When shooting a video or conducting a photoshoot, lighting is the best tool in your toolbox. When a green screen shoot is properly lit, you can eliminate multiple pre- and post-production issues that cost time, money, and patience. While we recommend taking an online or in-person course in filming, photography, and perfect lighting, here’s a quick and helpful breakdown on how to properly set up your studio lighting. Study these techniques and apply them to your next video and you’ll see improvement in your footage almost instantly.
Keep a Clean Set
Before you set up the first light or lamp, ensure that your set is free from light pollution and shadows. If sunlight is coming into the studio, that can be a definite plus, since natural light is great for shoots. But if the arrangement is throwing glare or a dark shadow across the set, block the sunlight as best you can. Likewise, check the green screen floor and backdrop. Ensure that both are free from shadows, whether from wrinkles in the fabric, cracks in the wall, or scuff marks on the green screen floor. Shadows can interfere with drawing a clean key for later manipulation during the production process. Even if you don’t use a green screen, it’s an excellent idea to maintain control over the intensity of light and shadow in your studio.
Construct a Kit
Naturally, there are premade lighting kits available for purchase, which provide two or more lights and instructions on how to set them up. If you’re a beginner, this is an effective way to be initiated into the art and science of lighting a set. If you have a little more skill at film shoots and want to make a personalized light kit, make a point of learning the definitions and descriptions of three specific types of lights: key lights, fill-in lights, and background lights.
A key light is exactly what it sounds like—the primary light trained on your subject or talent. The key light ensures that your subject is well-lit, with all their best features highlighted. If you’re working with a smaller budget, a key light can be all you need for a basic setup (though you’ll need to make sure whatever you’re filming has enough illumination as well. That said, if you can afford a larger lighting setup, the key light will determine what you require in the two other main kinds of light and where they’ll be set up after taking a light meter reading.
Once again, the job this light does is all in the name. A fill light is employed to illuminate and “fill” in any shadows cast by the key light. Setting up the fill light to one side or another of the subject allows you to eliminate darkness or replace insufficient light across your subject’s features. If you use a light meter—and you really should learn how to use one because it will make your job as director or cinematographer much easier—you’ll base the intensity of the fill light on the reading from the key light. Don’t think of a fill light as a method to wipe out darkness, however. Instead, it’s a way to “paint” a scene with better lighting.
Lighting nomenclature is simple, yes? Background light involves a light trained on the area behind your subject or talent. This can help them stand out crisply and cleanly in the shot, focusing more attention on them. This is especially important when using a green screen. The green screen must be evenly lit and matched with the lighting in front, which will permit the drawing of a cleaner key during post-production. Again, make sure that the light meter settings complement one another.
A three-light setup is the most basic type of light arrangement. Set up all lights out of the camera frame, naturally, and about two to three feet from the subject, though you can always adjust as needed. Train the background light on the backdrop, of course, if you’re trying to eliminate any new shadows that have cropped up. Place the key light to your subject’s left side and the fill light to the left, training them to create the even lighting you desire or whatever effect you may be going for. It could be that lower lighting is necessary to create a more serious or somber tone, whereas higher and brighter lighting can produce a sensation of excitement and optimism.
Watch for Spill
When learning how to properly set up your studio lighting, don’t neglect the issue of light spills, and in particular color spills when using green screens. Light spill happens when light goes where it’s not supposed to, or comes in from other sources, interfering with the shot. Light spill can make your shots look messy, with the subject or talent appearing washed out or faded. If you’re going for a crisper look on a darker background, it’s extra noticeable. Prevent light spill by turning the lights so that they’re closer to the subject and turn the light so the edge of light covers them. This lets you illuminate your subject while eliminating spill.
Green spill is another kind of spill to watch for with green screens. Green screen spill happens when light reflects off the background, green screen floor, or other green elements. It can cause a weird halo effect around your subjects, making green screen effects look fake and amateurish. Prevent green screen spill by keeping the subject or talent at a distance from the green backdrop and covering the green floor with a dark surface or cloth. Amping up the background light and adding a hair light can also help clear up green spill.
Watch for Glare, Too!
Shadows are the bane of any director’s existence, but so is glare, especially with green screen shoots. If the lights are reflecting too much off the subject’s skin, eyeglasses, or other reflective surfaces, place the higher. Adjust the stands or move the key and fill lights until the light ceases to reflect or gather where it shouldn’t. This is particularly important with green screen shoots, because a concentrated “hot spot” can throw off any effects you’re going aiming to achieve Again, train the lights away from the hot spot and recalibrate them to your subject for a more pleasing look and less time spent in postproduction correcting errors that can easily be caught from the beginning of the shoot.