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How to Set Up Lights in Your DIY Video Studio

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Read Time: 10 min
This post is part of a series called Do-It-Yourself Video Studio.
How Install a Work Table in Your DIY Video Studio

In the previous tutorial I installed the desk in the studio and got it as close as possible to the final position. Now it's time to do the lighting, a crucial step.

What You Need

I have two softboxes, each with five CFL bulbs. The bulbs are 5500 Kelvin colour temperature, and I find they give a very balanced light. I got this kit about three years ago, and it cost about $100—very cheap for studio lights—but in all this time it has performed well. If you're starting from scratch, I recommend Dave Bode's $100 lighting kit tutorial.

There are better kits out there, sure. There are LED lights that are smaller, easier to work with and give better light but, honestly, this kit does the job just fine so I cannot justify spending a whole lot more money on fancier lights.

I'm also using two other lights as background light. The housings actually have a clamp in the end which make them perfect for mounting on a pole, like the one I have from the background paper kit. The bulbs I got for these, unfortunately, are only rated at 4600 K, so they're a bit warmer than I would have liked. However, this is barely visible on camera (in my opinion) so until I get better ones above 5000 K these will do just fine.

Now, if you want to read more about the kind of gear you can use, here are some resources that have helped me a great deal:

1. Block Out Other Light Sources

So, how do we begin the lighting process? Blocking out the sun. Yep, sorry! Remember those ceiling windows you saw at the beginning of this series? They need to be covered. We're going to work with artificial light only.

Image 1 The ceiling windowsImage 1 The ceiling windowsImage 1 The ceiling windows
The ceiling windows

The reason for this is we want complete control over the lighting conditions. Natural light is great, and the light in this room is actually really nice. If this was a one-time shoot, I'd just use that! But using natural light means that you have to depend on the weather outside, and that you have to adjust the camera settings properly every time the light changes. Therefore, I eliminate the natural light and only use artificial. This way, I can control it and keep it constant and consistent.

Now, a very simple and cheap way of blocking the light from a window is to use tin foil, like the one you have in your kitchen. For this project, I cut a few pieces roughly at the size of my windows. Specialty photo-video suppliers sell black tinfoil, which is heavier and more durable, but the kitchen stuff works too. Blackout curtains are a nicer-looking, more operable solution, and I suggest if you want to you your studio long-term you really should invest in some.

Image 2 Home made window blindsImage 2 Home made window blindsImage 2 Home made window blinds
Home made window blinds

To attach your foil to the window you simply spray some water on them and on the window, then press the foil on. Of course you can peel them off without problems and even though they'll leave some aluminum residue, they're really easy to clean.

A few minutes later and my windows are covered:

Image 3 Covered ceiling windowsImage 3 Covered ceiling windowsImage 3 Covered ceiling windows
Covered ceiling windows. There's still a little bit of light coming through, but not enough to make much of a difference in our exposure once the lights are on.

2. Add the Main Light

Now you can bring in the lights, starting with your main or "key" light.

The look I'm going for is a soft one, with depth and finesse, so I'm using "soft box" style of light. I want good light on the subject (that is: me), and I want separation from the background. I also want the background to be lit a bit.

This process is probably the most finicky part in all of getting your studio set up. To get it right you need to make a lot of small adjustments to the lights, followed by going back behind the desk and checking the shot.

This is the part in our DIY where I recommend you do it yourself with a little help from others: an assistant comes in very handy for getting your lighting right. If you can, have someone roughly the same size as you stand in your place, so that you can see how changing the position (especially distance) and intensity of the lights changes the look.

one light set up in DIY studioone light set up in DIY studioone light set up in DIY studio
Main light on. Notice how the side of my face opposite the light is in deep shadow.

So, set up your main light. Put the stand roughly in front and a little bit to the side, so that the light shines on the subject and the scene. Then roughly adjust the height and angle of the light head, and the position of the stand if needed, until the lighting on your subject looks OK. We'll add more lights and tweak things more later, so it doesn't have to look perfect just yet.

3. Add the Fill Light

With the main light in place and looking OK, set up and place your second light, the "fill" light. The role of this light is to decrease the contrast between highlights and shadow, or "lighting ratio," cast by your first light. The intensity and distance of this light to your subject is how you control this ratio: closer and brighter reduces the contrast, further and dimmer increases it.

Two lights with the same light (same power, same bulbs, same light modifiers, and so on) at the same distance creates a one-to-one main-to-fill lighting ratio. This is flat, forgiving light, and anyone can look OK in it, but they probably won't look great. It lack depth and definition. A ratio like 2:1 or 3:1 is a little more dynamic.

Start with your lights at the same power and distance, and try to create equal lighting on both sides of the face. This is 1:1. Once you've got 1:1, turn your fill light down by half. This will give you a 2:1 lighting ratio, which allows some shadow, but still preserves detail in that shadow. 

Now try moving the light in a few inches and then out to few inches, to vary the intensity slightly. Move it to left and to right to control the contours on the face until you're happy.

Second studio light in placeSecond studio light in placeSecond studio light in place
Second light on: notice how the shadow on the side of my face has lightened and the one on the wall has reduced

Go back to your main light. Now that you've added the fill light, does the main need adjusting? Take a good look. Move back and forth between the two lights, adjusting one and then the other little by little until the lighting looks just right. You might have to sit and look at the scene and your subject for a long time to see everything clearly and be really happy with it.

4. Add the Kicker, Hair, or Background Lights (as Needed)

To create a feeling of depth, you can light the background or the subject, or both, from above and below. Usually one light like this is enough.

Hair light installledHair light installledHair light installled
The hair lights are up above my shoulder and behind me. Notice the highlights on my forehead, nose and cheek, and on my shoulders. These help create a feeling of space between me and the background.

In the end I gave up trying to light the background and instead I used two of the clamp lights to light myself from the back, up and behind my head. That gave me the effect I wanted, which was to be separated from the background and also have my hair and shoulders lit.

I shot a time-lapse of the lighting process so far, as it unfolded for me. Here we go:

Driving Down the Shadows

That was a tough job. I started with the key and fill lights. Once I got those in a good position I wanted to light the background using the three clamp lights, but I wasn't getting the result I wanted. Instead, I switched to hair lights, which I like the look of more anyway.If you do want to light the backdrop, my suggestion is to keep it subtle. Over-lit backdrops tend to look dated.

I was also having problems with some unwanted shadows on the backdrop. Really frustrating. That was because the main and fill lights were down at the same level as me, meaning they drove the shadows right back behind me. This is easily fixed, however. Raise the lights and slightly tilt them down: this drives the shadows lower, below the line of sight.

At this point you should be pretty happy with how your scene is lit and its overall look, but we're not done.

Completed lighting lookCompleted lighting lookCompleted lighting look
And here's the completed look.

5. Finishing Touches: Flags, Tapes, Plans

The last steps are to clean up any stray light, mark the positions of your lights, secure any loose cords, and create a set plan.

Ah, stray light, sometimes such a pain to fix. This is light that's hitting the scene in a way you don't want. Maybe it's leaking from a misjoined bit of velcro on your softbox. It might be glare off the counter-top from a hairlight, reflections in your glasses, or a weird highlight on the wall. This is where you need flags!

Flags, or "gobos," are a lighting accessory you can use to block the light. They can be held with a stand (usually a c-stand). You can make your own, or buy professional ones in all kinds of shapes. You can also make a temporary frag with a c-stand, some of that fancy black tinfoil I mentioned above, and gaffer's tape.

Once the lighting is set, your next task is to secure it. Lighting equipment is big and people are clumsy—it tends to cause accidents. Each light stand needs at least one sand bag, and all cables should be taped down safely with gaffer's tape.

I also add a little "x" in tape under each leg of the light stands. This is so that when I strike the set and put the lights away I can easily put them right back into place next time. No need to fuss around figuring out where to put the lights again.

The last step is to diagram your layout. There's two reasons for this. First, the tape will come off the floor eventually, and then't inevitably the position of your lights will drift. Having a diagram means you can accurately recreate the exact same lighting, not just approximate it (this is important if matching shots made on different days). The second reasons is that it's handy to be able to create the same lighting in a different place, say working on a corporate video job, for example. It's nice to have a lighting setup you are really comfortable with in your back pocket. Here's a good lesson from Dave Bode again:

The Next Step

I'm getting close to completing this project and the next step is to install my audio gear. That's coming up in the next tutorial!

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