Video Lighting Equipment: Tools You Use to Create the Look You Want

Published on April 7, 2011

If you want your video image to look professional, one of the most important things you can do is pay attention to the lighting. There are two things you need: Video Lighting Techniques

  1. An understanding of video lighting techniques
  2. The right tools for the job

In this article, I’ll briefly introduce you to some of the most common video lighting equipment.

Lighting Gear Categories

You can break video lighting equipment down into several different categories:

  • Sources of Light (such as lamps and reflectors)
  • Light quality modifiers (such as diffusion material to make light softer)
  • Light reducers (such as scrims and neutral density)
  • Light controllers (such as barn doors and other accessories that help control the light direction)
  • Light color modifiers (filtration)

Let's get into more detail on each of these...

Sources of Light

The lighting instrument you choose can have a big effect on the image. Here are some of my favorite lights I’ve worked with:

  • Fresnel lights - These are highly directional lights that give you the ability to focus the light beam. I love these for back lights, hair lights, background lights, accent lights. I don’t use them much for a key light or fill light on a talking head shot because they throw a hard light, and that’s not great for people (usually). When you’re building your video lighting kit, make sure you include at least two fresnel lights (one for a background light, and one for a back light). For most people, a couple small fresnel lights (such as the Arri 150 fresnel) should do the trick.
  • Soft Fluorescent Lights - There are a few different types of fluorescent video lights. There’s the type with long bulbs such as the Kino-Flo Diva-Lite, and there’s the type with high quality compact fluorescent bulbs such as the Westcott Spiderlite TD5. I own both Diva-Lites and Spiderlites, and I love them both for different reasons. Important: Regular fluorescent lights like the ones you might have in your office or home are not good for video. They don’t accurately show color which leaves things looking green in your video.
  • LED lights - These are gaining in popularity. My experience with them is limited, but I don’t really love them as key or fill lights because they’re too small as sources (unless you put them behind a diffusion panel or inside a soft box in which case they might lack the power to punch through the fabric). Also, they’re not amazing background lights because they’re not as controllable and directional as a fresnel. At the time I’m writing this, they’re still very expensive because they’re newer technology.
  • Broad lights - These can be good for casting a wide beam of light from a short distance. I use these sometimes to blow out white backgrounds, or just to bring up the ambient light.

Without a doubt, my favorite instruments are soft boxes and fresnels. I use them more frequently than anything else because of the look and control they give me.

Keep in mind that you don’t always have to use a lamp as a light source. You can also use a reflector. This is something I commonly do when I’m shooting video outside.

It’s a good idea to have both lights and reflectors in your video lighting equipment.

Light Quality Modifiers

Light quality refers to how soft or how hard the light is. This is called the quality of light. And you control the quality of light with various modifiers.

Since most people look best under a soft light, it helps if a video shooter knows how to create a soft light.

The most common tools I use for making a soft light are soft boxes and diffusion panels.

Light Reducers

People don’t talk about reducing light much, because it seems like we’re always trying to increase the amount of light we have. That said, video lighting isn’t just about adding light — it’s also about taking light away.

To reduce the intensity of the light, you have several different tools you can use:

  • Scrims (metal scrims) - These look like circular steel screens. You can get them in different sizes, and you put them in front of your light source to reduce the light. It’s common to buy metal scrims when you purchase fresnel lights. This allows you to quickly reduce the amount of light without having to change the distance of the light from the subject.
  • Neutral density gels - These are similar to color gels, except they don’t change the color. They’re a quality of gray that reduces the light without changing the color. To use them, you simply clip them to the barn doors in front of your light source.
  • Nets - These are fabric nets that you put between your light source and your subject to reduce the light. When I shoot video indoors, I’ll use tools like neutral density gels and scrims to reduce light, but when I’m shooting video outdoors, you can’t really put a neutral density gel over the sun. That’s when a net comes in handy. You put a net in a frame and place it between the sun and your subject. This reduces the light without changing the quality (In other words, it doesn’t soften the light). This is a great way to control lighting contrast.
  • Dimmers - These don’t work on every light, but they’re great for tungsten sources. You can slide a switch back and forth and gradually decrease the intensity of the light. Keep in mind that as you dim tungsten lights, they become warmer (meaning you make the light redder), so you might not want to use a dimmer on a key light if you need to the color temperature to match. By the way, many fluorescent lights and LED lights have dimmers built into them.
  • Flags - These are the ultimate light reducers because you use them to stop light. They are black fabric or wood panels that you use to cut light. If light is going someplace you don’t want it to go, you can use flags to cut it and reduce or eliminate spill light.

Light Direction Modifiers

You can control the direction of light with tools such as:
  • Barn Doors - These are adjustable black flaps that you attach to your light. You adjust them to control how much area your light covers.
  • Snoot - This is a little black tunnel that helps you control the direction of light by providing a narrow hole for your light to go though.
  • Egg crate - This is a grid you attach to your soft light to help direct the light forward. If you have a soft box, this is a required accessory. It gives you the best of both worlds: attractive soft light, with some control over the light direction.

Light Color Modifiers

When you need to change the color of light, you use a light color modifier. In other words, you need color gels.

These are inexpensive semi-transparent gels that are specially designed to be heat resistant. You can get a wide variety of colors, giving you all kinds of options for creating moods.

You can put them on any light you want, but I usually only use them on background lights — not so much on key or fill lights.

By the way, when you punch light through a color gel, keep in mind that you’ll always lose some light, so adjust accordingly. You might find there’s so much light loss that you need a more powerful lighting instrument if you’re using color gels.

What Goes in Your Lighting Kit?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of video lighting equipment — not even close. These are simply some things I commonly use, and if you’re shooting a lot of talking head shots, such as video interviews, you might need similar tools, especially if you’re doing typical three point lighting.

Also, keep in mind that you can rent some of the gear if you don’t want to purchase it, or if you want to try it out before you invest fully.

Important: Remember, you don’t just need the equipment — you also need to know how to use it.

* Disclosure: Links to gear are affiliate links.

This article was last updated on March 28, 2019


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