How to Light a Music Video

Often times when we are looking to up our cinematography game for music videos we are told not to worry about the camera and to focus on the lighting. And yes, this is true. But how do you light a music video?

In this blog post we are going to go over how to light a music video by breaking down different set ups from the music video Mamacita. I had the honor and pleasure to be a Production Assistant and Grip on the BlockBoy JB Mamacita shoot where in just one day I learned so much about how to light a music video. We literally spent about 3 hours set decorating a patio and blowing balloons for a nighttime party scene. It might seem like a small detail but honestly, it makes everything look better.

This song is so short but so much went into this music video! After working on this video I can’t tell you enough how important lighting is to make your music video stand out.

There was also a lot of talent on set, I was once again impressed that the director was able to manage all of those people and not kill anyone.

I tend to post behind the scenes content on my Instagram (@thecinematichitman) so be sure to follow me for more content!

Music Video Lighting

Music video lighting is different from lighting a narrative piece because you get to be a little bit more creative. Another thing that you have to keep in mind is that the artist is essentially a brand. You want to light to be as flattering as possible or as grungy as possible just as long as it represents the artists. One of the best ways to think of a music video is as a commercial that is all about the artists.

Elements of Music Video Lighting

A lot of times we are in quick run and gun situations. On this day the artist didn’t show up to set on time so we had to make sure that we were going through the shots as fast as possible. In any shoot the basics that you want to make sure are in your scene are:

1.) Key Light

2.) Edge or Hair Light

3.) Character Light

4.) Practical Light

If you can get at least two of the these in your video it will stand out from the rest of all of the other videos out there.

Key Light

Again, you want to think of this as a commercial that is centered around the artists. We won’t be going over three-point lighting in this post but one of the elements that we will be using is the Key Light. WE NEED TO SEE THE ARTIST. The artist is the most important part of the video and it is important that they are being represented properly.

Our key light is the main light in your scene that lights the talent/subject. It can be anything that will allow you to see what is going on in the scene. For example, if you are shooting outdoors, your key light will be the sun. If you are shooting indoors your key light can be a ceiling light. The only problem with that is you are more likely to get raccoon eyes over your talent so you’ll either need to modify the light to make it soft.

The best way to get a nice key light though is to put the light on a stand. You want the light to be soft and not produce as many hard shadows (unless that is the look and feel of the video). If you have a hard light you want to modify it with some sort of diffusion that will spread the light evenly.

In this frame you can see we are using the sunlight as a key

On this shoot in one of the scenes, we used the sun as our Key Light. We had the talent dancing outside on the Patio while playing a game of dominoes. We used the sun as a key light and since it was a bit cloudy outside the light was nice and soft. We began to lose light so we paired the sun with a 1k light source as and pushed it way back so that it would be soft. You can see an almost orange glow to their skin.

Edge Light

The edge light is the light that will make your subject pop from the background and stop your scene from looking flat. It is usually placed behind the talent and that is why with an edge light you will see a slight glow to the hair or the shoulders of the subject.

We used the edge light in almost every setup. When we were doing the party scene we put a 1k behind the sliding door that was gelled red.

In music videos, the edge light tends to look really cool when it has a different color to it. There are so many RGB lights that are out there that you can choose from that will give you a really cool effect. We mainly used this when it came to the final scene where we light the inside of the party.

Character/Background Light

This was something that I just learned about but it blew my mind because we see it all the time in movies and I don’t really see many people talk about this. The character light is NOT the light that lights the subject but it is a light that will light something that the Subject/Talent might find important to them or the story.

Example, in the movie Fatal Attraction (1987) in the scene where Dan played by Michael Douglas gets a call from his side chick at work we see very important information in the frame without the movie having to say anything. If you look at the background you can see that Dan is busy hence the messy folders in the background. And that he went to a prestigious school, NYU.

All of this was communicated with no lines or dialogue because we can see it. and it because of the character light. Now in that frame, its super defused so it’s subtle, but we can use the same trick to decorate our background.

In this frame, we are using a red bar light and a daylight balanced bar light behind him as our character light. This light is illuminating the background giving us texture and separating him instead of it just being that red light hitting him.

I really have been starting to see how important it is to mix these.

Practical Lights

The final light that we will cover, the practical lights. Practical lights are lights that are seen by the camera and are clearly in the scene. We see this all the time in music videos especially. In films its a little bit more subtle but it can be a lamp that’s in the shot to add depth but at the same time is acting as a character light to show the family photos.

But in this music video, we used the practical lights to decorate the party scene. We used a long string of lights and had them expand to different corners of the scene to add depth to the shot. It wasn’t really spilling onto anyone but it was just visual interest. In one of my other blog posts where I went over the Wifi’s Funeral’s Knots Music Video BTS, there is another example of practical bar lights in the frame.

The party scene of this video though was the most fun part of the video to film because it felt like an actual party. One thing that we did that was a mistake was we connected all the lights that we were using to one circuit and all of the power went out. It was funny because we were all having a good time and then BAM! No Music, no lights. We fixed it by simply separating where we were plugging everything in but that’s definitely something to look out for.

In that final scene, we combined all of the above lighting techniques. This shoot was probably my 3rd time on a professional music video set and it was really eye-opening! I hope that I get to tackle more!

And that’s how you light a music video! I hope that you guys learned something new like I did! If you like this content subscribe to my blog and share this with your friends! Check out some of my other posts! I broke down the lighting of another music video I got to work on here! Be sure to follow me on Instagram and Twitter let me know how you found me! New content coming out every Wednesday!

Adler out.


Published by Adler Lafleur

Owner, Founder, Director, Editor Producer of Kaylex Productions. Full-Time freelance filmmaker from New Jersey.

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