The Art of Lighting for Recording Video

The Art of Lighting for Recording Video Oral History Interviews

by Doug Boyd

To capture professional looking video, you do not need expensive equipment. However, you do need to understand how your camera sees the scene. A digital video camera sees differently from the human eye and it needs light to process images. Professional photographers and cinematographers control the light and its effects on the subject. Using “natural light” does not mean that light is not being heavily controlled in professional situations. I prefer the use of lighting kits to control the lighting of an interview scene. This short essay will explore three-point lighting, a basic but an effective technique for lighting an oral history interview that can give your interview a more professional look.

View a brief video on three-point lighting 

Effectively lighting video is about balance and control. In an oral history context, you are typically lighting a human.  Lighting a human is different from lighting other objects. Three-point lighting is a basic model for balancing light and shadows, controlling what is illuminated and the degree of illumination of the subject being lit in an oral history interview.  If you are not working with a skilled videographer, this will require a great deal of practice involving trial and error. There are different types of lights typically used for video: incandescent, fluorescent, and now LED. The different types have different qualities, which often come down to personal preference. Configuration of lighting can also be different for every camera. Understanding the type of lighting being deployed is crucial to reap fully the benefits of effective lighting. For each new lighting configuration, you should perform a “white balance” on your camera. The white balancing process defines white for your camera in this particular scene under this particular light configuration. This will allow for your camera to represent better colors in this scene. White balance on digital cameras has become automated and sometimes the fully automated setup works quite well. However, sometimes you need to explore the preset white balance settings that typically conform to the lighting types “daylight,” “indoor tungsten,” or “fluorescent.”  Achieving the right white balance is critical for your meticulous lighting configuration to work. As the name implies, there are three light sources in three-point lighting. This does not necessarily imply three lights, merely three light sources which can include natural light and reflectors. The three light sources that are critical to three-point lighting are:

  •   The Key Light
  •   The Fill Light
  •   The Back Light (Sometimes referred to as the “Hair Light”)

Figure 1: Three-Point Lighting for Video

The Key Light This is your primary light source. The Key Light is the light source that shines directly on the subject and it is the strongest source of light of the three sources. I prefer that the Key Light be placed to the side of the camera (about 15-25 degrees) and elevated, shining down at a 45-degree angle on the subject to minimize shadows. The Key Light alone will greatly illuminate the subject, however, it will inevitably create shadows. Utilizing just the Key Light will also tend to blend the subject into the background. As you can see in the figure 2, there are dark shadows on the right side of the subject’s face.  Figure 2: Key Light Only Additionally, the subjects hair and the shoulder line tend to blend into the black background, especially since the hair is still mostly black and the subject’s suit coat is also black.  When lighting the subject with the Key Light, you should be especially aware of the creation of hotspots. For example, see the top left corner of the subject’s forehead in Figure 2. The Fill Light This light is set off to the side of the subject, illuminating the shadows that are invariably created by the key light.  I prefer that this light be much lower power than the key light (I prefer ½ power) and placed about face-level. As you can see in Figure 3, the shadows created by the Key light on the right side of the face have been balanced.  Additionally, the Fill Light helps to balance out the hotspot of light on the subject’s forehead.  Figure 3: Key Light + Fill Light The Fill Light does not have to be a mechanically powered light. The Fill Light source could be any “controlled” source of light, such as a window or the reflection of light from another source.  Functionally, the role of the fill remains the same. Reflection can be created by bouncing light off of a white wall, or it can be achieved by using a commercial reflector which can cost around $40-$50 dollars and can be mounted on a stand, hung from a ceiling or held in the hands of a patient and steady friend. Back Light (Hair Light) The Back Light functions to balance additional shadows and define the edges of your subject. Capturing video in an interview context with just a Key Light and a Fill Light will appear flat and lacking dimension. The Back Light will define the line around the subject’s head and shoulders, which will separate the subject from the background, adding dimensionality back into the scene.  The difference is subtle but very important for achieving that professional look.  Figure 4: Key Light + Fill Light + Back Light As you can see in Figure 4, the Backlight separates the subject from the background, especially with regard to the lines around the head and the shoulders. This light source is crucial to achieving that professional look; however, it is often the light source that gets neglected in an amateur setup.

Conclusion The title of this essay is The Art of Lighting for Recording Video Oral History Interviews because it is just that, an art. As with artistic expression of any sort, there are conventional aesthetics; however, there is also a great deal of flexibility in terms of interpreting the art form. Three-point lighting provides a guideline for setting up lights to create an effect that fits into a specific conventional aesthetic. The best cinematographers and videographers will play with this configuration, customizing their lighting in each situation to adapt to the environment and enhance the scene. There are additional components and techniques that facilitate the overall effect of three-point lighting including the use of softbox lights and umbrella reflectors to even out and soften the lighting effect. If you are interested in taking your lighting to the next level, I urge you to explore these options. I personally prefer the effect of the softbox in lighting a video interview.  Also, remember that your background matters in how to configure your lights. A black background will interact with your three-point lighting setup differently from a white, green-screen, or natural background. There is no substitute for practicing with your light kit and learning how the different configurations of lights interact with your camera. Figure 5: Example of Three-Point Lighting for Video Figure 6: Example of Three-Point Lighting for Video Figure 7: Example of Three-Point Lighting for Video Figure 8: Example of Three-Point Lighting for Video

Citation for Article

APA Boyd, D. A. (2012). The art of lighting for recording video oral history interviews. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from

Chicago Boyd, Douglas A. “The Art of Lighting for Recording Video Oral History Interviews,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,


This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation. 

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