Filmmaking 101: Understanding how to light a scene

By PierreL | Content For Creators | 20 Jan 2021

Whether you want to start a new Youtube channel, wish to improve your videos, or simply want to learn more about filmmaking, lighting will most likely be an item to tick on your to-do list! That's why in this post I wanted to share with you a few lighting tips and tricks, and very simple and cheap ways to place your lights in order to get a clean and professional looking video. Have you ever heard words like key light, fill light, three-point lighting and wondered what the heck people were talking about? Well, let's get to it then!

Three-point lighting

One of most basic and most used lighting setups, it gives you control over the light shining on the subject as well as the surrounding shadows. It's widely used in videos and movies, but also in the theatre or in still photography. It gets its name from the three lights it requires around the subject: key light, fill light and back light.

The key light is your main source of light, it is aimed towards your subject (so, you, if you're filming yourself) and lights it the most. You can place it wherever you want as long as it faces the subject, but you'll typically find it at a 45º or more angle, to give it more depth and dimension (casting shadows on the opposite side of the face).

The fill light aims at brightening a bit the harsh shadows on and around your subject. It sits on the other side and is not necessarily aimed straight at it. It could be an actual light, or some kind of reflector (either a professional one or just something white: a wall, a piece of polystyrene, a shirt...). This is not gonna be very bright, it's a more diffuse source of light.

The back light (also called retro light) is placed opposite the key light, and lights the back of the subject (duh). It's not very bright either, and it can be a different color, the point being to create a more defined separation between the subject and the background. It will add a pretty seamless but effective contour around the back of the subject (defining the hairline if the subject is a person).

But a picture speaks a thousand words, so here is the classic three-point lighting setup:


Three-point lighting setup


Four-point lighting

Take a three-point lighting setup and add a fourth light (duh). But the difference is that, unlike the other three, this fourth light will be aimed at the background itself. This can be used to softened the shadows cast by the key light on the background, or to light the background itself if you consider it worth seeing. It also brings more depth to your overall shot.


Four-point lighting setup

Tips and tricks
  • When shooting outside, you can use the sun as a back light, and completely dismiss the fill light. The sunlight is so diffuse that it will act as both. And it's so powerful that you can also forget about the key light and replace it by a reflector. That is true whether you're shooting during midday or golden hour, since the reflector will reflect whatever color the sun/sky is at the time of shooting, your subject will always match its environment.


Example of simple and cheap outdoor setup

  • Don't worry if you only have one light to play with in an inside setup, if you use a good reflector as a fill light, you can spread that key light on both the subject and the background, removing most of the harsh shadows. This could work if your subject is close to a white wall for example.


Example of simple and cheap indoor setup

  • Whatever you're shooting, remember to always set your framing first, and then the lights.
  • Remember that anything can be used as a reflector, but keep in mind that the reflected color will be lighting your subject (a red shirt will render a red light on your subject, a green wall will create a greenish color). It might help you set a specific mood, but it might also ruin your shot if not properly anticipated.
  • Using complementary colors on the back light and the background light will create a nice environment in your shot, naturally separating the subject from the background.
  • When planning a shot (like a scheduled interview, or a YouTube video for instance), you can use websites such as Zvork's Virtual Lighting Studio to see the effect of different lights on a face. In this app, you can customise the number and types of lights, their placement, angle, intensity and so on, to help you visualize what lighting your setup will create.


I hope this article helped you clarify some points and get a better understanding of how lighting works. Remember that light is everything, it can make or break a shot, so don't underestimate it. And keep in mind that this was just the basics, there are a thousand ways to light a single scene. Light will help you create the atmosphere and mood you want to go for, and it could also become a great ally when it comes to compensating the limitations of your camera.


Until next time, stay creative! See you!



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Credits: Photo by Ahmed Hasan on Unsplash

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French video editor, wildlife photographer, amateur space junkie, sports and history buff and crypto enthusiast.

Content For Creators
Content For Creators

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