Penn State University - School of Visual Arts
Professor: Eduardo Navas (
206 Arts Cottage

Lighting General

Notes on Basic Lighting Techniques

Remember that lighting always functions in relation to the fstop and shutter speed options on your camera. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the camera you checkout from the Equipment Center.

You can adjust some lighting issues on Final Cut or other editing software you may be using, but there is no substitute for good footage.


One thing you don't want to do is over expose when you are shooting. Overexposure takes place when a white area within your frame appear washed out. It will usually be an object or area colored white. To adjust for proper balanced exposure, you will need to work with your lighting set up.

If you are shooting outside, this may include reflectors to redirect or block specific light sources. For instance, if your subject is in an open area on a shiny day, it is advisable to use reflectors to bounce light off your area of focus. You may also find it necessary to light an area where a heavy shadow of a tree falls, for example, and does not meet your aesthetic vision. If you are working inside, it will be possible to control your lighting with great precision.

You could use a light meter to adjust lighting, but a good digital camera will have a built in sensor that will adjust as best it can for over exposed areas.

To make sure you have minimal overexposed areas, turn on the Zebra feature on your camera and adjust your fstops and shutter speed to make sure you get consistent lighting.

At times, you may decide that overexposure is an effect that you desire, but before you commit to use it for aesthetic reasons, you should be familiar with basic lighting techniques.

Distribute your Power

We will not get into volts, amps, or watts in these notes, but if you want to have a better grasp of how to distribute your light energy source, make sure to read the chapter on Distributing your energy source on the recommended book on Lighting Video by John Jackman.

A good general rule is to use different outlets that take their energy from different breakers. If possible make sure to locate the breaker box and see which breakers correspond with specific rooms in a house or building.

You should run your lights for at least fifteen minutes to make sure that the breakers will be fine. If you are shooting with people who are on a schedule, the last thing you want is to have your lights go out at the most crucial moment of shooting. So make sure that your lights will be fine well before you start shooting. For this reason, you will need extension cords to plug some of your lights in different rooms.

Types of Lights and Accessories

The most common and cheapest light is the photoflood, which is not too reliable for more serious production. But in your case, you have access to some Lowel and Omni lights at the Equipment Center.

You may also have access to some fluorescent lights, which in the past were not really an option for serious shooting, but with the technological innovation they have improved and are now often used for various setups in films as well as video. Check with the equipment center for your options.

When you check the lights out, make sure to test them before you leave the Equipment Center. Once you set them up, experiment as much as possible based on the basic set ups in the following section.

The two lights that you are likely to use as they are the ones available in the small lighting kit is the Lowel and Tota-Lite. With these two lights you can do a lot, even though a basic set up usually asks for three lights. Your third source of course could be natural light. You can also bounce off one of the lights strategically to compensate. We will look at this options below.

The Tota-Lite is known as a broad light because it spreads all over the place. You can control it with different devices such as umbrellas and reflectors. Their distance from the subject can also help diffuse its strength.

The Omni-lite is considered a focused light and has four barn doors that allows you to adjust it to get the effect you desire.

You can use gels which you can place in front of your lights to change the color or diffuse strength. If you use gels, make sure to clip them with wooden clothespins, not plastic as the lamp heat will melt the plastic very quickly.

You can also use butterfly or other type of large silk devices to block part of an area or to lower the lights' strength. Make sure to familiarize yourself with other light accessories available to dodge, bounce or block lights on specific areas of your scene.

Basic Lighting Set Up

A basic lighting set up will consist of a Key Light, a Fill Light and a Back Light. You should always have these three elements in some form in your set up. You will find that given that you have seen a lot of light set ups on TV and film, you may instinctively search for a situation that may resemble this basic set up.

The Key Light as the name suggests is your main source. This one usually will be in front to either side of the camera.

The Fill light will usually be on the other side of the key light, and will not be as strong.

The Back light will be almost in back of the Key light and should not be as strong as either of the other two.

A rough estimate of their strength is

Key light: 100%
Fill Light 50%
Back Light 50% to 100%

None of these numbers are set in stone, obviously. You should experiment and adjust according to your specific situation.

The Key light will usually be set up between 45 and 75 degree angles. If it helps, you can think of this as the 1:30 to 2:30 Range on a clock.

If you don't have three lights, which is the case of a small lighting kit, then you should use a reflector.

In this case you would have your key light as your main source, and a kicker, which will be more or less in the place of a back light. You can then place a reflector somewhere between the two areas lights. The basic ratios between the two lights would apply as described above for a three light set up. Again, experiment.

See John Jackman's webpage for further information on basic lighting for video:

Here is a set light set up for a 3-D Model. It is still relevant to the basic concepts of lighting:

This photography website presents an illustration of two light sources and a reflector:

Here is a photography website with an illustration of a three light set up:

A YouTube Video that shows an alternative approach to a three light/reflector set up:

This video is about photography lighting, but it does provide some interesting alternatives that may give you some ideas:

Learn more about lights: