File Under: Making Videos

This article is part of the Get Seen series: improving your videos to increase viewership and engagement, create better and more video content, and grow your fanbase and audience.

Musicians today have also become videomakers due to two developments: first, internet video is one of the best ways to engage and grow your audience (and worldwide video distribution is free!); second, there are so many ways to monetize video and YouTube. Because musicians need to improve their video skills, we started this multi-part DIY Advisor series. Last week we discussed how critical high-quality audio is for your videos and generating views. This week we're tackling another critical skill: great lighting.

Whether you're recording a music video, shooting behind-the-scenes footage to share, or have a vlog where you connect weekly with your fans, ignoring proper lighting techniques can make the difference between a video viewers will completely submerge themselves into or one that distracts and they skip. Although cameras and phones are constantly getting better at dealing with low light, getting a professional look for your footage has more to do with augmenting the lighting than any other factor.

Unlike last week's DIY Musician article on great audio, great lightning is not necessarily a skill musician's have in their toolbox. So, here are some of the basics of what you need for lighting to improve views and engagement:

1. Always judge the lighting by what the camera sees, not your eyes.

Just like instruments sound differently in a room to your ear than when recorded with a microphone, the image through the camera might look different than what you see with your eyes in the room. Keep in mind this isn't simply based on how the camera picks up light, it's also about the camera angle and the shadows it captures depending on your indoor or outdoor lighting. This means you need to judge the image through the camera. This may seem an obvious point, but professional videomakers spend a lot of time thinking through lighting a shot. In fact, they often rely on light meters instead of their eyes so they can better gauge light levels. This allows them to maintain consistent light balance between shots for editing purposes as well as to adjust levels to purposely set mood and tone. While you may not need expensive light meters for your YouTube videos, understanding the focus they put on light will help you create better videos for your audience.

2. Understand and use three-point lighting.

If you're shooting indoors, you'll likely need to adjust room lighting for the camera to better illuminate the subject or person and cut down on distracting shadows. To help, you should be aware of the three-point lighting. This is a standard visual arts technique that uses three separate lights so the videomaker can both illuminate the shot's subject, while also controlling or eliminating shadows produced by direct lighting. It's especially good for vlogs and interview-style videos. Here's how this setup works:

Key light: Point the primary, or key light, at the subject -- usually just off center to the left or right.

Fill light: Point this light just off to the side of the subject, at a shallower angle to the subject and opposite of the key light. This light is meant to control the shadows cast by the key light. You'll want to look at the camera image and position the fill light until the shadows created by the key light are lessened. There's a tendency to eliminate the shadows created by the key light completely to make things symmetrical, but the goal of the fill light is to help keep the subject looking natural. Eliminating the shadows completely can actually distract the viewer since it's unnatural to see people's faces without any shadows.

Back light: This is set up behind the subject and helps turn the entire image three-dimensional for the camera. Without this third light, the image tends to look flat because the details beyond the front of the subject don't appear until they are backlit.

Note that there's a four point lighting technique as well. This adds one more light -- the background light -- opposite of the back light. This light is actually pointed at the background and can control for shadows cast by the subject or foreground items or to illuminate the background for the camera, if needed.

3. Use diffusers to adjust the light.

If you take a normal lamp or work light and use it as the key light, the light it casts tends to be bright and harsh to the camera. It also can create glare if there's any reflective surface on the subject or overly shiny skin. Adding a diffuser, which is usually a fabric reflector placed in front of the light much like an umbrella, will soften the light and reduce shine, harshness, and glare. Think of this like what a lampshade does to the light in a room.

Note that professional videomakers will also use gels, which is best thought of as a diffuser that also alters the color of the light. This is necessary if the light source adds a tint, or you wish to add a tint to the lighting to create a mood or tone.

4. Use cheap lighting alternatives if you don't have the money for a professional set of lights.

While professional lights, combined with proper lighting techniques, can boost the quality of your videos, for YouTube, many get by with cheaper alternatives. For instance, for well under $100, you can purchase three worklights at a hardware store. These lights usually come with casings that allow you to clip them to any surface. Buy some wax paper and some clothespins and you now have a cheap diffuser. Just be careful as to how close you place the wax paper directly against the hot bulb! Work with this for awhile and you can always graduate to professional lighting equipment over time.

It takes a while to get a feel for light and shadow, similar to learning rhythm in music, so experiment. But what does help, if you're looking to improve your video content and output is to set up an area for shooting just as you do with a recording studio. Simplifying your setup process is one way to get better at producing more videos. And as you get a polished look, these subtle changes will improve the reaction of your fans to your videos even if they don't know why they like them more. This, and creating high-quality audio, can give you the best chance to increase engagement, views, and subscriptions to your channel.

Challenge: Experiment with improving lighting using the techniques above.


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Photo credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg