Feb 18, 2020
* Updated December 2021
It’s hard to believe that in the not-so-distant past, there was once a time when the only people who could afford (or understand) green screens were a handful of Hollywood’s top effects artists.
Fast forward to the present. These days it’s almost shockingly easy to construct a green screen setup and start adding incredible visuals to everyday projects. People even use them for home videos, and some newer cameras are pre-programmed to paint out certain materials.
In other words, there’s never been a better time to get into the green screen game. It’s not very expensive, the materials are easy to carry, and — most importantly — green screens provide an easy way to let you tell more epic stories than you would otherwise.
Of course, it isn’t quite that easy. Not using green screen won’t hurt you, because it’s how you’ve always worked. But using green screens badly can make your stuff laughable...or even unwatchable in some cases.
But first, there are still a few things you’ll need to learn to make sure you do things well.
In fact, lighting a green screen can be an enormously complicated process...or a surprisingly simple one. So instead of worrying about how you’ll afford a $5,000 green screen lighting setup, think about how you can get the most out of your current lighting kit.
So to help you start using this technique correctly, we’re going to cover:
In reality, all you need to start using green screens is a blank material. While there are “official” products you can buy, chances are good that you could make a green screen out of things you already own.
You could use a large bedsheet. Or pieces of foam board. Even a blank wall works, if you don’t mind the color green.
The truth is, as long as the material is smooth, you’ll just need to pick up some ChromaKey green screen paint. And, just like that, you’ve got a green screen to work with!
Now I’m betting that you’ve already got some experience lighting a shoot. If that’s true, you already know how to use a three-point setup, which is a universal principle in this industry.
Light plays a few roles in video production. The obvious job is making sure that elements in a scene are visible; the less obvious job is subtly directing the audience’s attention.
Here are some video lighting resources:
Green screen lighting introduces a new wrinkle to plan for when you’re setting up a shoot.
Think of green screens like a canvas. Eventually, you’ll need to “paint” a new backdrop or effect over that blank slate. In order for that to happen, a green screen needs to be a continuous and uniform field of color.
In other words, the screen (or whatever object you use) must be well lit in order for it to be used correctly.
Before I break down what that looks like, here’s a word of warning: Green screen lighting is an additional element to your lighting process, not a replacement.
You’ll still need to light your subject appropriately, so plan for a shoot like you would without a green screen backdrop.
The most important part of using a green screen is consistent lighting. Any major differences or fluctuations won’t just stand out — they might make it impossible to create the illusion you want. Consistent lighting is the easiest way to pull off a glimpse of an alien world or a bright city skyline.
If you’re new to green screens, this could be one more confusing piece of an already-confusing puzzle. But the good news is that green screen lighting is a lot easier than it sounds, so long as you understand your goals.
Start with lighting your green screen. The brighter the source, the easier time you’ll have lighting the entire screen. And using fewer lights means you should have an easier time matching the temperature of the lights, which also makes it easier to edit your footage in post.
In some cases, that could mean using two box lights just like you would on a normal set. But if you’re on a smaller budget, you may have to get creative. It’s not unheard of for vloggers to take lamps from around their house and situate them at different positions to achieve the same goal.
Thinking outside of the box is a required skill for filmmakers. So as long as you use lights with a similar temperature, you can still get the effect of a balanced — and well lit — green screen.
You just finished your first shoot with a green screen, and you’re feeling pretty good. You managed to create a consistent lighting temperature. Maybe you even added some movement in the scene, or multiple subjects interacting.
Either way, you’re moving on to the editing phase. And that means it’s time for the moment of truth — you need to start “painting” a backdrop over your green screen.
But an interview with a businessman would clash with an African savanna backdrop. And a commercial for a local business’s new product would clash with a sweeping vista of, say, the planet Pandora from Avatar.
Even if everything about your green screen lighting was perfect, take some time thinking about how to implement outside elements. (Unless you’re working on a funny vlog or satirical mockumentary — in that case, go ahead and add an extra T-rex in your background.)
Shooting with a green screen requires a few different things. But the good news is that most of it is stuff you either already have around or could pick up for cheap: The obvious thing is the sheet, tarp, or reflective material you’re going to use as the backdrop; the other, of course, is your lighting kit.
Remember when we talked about using a green screen like a canvas? Well, one of the most important things when thinking about how to light a green screen is called “light leak.”
You can probably guess what that is based on the name. Nothing ruins a green screen backdrop quite like a giant glare or smudge. These light leaks don’t just look dumb — they can make it difficult or even impossible to actually layer in the footage you want. And at that point, the entire green screen effect (and all your work) is wasted.
The solution is to keep distance in mind when you're setting up your lighting kit. You want to light your subject and your green background similarly, but not with the exact same lights. Where you place your key light and fill light can certainly help balance out the process, but trying to use the same equipment for both does increase the risk of shadows or glares.
In other words, your green screen lighting setup can play a role in how smoothly you can edit over the footage. So make sure you keep enough space between the subject and background to maintain consistent lighting for the entire shot/scene.
You already know the importance of setting your key light early, lighting your subject first, and then setting some consistent lighting across the green screen. But there are other smaller pieces of advice to take with you, things that should make shooting on a green screen feel a little more manageable even if you’ve never done it before.
For starters, you can forget about traditional film screen lighting for green screen shoots. You don’t need a three point lighting setup, or an elaborate system with perfectly synchronized color temperatures.
I mean, yeah, both of those things are pretty useful, but they aren’t necessary to use a green screen effectively. You’ll still need a key light and a fill light, because you’ll still want to properly highlight the subject.
Another small tip is to minimize the size of your green screen. It’s easy to get carried away seeing the house-sized green screens on Hollywood film sets, but the truth is that the smaller the backdrop, the less light leak you’ll have to deal with.
Think about how to get the most out of soft lights. Even without a three-point setup, find a key light with wide coverage and something to diffuse the light. (Going with a softer light can also help you match up the color temperatures, which will once again save you time and effort when you go to edit the footage.)
And how you position your fill light and back light matters a lot when you’re working with a green screen.
But as long as long as you follow the advice we’ve covered — or watch some examples of this on YouTube — you’ll be able to get the shots you want with pretty much any lighting kit.
Editing green screen isn’t just about dropping in a visual layer or admiring your handiwork. But it’s also not as difficult as you might think...assuming you put in the work and did a good job capturing your green screen footage.
Let’s pretend you read this article and felt inspired. You bought a new green screen, then set up your key light and fill light to get the perfect soft lighting effect. Maybe you even purchased a backup fill light to get the right lighting consistency.
Whatever you did to get here, now you’ve got all the footage you need for your project. It’s time to sit down, pull up the footage, and edit the thing.
But if this is your first time working with green screen footage, it might feel harder than you expected. You know you need to composite an image of the green screen, but maybe you got some light leakage because your fill light was too close to the backdrop.
Or maybe your key light bounced off the subject’s clothes because they were too close to the backdrop, and now they’re a little green in the face.
If you’re not totally comfortable with editing green screen footage (or you’re afraid you’ll get it wrong and ruin a project on a tight timeline), it’s not the end of the road for you. In fact, part of being a filmmaker in 2021 means you’ve got all kinds of tools to help you out, from plugins in your video editing software to green screen apps that focus specifically on that process.
Relying on a plugin or app means you’ll trade a lot of your creative control for a more stress-free experience, so it’s not something everyone will use. But in certain cases these options provide easy ways to experiment with green screen lighting until you get it right.
Using green screens turn filmmakers into magicians. However, editing green screen isn’t just about dropping in a visual layer or admiring your handiwork. It’s about adding in the right background music, finding some clever sound effects, and tying all of the different pieces together.
By adding this skill to your toolset, you’re on your way to becoming a master of illusion. But to really sell the image or idea on screen, you need to make sure every component of your video supports it.
To find other filmmaking tips and tricks, here are some other picks from the Soundstripe blog: