Join Rick Allen Lippert for an in-depth discussion in this video Creating a basic lighting setup in a home or office, part of On Camera: Video Lighting for the Web.
Before you can begin to set the light for your shot, you have to know what the shot is, how much will be seen, and who will be in it--and this is true no matter what type of camera you're shooting. There's an old saying in Hollywood that you can't light air, meaning that you have to have somebody there so you know where to aim the lights. In this movie, we'll cover the basics for both using a webcam and for shooting a scene with a small video camera, smartphone or tablet. Let's do the webcam setup first, in an office where we've pulled the shades on the window.
Where you sit for your webcam shot will be a personal choice. You'll need to find a balance between appearing distorted if you're too close, and getting lost in the background if you're too far way. Let's assume you'll be sitting at a desk. It would be best if you had someone to sit in for you so you can set the lights. Another good idea is to raise the computer screen or webcam high enough to have the camera at your eye level. There are two reasons to do this. One, you'll look better when the viewer isn't looking up your nose, and the other is so the viewer will see less ceiling.
Overhead lights are better than nothing, I guess, but not by much. If that's all you have, then that's what you'll need to use. The problem with using only overheads is that the light falls straight down, casting unflattering shadows under your eyes. If you happen to have track lights on your ceiling then a simple redirect into your chair location can make a big difference. The ideal angle will be about 15 degrees to 20 degrees on either side of the camera or monitor and a few feet away.
You may want to reposition your computer location to accommodate the fixed position of the track light. The best thing about fluorescent lights: the off switch. Turn them off if at all possible and use a table or desk lamp. And even if you can't turn them off, then at least supplement the lighting. Do yourself a favor and never appear on camera lit solely by fluorescent lights. You can thank me later. The reason is they cast an indistinct shadow straight down, and to a camera it's an ugly shade of green.
There's absolutely nothing desirable about a regular fluorescent light. So just what should a basic webcam lighting setup look like? Well, here's a subject in a room with the windows shaded, lit by just a table lamp with an incandescent bulb. You might see these in the store labeled as soft white or something like that. It's supplementing the overhead incandescent light. Consider this the best basic setup because you're in control of the light. There's light both on him, thanks to the table lamp, plus some light illuminating the background, thanks to the overhead.
A close second best case scenario for basic webcam lighting uses the desk lamp under fluorescents. The color temperature of fluorescent is somewhere between incandescent and sunlight, so mixing these light sources isn't as bad as mixing incandescent with sunlight. You may need to place the desk lamp on some books or something to get it higher. The goal is to have the light a little higher than your head. A third best basic setup is to use the window as the main light, so we've opened the blinds on our window.
Of course the problem of relying on the sun is that it's always moving and not always shining. But let's say the sun is out and that it's coming in your window just right. In this case it might be all you need. Not bad, huh? And if your computer isn't at the right angle for the sunlight to shine on your face, then adjust it until you are illuminated. But it might also be that the sun is too strong and coming in at an angle that creates a dark shadow on one side of your face.
In that case you would need to shine a little light to fill in that shadow. Here, we're using a little desk lamp that has an LED bulb that matches closely the color of sunlight. I have more about this idea in the movie "Advanced video lighting." The concept of having a light shining on your face from an angle is called keylighting. The idea is to imply that the light is coming from the sun, the biggest keylight of them all; then we're just directing and controlling the shadows. That's where we'll start with basic lighting for a video camera on a tripod shooting someone talking.
Much like I just described in lighting for webcam shot, lighting for camera on a tripod should include a keylight. The main difference is distance and depth. You'll need lights that throw a little farther. Again, if overhead lighting is all you have, then at least use it. Making a decent picture in what I call available darkness is very difficult to achieve. Even though today's video cameras handle low-light situations much better than in the past, they will make prettier pictures if you have light on your subject.
If you're on a very tight budget, go to the hardware or home improvement store and pick up a clamp work light with the aluminum cone reflector. Attach it to something taller than your subject and aim it at him or her, then watch your monitor as you move it around to find the best place for it. It's not an elegant solution, but it will help. While you're at the store, look at the light bulb selection. Bulbs these days come in a variety of color temperatures, and sometimes it's even listed on the package.
This will help you greatly in matching your light sources. The soft white bulbs I mentioned earlier are in the 3,000-degree range. They match the overhead incandescent lights really well. I use daylight balanced compact fluorescent bulbs in my editing studio and fluorescent tubes in my dressing room. I also use daylight CFBs for my webcam keylight. Lighting is an area of production that intimidates many people; it shouldn't. It doesn't take much to add a little light, but oh, what a difference it makes in your video.