No sense of direction or depth! This is how I felt about my own lighting setups in the earlier days before film school. Lighting was always a part of the video production process I greatly feared. I hated how my subjects in these videos looked as if they were standing in the middle of a construction site. But then once I attended film school, I would attempt to apply the famous 3- point lighting setup in every situation.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful lighting setup all video creators must get to know, but it is not the absolute truth of great lighting… it is just a start. Here you place the key light (main source of light) at a 45° angle in front of the subject, your fill light on the other side of the subject, also at 45°s, and your back light elevated straight behind the subject.
Now, you may be asking, why to care so much about lighting if story and content are really the most important elements in video production? Don’t get me wrong, story and content are definitely king! However, if your goal is to create a high quality product that immerses your audience into what you are trying to say, turning the camera on, pointing, and shooting is not enough.
4-Point Lighting As I evolved in my career, I started working for TV networks where I learned to evenly light subjects my modifying the quality of lights. Now, when I mean quality, I am not talking about how bad or good the light looks. I am talking about how hard or soft the light source is. Hard light is good, it’s not bad. Hard light can change completely how a scene is perceived and helps subjects look very dramatic. However, using this quality of light for every scene and in every light makes everything look, quite simply cheap. I learned that producing two soft key light sources in front of the subject would evoke a pleasing and more beautifying look. Just as with the 3-point lighting setup, I would symmetrically place the two soft key lights but this time at 20°s in front of the subject, and then I would adjust the hight slightly above the person being filmed to remove unwanted shadows. I would follow to place a hard light behind the subject either directly above (back light) or slightly to the side (rim light) to generate a sense of separation between the subject and the background, and then I would add even more symmetry by placing a fill light at a low angle directly below the subject to cast out the darkness under the neck and chin. This type of 4-point lighting became my “auto mode” setup every time I shot a hosted video with limited time or resources.
Another derivation of four point lighting I learned was when I started to shoot two subject interviews. Here, I would cross light the two soft keys, and then behind the subjects, cross both of the rim lights. This would allow me to generate a simple and fast setup in extremely time constrained conditions. TV and high end online channels, on the contrary to cinema, demand to have everything ready and timely, even if producers are to tell you there is an interview one hour before the shoot. Therefore, this setup also became part of my “auto mode” workflow when I didn’t have time to create a new look.
Reversed Key Years went by, and I started to work more and more on narrative films, promotional videos, music videos, and commercials. Here, my “auto mode” 4-point lighting setups weren’t enough anymore. Although these were great for TV hosts, they were just too flat and lacked completely of character. These new jobs demanded cinematic lighting with motivation and intention. Since film school, I knew good lighting was achieved when motivated by the natural light source of the location. But how to use this source of light and mold it to create an intended feel that derivates from the world of your story? I knew this was the craft of professional cinematographers. They execute complex lighting setups that achieve specific looks according to the mood and character of the scene. But for the purpose of this post, understanding cinematic lighting in a simple setup comes very handy. It has all to do with the reverse key light concept. This setup enhances our perception of dimension by allowing the key light to hit the subject from the side or behind, and not the front. This time, I would place the key light to the side of the subject (between 45° and 90°s). All the rest I would keep pretty much the same. The back light would almost mirror the key light and the fill would stay at 45°s in front.
Overall, no lighting setup is perfect and not every lighting setup is good for all situations. Setups for subjects need to change according to what your scene setting demands. However, depending on your project and what you are trying to achieve, these subjects can be very simple and don’t require of an innumerable amount of lights and bounce boards. They just have to be right and bring to life your setting. One thing is for sure… lighting doesn’t only provide subjects exposure and beauty, but also establishes mood and gives character to your images. So dare to experiment and try new looks as long as you understand the concepts and why they work.