The Basics of Key Lighting and Set Design for YouTube

Set design and proper lighting for YouTube videos can make a huge impact on your production quality. Before your audience hears a word you say, the visual impact of your video has already made a statement.

In fact, besides the content itself, the overall production value of your YouTube videos is one of the biggest factors in grabbing viewers’ attention. And of all the factors that make a video look good, lighting and set design make the biggest impact by far.

Think about some of the popular YouTube channels you follow. What do their videos look like? Chances are, they’re brightly and evenly lit, and their filming space feels comfortable and inviting. Now take stock of your own backdrop and lighting situation. By putting a little time and effort into these two areas, you may be surprised at how professional your videos can look.

Lighting for YouTube Videos

When setting up lighting for YouTube videos, use the three-point lighting technique give your videos a professional look.

Obviously, light is an essential part of any video. After all, if your audience can’t see you, you’re technically podcasting (and if that’s the case, check out our podcasting articles). Good lighting can draw the viewer’s focus and make you appear presentable and approachable, while bad lighting can achieve the opposite effect.

Many beginning YouTubers rely on the light sources already present in their home, such as natural light, overhead lights and lamps. Together, these sources can provide decent illumination in a pinch, but they certainly won’t make you “pop” on screen. If you’re ready to achieve a professional look, read on for specific strategies to take your lighting to the next level.

Three-Point Lighting

You don’t have to go to film school to learn lighting for YouTube videos, but it’s worth knowing one tried-and-true concept that every cinematographer learns: the three-point lighting technique.

This method uses three lighting fixtures (known as the key light, fill light and rim light) to light a subject from different angles, bringing them into focus and making them stand out from the background.

  • The key light is the strongest, most direct light source illuminating a subject. It’s typically placed off to one side of the camera at roughly a 30-degree angle, just above eye level and angled slightly downward. This brings out your facial features much better than a light shining straight-on, and helps avoid glare if you wear glasses.
  • The fill light is positioned on the opposite side of the camera to fill in the shadows created by the key light. Fill lighting is typically softer and more diffused than key lighting. It’s used to even things out while retaining some contrast and depth.
  • Finally, the rim light (also known as the back light, shoulder light or hair light) illuminates the subject from behind, highlighting their silhouette and making them stand out from the background.

But don’t feel like you need to go out and buy three high-end industrial lighting fixtures to achieve quality lighting for YouTube videos. A good key light is definitely essential, but a lamp or even a window covered with a white sheet can serve as a fill light in a pinch. Rim lighting isn’t strictly necessary, but it does provide that extra professional polish.

Color Temperature

Not all light is created equal—the visible spectrum ranges from “warm” colors like red and orange to “cold” colors like blue and violet. Too much warm light can make you look flushed or rosy, while colder lighting can make you look pale and sickly, so getting the right balance is key to a natural look.

Different light sources emit different combinations of wavelengths, giving each type of light a characteristic color spectrum.

  • Warm light sources like candlelight or incandescent bulbs have a high concentration of long wavelengths, resulting in a yellow-orange tint.
  • Colder sources, like certain LED and fluorescent lights, emit shorter wavelengths toward the blue end of the spectrum.
  • Natural daylight contains a broad spectrum of wavelengths, making it appear more or less white.

Fortunately, lighting fixtures are available in nearly any color temperature, and many modern fixtures even allow you to control the spectrum of the output. For a nice, clean look, try starting with white light that’s a bit warmer than daylight, then fine-tune your look from there.

Set Design for YouTube

The Yeti X USB microphone delivers pristine sound for YouTube videos and looks great on camera.

Presenting yourself in a flattering light is only half the equation when it comes to making good-looking videos. If you really want to give your content a professional look, you’ve got to think of your filming space like a set. Your backdrop says a lot about you, so it’s definitely worth spending some time on set design to get a look you’re happy with.

While there’s nothing wrong with vlogging from your bedroom or kitchen table, a dedicated filming space can greatly improve your video quality. As long as you’ve given some thought to your backdrop and made sure it’s appropriate for your channel, almost any space can be viable.

Follow these set design tips to fine-tune your background, and your production value will benefit big-time.

Location, Location, Location

Your choice of filming space has a major impact on how people perceive your channel. Imagine an outdoor enthusiast talking to you from a windowless basement. Or a mindfulness series shot in a messy house with kids and animals running around in the background. Not the most appropriate environments for the content, right?

If possible, try to choose a space that relates to your content somehow. If you cover business, a tastefully decorated home office can project competence and credibility. If you’re a movie buff or gamer, you’ll probably feel right at home on a comfy couch in your home entertainment center.

If your only option is to work out of your bedroom, consider if you want that to be obvious or not. If you’re a casual vlogger, inviting viewers into your private space can help them connect with you on a personal level. But for other channels, a bedroom backdrop can come off as unprofessional. To get some separation between your channel and your living space, clear one side of the room to use as a dedicated YouTube studio.

Add a Personal Touch

Once you’ve chosen the ideal setting for your videos, there’s still a lot you can do to fine-tune your backdrop and inject some of your own personality. A personalized space will set you apart from the crowd and help your viewers relate to you better.

Of course, you don’t need to go all-out and spend thousands on furniture and décor for your space. Simply rearranging and curating what’s behind you can be an easy yet powerful way to improve the look of your videos. The goal is to make your backdrop appealing to the eye without drawing the viewer’s attention to the point of distraction. A blank wall is better than a cluttered room, but something in the middle is best. Try adding a handful of tasteful accents to your backdrop.

If you can make your set relate directly to your content, all the better. For example, if you review movies, games or books, set up a bookcase behind you to show off your library. Instant credibility! If your channel focuses on a hobby or niche interest like board games, quilting or model trains, a shelf of related items or memorabilia can make a great backdrop.

Bringing it all Together

If you put these lighting and set design tips into practice, you should be able to achieve a solid look on any budget. Professional gear and a nice space are great if you can afford them, but knowledge, theory and a clear vision will take you a long way no matter what you’re working with.

Finally, remember that it’s always going to take some trial and error to get results that you’re happy with. Spend some time experimenting with different lighting techniques and rearranging your backdrop until you find the perfect combination. Don’t forget to shoot some test video to see how it looks on camera. Your audience will notice!

For more info on how to start a YouTube channel, including essential gear, tips for improving production quality, and even advice on how to make money on YouTube, check out our ultimate guide to starting a YouTube channel.