A lighting 101 course using affordable tube lights

Tips & Techniques

Our latest edition of DIY Photography educational content is about lighting. We put together a little production to show the dos and don’ts of lighting. This fundamental guide is meant to help you get a better understanding of how to take better control of your set. Specifically, your lights. Lighting is a fundamental part of both filmmaking and photography. A basic understanding of the concepts and rules of lighting is enough to go to the next level. This course will break down the types of lights, some setups, and some tips.

Why tube lights

We created this entire tutorial using just one type of light: tube lights. Specifically, Godox’s TL-60, but the concepts apply to any tube lights. Tube lights have become popularized by TV shows, music videos, and enthusiasts for many reasons. Firstly, they are self-contained. Most tube lights will have their own battery, wireless functionality, and with some models full RGB. When you have a light with that much control, the options are basically endless. We opted to use the Godox TL-60 because they are an affordable version of tube lights that have a bunch of useful features. There are some drawbacks to using only tube lights. However, we got some pretty unique results using only these lights which just goes to show you how much these tips can up your game.

Types of Lights

In the video, I go over the types of light that you will find in the wild. We have four basic light types in every setup. Key, fill, back, and background.  They are very easy to grasp, and luckily the name borderline defines the purpose of the light. In any case, here is what each one does.

[BTW, the shot above was created with Set.A.Light 3D – a unique tool to create true-to-life lighting setups, check it out here]

Key light: The key light is the defining light of your setup. This will essentially determine what kind of lighting you are going for. Sometimes that even means without a key light at all. But in most cases, this will be your main light (ironically, another name for the key light is the main light). It is usually the brightest light on your set.

Fill light: The Fill light is what defines the contrast of your shot. How much do we need to offset the key light? The fill light can be many things, sometimes it’s a light, sometimes it’s a reflector. It can even sometimes be a bounce off of a wall. The most important thing to note when giving attention to your fill light is, how is the light now affecting my subject.

Back light: The backlight is mean to do more than just light the subject from the back. This is essentially what creates the separation from the background. I remember countless numbers of times where leaving out a backlight and suffering from what I call the copy-pasted effect. This is when it looks like the subject was copy-pasted into the background. You can really see how much of a difference the light is doing when it hits his hair. The model is suddenly not disappearing and fading in with the background.

Background Light: Lastly, the most undervalued light. The background light. I think most people tend to assume the natural light that is available is usually enough to light the background. However, with the pros, no light is positioned by accident. Most of you would look at the example above and say obviously the background needs a light. So adding the background light is obvious here. Background light can also be hyperboles of every daylight. If there is a window, the lighting tech could decide he wants to throw an m18 through a diffusion cloth to replicate direct sunlight through the window. This kind of thinking is what will essentially paint the mood of your frame. So always remember your background light!

Low-Key Lighting

Low key lighting is a high contrast lighting setup. This setup is great for high-intensity situations. In order to achieve this we set up lights facing each other with our subject in the middle. We cut off the spread of the light using “flags”. Flags are basically just black cloths that block light. This helps control the spread of the tube lights.

Practical Lighting

Practical lighting is a way of incorporating lights into your set. Meaning, on purpose. Tube lights are especially good at blending in. You will oftentimes see music videos or club scenes where the lights are left in as a set design choice. You might not even be able to see the practical light sometimes. In films, bulbs are usually swapped with much stronger cinematic bulbs or even RGB-enabled bulbs. The beauty of a good practical sometimes is not even noticing that it’s right in front of your eyes.

For our practical light shot, we stood the lights up in a semi-circle around our subject and created what’s essentially a large light source around him.

Adding Color

Adding color to a scene is an incredibly important part of your storytelling. You subconsciously already know what colors to expect in certain situations. For example, You should insert a poll here if you can of 3 multiple choice situations of like, futuristic, horror, heaven and see what colors they chose.

Look how much of a difference adding a background light with color can do for the picture. Whilst this is essentially the same lighting set up as the particles set up. Adding the color to the background suddenly gives the frame more dimension and depth. Maybe even a different overall motivation to the frame?


Lights are crazy. Every time I think I have a light nailed. I move it 1 mm to the right and BOOM. It’s perfect. The truth is small changes to the placement of your light can mean a world of a difference for its effect. Controlling your light is knowing how light behaves and getting the light to do what you want it to do. In the video we discuss how merely changing the orientation of your tube light can get your drastically different results.

In addition, there are tools that help you control light better. Things like flags, styrofoam boards, and reflectors are great tools for controlling your light.


At the end of the day, lighting is a world of its own. It’s really no wonder there are professionals whose sole purpose is to plan and move lights. However, that shouldn’t discourage you from learning the basics for yourself. Getting to know lighting principles and what your staff is doing is a great way to communicate with your team. Knowing the foundations also gives you the opportunity to build sets yourself. I am a one-man band myself sometimes so I know that a full staff isn’t always an option. But because I have some basic knowledge and tools, I can apply them and successfully get through another job. Hopefully, you can take some things from this course and apply them to your business as well.

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