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The Theory

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Most people just point and shoot their camcorders most of the time. Perhaps, if you're a bit more serious, you will adjust your camcorder for the shooting conditions - particularly if you read our recent guide to camcorder settings. But if you're still using available light, your footage is still likely to look more flat and lifeless compared to video shot professionally.

A big area of differentiation between amateur and professional video making is how you light your subjects. A good lighting configuration can make your interviewees and scenery look a lot more interesting, bring them out from the background, and convey a mood. So this week we bring you a beginner's guide to video lighting.

Theory

Now that filmmaking is over a century old, lighting has a clearly defined set of techniques. But it's still not an exact science, either. So there are plenty of opportunities for fun and experimentation. Cinematic lighting traditionally starts off with a three-light setup. The main light is called the Key and points towards the subject at about 45 degrees from the camera angle. It can be placed on either side and provides the primary illumination. It is usually the most powerful of the three lights, too.
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The other two lights then add greater subtleties. The Fill light sits the other side of the camcorder to the Key, and is generally lower in power. It is also generally placed closer to the camcorder, so its illumination is more direct. The Key light's 45 degree angle will cast shadows across objects - particularly the contours of a person's face. But the primary role of the fill, as its name suggests, is to soften these shadows. Too many shadows, and your subjects might look too moody and ‘noirish'. Too few, and they could look flat and uninteresting.

The Backlight adds yet more dimension to your subject matter. This is placed behind your subject, either pointing at them from behind, or bounced off the background itself. The Backlight of course must be kept out of the camera frame, which can force you to be a little creative about placement. But its role is very important, as it brings your subject out from the background, negating the flat look often associated with video (compared to film).
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How you position and angle your lights vertically can also lend subtleties of atmosphere to your footage. Lighting people (and objects) from below can give them a sinister look - that familiar ‘torch under the chin' spookiness. Lighting from above provides a more beatific mood, and was often used in the early days of Hollywood to make stars look more glamorous.

Lighting intensity will also have a significant effect on the look of your footage. The traditional opposition is between ‘high key' and ‘low key' - referring to how bright the key light is. With a bright key, the mood is more upbeat, whereas a softer key will give more tension and drama, partly because you can't see what is going on so well! The most infamous genre to employ extremely low key lighting is film noir - which is also well known for its moodiness and dramatic themes.

If your light source doesn't have a dimmer, you will need to find other ways to reduce its intensity if it is too bright. There are two main ways of doing this. You can either cover the light with a diffuser - usually translucent paper or a lens filter - or bounce the light off a white surface, such as a large piece of white card or a whiteboard

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