Aug 17, 2022
As we’ve covered in our roundup of the best cameras for music videos, shooting this type of content is really an open-ended opportunity. No two music videos are ever the same. And, in fact, the best music videos are the ones which break the mold completely and capture something so fresh, so new, and so crazy that people have to talk about it.
All that being said, there are plenty of tools which can make your music video production life easier. So, whether you’re a novice to basic video lighting or an expert looking for some motivated lighting tips and tricks, here’s everything you need to know about music video lighting and how you can knock out your next music video project with three lights or less.
As with any video lighting-focused resource, we need to go over some lighting basics before we talk about how to light specific projects like music videos. As we’ve covered in the past, three-point lighting (which includes the key light, fill light and back light) is by far the most crucial concept and technique which governs lighting for film, television, and basically any type of video or photo project.
And while you can of course get creative and try out as many different versions of this key light, fill light, back light technique as you’d like, using a three-point lighting setup as your baseplate for any composition or lighting setup is crucial.
Simply put, every project needs three elements: a key light, a fill light, and a back light.
For music videos in particular, there are plenty of examples of directors employing various iterations of this three-point lighting setup for many cool looks and techniques. As a basic example, any footage you shoot of a band or artist would greatly benefit from having elements of three-point lighting that put your subjects in the (literal and figurative) best light possible.
That being said, there are also plenty of times in which you might want to (or have to) shoot your music videos in natural lighting — or with just basic lights available to you. As camera technology has grown, this has become more feasible than it was even a few years ago as many cameras can shoot pristine 4K footage in the darkest of settings.
However, just because you only have natural outdoor lighting available to you at times doesn’t mean you should completely ignore your three-point lighting principles. In fact, even in some situations where you have no lights at all you can still simulate your three main lights by using items like bounce boards or other similar products.
(If you're shooting during golden hour, the dissipated light can serve as your key light, fill light, and back light all at the same time.)
Outside of natural lighting situations, many music videos are similarly shot with only the use of ambient lighting or practical lighting — which is truly an artform unto itself. However, my general advice would be to only use natural or practical lighting only when no other lighting options are available.
If you can at least shoot footage of your artist or band performing in one professional setting to use as a base track in the edit, you can add in your more artistic shots and sequences which use less — or perhaps more cinematic — lighting setups as filler.
From this point, the name of the game for music video lighting is to get as creative as possible. On one hand we’re talking about the creativity that you might need to shoot in a variety of places which you might not find yourself shooting professional video.
From rock bands in garages to pop stars on arena stages, music video locations can come in many shapes in sizes. However, when lighting videos for different spaces, the trick comes down to finding the best ways to paint your subjects with your lights available to give them definition, contrast, and any other added cinematic elements.
On the other hand, the most fun part of shooting music videos is the general creativity that this medium allows. There are no wrong answers for how to light or shoot your music videos. And in fact, you can even consider trying out lighting sources which you might not usually think about for professional video recording.
From lighting scenes with car headlights to experimenting with different colored LED lights and gels, it’s up to you to try to find the best — and most unique — film looks to cast your subjects in. “The weirder the better” is usually a good rule of thumb.
However, if you are indeed shooting your first music video and looking for some basic tips and tricks, here’s some helpful advice that I’d keep in mind.
First and foremost, I would always advise any first time music video directors (or cinematographers) to consider shooting a base track to work off of. This base track would usually be footage of the artist or band performing a song all the way through from start to finish. You can shoot this footage with one camera or with several.
However, from a lighting perspective, I would recommend lighting your subjects with a strong key light, a soft fill light, and with a pleasing back light to simply make them look clear, cool, and in focus.
You can usually get the best deals on a key light, fill light, and back light by investing in a three-point lighting kit which, as a bonus, can also serve you for a variety of other video shoot types like interviews, commercials, or even narrative and documentary work.
To do this well it would be helpful to shoot in a controlled environment like a sound stage or studio (although a garage or stage will work too). Once you have this base track, I’d say you’re free to try out any other setups that you might desire. You’ll have the luxury of knowing you’ll have a solid base track to cut back to if any of your experimental shots don’t turn out great.
If you’d like to read up on more music video lighting theory, tips, and tricks— as well as how to fully utilize the key light, fill light, and back light in your three-point lighting setups — check out these additional resources from the Soundstripe blog: