than aluminum foil, but aluminum foil is functional.  DON’T use anything flammable, like newspapers.

Another gadget, called a snoot, works much like barn doors but in my opinion is better for back lights because it’s easier to restrict your beam of light to your subject’s hair.  A snoot is a black, metallic shield shaped kind of like a cylinder.  It has a narrow hole in the front.  Placed over the light, a snoot restricts the beam to a small circular one.  Snoots are great, but not very common.

Triangle lighting can be modified by adding a fourth light, called a background light.  This light is just to brighten up your background and can help add a sense of depth to your shot.

Since a bright background is a no-no (it creates a silhouette) the background light should be fairly dim.  When you’re watching high quality documentaries, like what’s on the History Channel, most interviews are shot with intricate background lighting.  The background lights are often colored with color gels and templates are placed over the light to give a dappled effect.  Color gels are nonflammable plastic sheets you place in front of your light.  They’re cheap, effective and come in all colors.  Color gels are a great, inexpensive way for a low budget video to increase its professional appearance.

The templates placed in front of light to create a dappled pattern are often made from foil.  Rip off a sheet of foil, poke some holes in it and there you go!

Triangle lighting and its variations are perfect for interviews.  However, even in the professional world, not every interview rates triangle lighting.  Often, interviews are done with only a key light.  Sometimes a key and a fill will be used.  Sometimes a key and a back light will be used.  It’s all acceptable and some added light on an interview always looks much better than just relying on natural light.  My habit was to light interviews but try to shoot supporting video (b-roll) in natural light.

How To Frame Up An Interview:
With interviews, you want what’s called a three-quarter profile of your subject.  This means they’re not looking directly into the camera; they’re looking a little bit off camera. Put your interviewer between the camera and the key light and you will get a three-quarter profile.  You’ll notice that having someone look directly into the camera gives a much different feel for the viewer than a three-quarter profile does.  Hosts of TV shows look directly into the camera; interviews are almost exclusively three-quarter profiles.  Viewers feel the difference even if they never really see the difference.  It boils down to what viewers are used to.

* TIP! Do grandma a favor; interview her in age-reducing, bright, yet super soft diffused light with a smidgeon of a warm glow.   Diffused light is very forgiving on faces and helps eliminate wrinkles or other flaws.  The warm glow is provided by low-density orange, heat-retardant, plastic color gels.

* TIP! Sneak in a very directional, but diffused, light from below and make double chins disappear! What this does is eliminate the tiny shadow caused by the lovely extra chin.

*TIP! If you’re low on light when shooting, your close-ups will suffer more than your wide shots.  The zoom lens automatically stops down the exposure as it goes in tight.

* TIP! Back light is often very effective but it’s not suitable for everyone.  Pointing a narrow beam on the back of Grandma’s head might make her appear to be an angel but don’t try this technique on bald Uncle Wilber because you’ll get nothing but glare!  Good back lighting only works with hair, the more the better.

* TIP! Barn doors are an indispensable tool to achieve quality lighting effects.  They’re used to control and shape the beam of light.  Barn Doors consist of four black metal flaps that can be folded on a 180° axis, completely or partially blocking the light’s path.

This can provide interesting and erratically shaped “spill” squishing out onto whatever you feel would benefit from such highlighting; or you can fold the barn doors to get a straight, focused, narrow beam.  If you want to buy professional lights, get a barn door to go with each one.  Here is a picture of a light with a barn door attached.

Thanks for reading Video Production tips

Lorraine Grula

Internet Video Gal


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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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  1. Thanks Lorraine, very good tips and well explained
    Excellent!! Thanks, George

  2. Hi George.
    Thanks for your comment. Glad if you liked the tutorial. I emailed you a response to your question about file formats and DVD players. You need MPEG2 to play on a standard dvd player.
    Lorraine

  3. Pingback: go learn web.
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