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What a Key light can do to improve your Stream

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Looking for a light to use in your streaming setup to improve your webcam or DSLR quality? Let’s figure out what light is the best key light for you.

A properly tuned webcam with a sufficiently bright key light
Me using my C920 with 3 13-watt 100 watt equivalent Philips LED bulbs facing me, properly tuned.

There are many factors to consider when choosing the light that will become your key light.

Some interesting facts; The quality of the light doesn’t matter nearly as much as the angle. The angle of the light makes the most difference. Even a standard desk lamp is sufficient. You just need the right bulb. Any light can look decent if it doesn’t flicker and has a good angle.

That said, a softbox will do WONDERS for you, if you have the space to accommodate one. You can get a starter softbox kit pretty cheap, however, don’t just jump on this one before reading further.

We recommend reading the reviews of any light you look at and specifically watch out for mentions of “flickering on camera.” Always look up a review on YouTube.

Choosing the Key light that is right for your budget

With budget being the key factor when deciding on your light purchase, there are a few terms to be aware of in order to make an educated purchase for the best light you can get for the money.

First, there is Watts. Watts is a form of power measurement, which old incandescent bulbs were rated by to determine the related term, Lumens, or total photons being emitted.

However, that isn’t the whole picture, you still have CRI, or Color Rendering Index, it’s Color Temperature, and how diffused the light is. Essentially, the higher CRI something is, the closer the accuracy is when compared to sunlight. The closer you get to 6700K, the closer the light is to actual Daylight. Finally, how diffused the light is will determine if it is easy on your eyes and wraps the light around you without blowing out your face.

We strongly recommend at least one light to act as the Key light, as not enough light will result in an image like this:

When you lack a good key light, your webcam feed looks terrible, as demonstrated in this snapshot.
My tuned webcam with no light on except my general room light, a 3 watt 3 way 3000k GE bulb

Without boosting it with gain or exposure:

Increasing exposure of the webcam results in a brighter image, requiring less external light. Adds more strain on the sensor and reduced image quality
Tuned to low light by raising exposure and gain to compensate. It is still not “Good” But if it’s all you have, it’s acceptable.

What makes a good light?

Let’s go into more detail on the mentioned points:

  • K Rating – Color Temperature in Kelvin.
    • You are looking for “Daylight” ratings of 5000k+. The closer it is to 6700k, the better for color accuracy.
    • When using multiple light sources, it is ideal to keep them all the same color temperatures for the most natural appearance.
  • Lumens – How bright something appears.
    • The more lumens, the better for the camera or webcam.
    • There is a hard limit for us to withstand the intensity of the light. For example; you don’t want to look directly at the light from the stadium panels or the sun. The higher the lumens, the more diffusion you will need for it to be safe for your eyes.
  • Wattage – The power draw.
    • Mainly a concern for Incandescent bulbs. If your light fixture of choice is only rated for 40 watts, you can’t use any bulb above 40 watts total.
    • LED bulbs are highly power-efficient unless you have a powerful light like this Corn light bulb. I don’t recommend using this particular bulb for your light, as it is extremely bright. If you do insist on using it, you will NEED a diffuser to protect your eyes.
  • CRI(Color Rendering Index).
    • This is the key term to look for. As CRI dictates how accurately a light is able to mimic sunlight, it means we want high values to ensure it looks natural.
A CRI color comparison chart.
An extreme example. A light with poor CRI will make colors appear de-saturated. In the case of LED’s, its mostly the reds that are affected, which is bad for skin tones.

The Key light type – Incandescent vs Compact Fluorescent vs LED

Incandescent Bulb

Incandescent bulbs make great key lights for photographers.

Starting with the original lightbulb, we have the Incandescent bulb. This particular technology uses a strong electric current to heat up a thin tungsten filament. The heated filament then glows white-hot, outputting a color spectrum extremely close to 100 CRI. The lumens directly correlates to how much power the bulb draws.

It has some major drawbacks however and is used mainly by photographers for the most accurate colors possible.

  • It has a Short Lifespan: 800-1000 hours
  • Runs extremely hot; needs a substantial cool-down period before you can swap the bulb if it blows. It radiates light from high levels of heat.
  • Very energy-inefficient – 6 bulbs can use as much as a powerful desktop PC running a game at full blast.
  • Not a huge coverage area.

Incandescent bulbs have an efficiency of 16 lumens/watt on the 120V power grid. They are extremely power inefficient. Most of the energy sent into them is converted to heat instead of visible light.

However, among all the light technologies, it is the only technology that can very cheaply, and very easily reproduce a near-perfect 100 CRI.

Verdict:

We can not recommend an Incandescent bulb of any kind due to its high power use and short lifespan, even with the near 100 CRI. Plus it is just better for the world because we would be using less power and creating more waste after expending the light.

Compact Fluorescent Lights

CFL Bulbs are a terrible choice for Key Lights

The CFL was our first answer to the high power cost of Incandescent bulbs. CFL bulbs are able to output more Lumens at a lower wattage; This efficiency being around 60lumens/watt, or around 375% more efficient than Incandescent bulbs.

The CRI rating of CFL bulbs is typically pretty bad, however. They range from around 75 – 85 or so. This is due to how the technology actually omits certain parts of the spectrum entirely.

It does make up for this in its energy efficiency and low cost. For home use and work lights, a CFL bulb is a fantastic option, as it is very cheap and has an average lifespan of 10,000 hours or 10 times longer than an Incandescent.

Verdict:

For the purpose of streaming, we cannot recommend CFL bulbs. They have their uses, but streaming is not one of them. The CRI rating is just too low.

LED Bulbs & Strips

LED Technology is the Key Light King.

Light Emitting Diode technology was an amazing breakthrough for humanity. It provided a colossal efficiency bonus over even CFL bulbs, to a rating of around 150 lumens/watt, or 937.5% more efficient than incandescent bulbs. This means that you can get Much brighter lights than would be normally possible for tiny energy costs.

Modern LED technology is so advanced now, even a CRI of 99 is possible, at a cost. They tend to be very expensive with 90+ CRI values

Benefits:

  • Extremely low power consumption at low wattage!
    • High powered LEDS can consume a magnitude higher power than even incandescent, with some even in the 500-watt range
  • Very high CRI capabilities
  • Tons of DIY lighting potential
  • The colossal life span of 30,000 hours or MORE!

Drawbacks

  • High initial cost
  • Potential for flicker on some designs
Verdict:

For streamers, this is the technology we recommend if you can afford it.

Led Light Formats: (4 Types)

The first choice we have is an E26 Style bulb, used in the standard sockets of light fixtures you might already have strewn about your house.

Next up is LED strip lighting. This light type is typically used in DIY setups, as they are the basic component used in Panel lights typically. They are a strip of leds, either flexible like tape or a rigid panel.

An LED Panel Light has fantastic light diffusion built into the light, typically using a bit of flexible strip light.

Finally, a ring light provides even coverage of light over the face of your subject (yourself as a streamer) which is an excellent stand-in for single-point setups.

Choosing the light to use as your Key Light

Now it is time to choose the type of light to use as your Key light. The type you choose to go with will be determined by how much room you have available in your setup, as well as your budget.

Entry-level solution – Use what you have

One of the simplest and potentially most cost-effective solutions for a new streamer is to use a desk light, similar to the one used in the Pixar logo. This gives you an adjustable, articulating light to position freely on your face. Check to see if you have one you can use from around your house.

This is the most basic light that would be useful as a key light for a streamer. The fact that it uses a standard E26 bulb also increases versatility, allowing many different grades of bulbs to be used in the same fixture. If you are used to bulbs, they are still an acceptable format.

The E26 socket supports every single type of light; Incandescent, CFL and LED. Using this format is in our opinion, the most cost-effective, and the fixtures tend to be more decorative to appeal to a wider audience.

Our Recommended E26 Style Bulb

Philips LED A19 Frosted Light Bulb is our recommended bulb for fixtures that use this particular socket. It does not flicker(I have personally used these bulbs in my setup) and provides good lighting.

The frosted coating helps diffuse the light, and you can use a piece of paper or some diffusion cloth over the fixture to further diffuse it. – Note that this must not be fully enclosed, the bulb needs airflow as the metal base gets somewhat hot and potentially start a fire. Leave a gap for airflow in any softbox enclosure.

Midrange Solutions – Our most commonly recommended to streamers for their key light

DIY Light Strips –

For DIY projects, we recommend the Marswall LED 95+CRI strip. DIYPerks made a set of studio lights using these LEDs. In fact, that channel has SEVERAL different DIY light strip setups. We strongly recommend giving this channel a good look over if you are into DIY.

Also, you can make your own diffuser using a number of materials in your house.

Desk Mounted solutions –

Sometimes you don’t have the room for a light stand, but you do have some desk real-estate to spare. There are many options to choose from in this format.

This dual LED light by fasthomegoods or this wide-angle light by TROND both use a small array of LEDs mounted on a gooseneck and is connected to your pc or wall outlet via USB. they clamp on the edge of your desk or shelf. We rather like the gooseneck approach for its great flexibility.

If you can only afford a single light, a ring light would be the best choice. These lights are very good at illuminating your subject as the light wraps around your face well.

Some important points about desk clamps and mounts; They damage the finish on your desk! If this is a problem, then your only option is to use a weighted base light or a Light stand that is separate from your desk.

Panel Light Stand Mounted solutions –

Here is a rather cheap set of light stands you can use if you purchase a light panel that doesn’t come with a stand. Ideally, these light stands will extend at least to 35″, but 55″ and higher gives you a lot of flexibility in your setup. Do note the maximum weight limits so you don’t end up having your light fall like Paul Bunyan just cleaved it in two.

Our recommendation to buy is one of the Bi-color LED Panel Video light kits, which was covered over on EposVox’s Youtube.

To control these lights remotely, you will also need to buy a Wireless remote like this one.

These lights lack the ability to replace the bulb easily but make up for that with the ability to mount two camera style batteries in the rear of each panel, eliminating the need for wires going to these lights. This is especially useful if you are hard-pressed for power outlets, and can make shooting outdoors at night much easier.

Two-Point lighting & Beyond

With the above recommendation being only a two-light kit or three light kit, we enter into the realm of what is known as a “Two-Point lighting” setup.

This consists of the Key light, and a Fill light or hair light. Your key light is moved from in front of you to offset about 45°, and your fill light is on the opposite side to fill in the hard shadows that this creates. You’ll need to play with it to get the exact look you’re going for, which is nothing more than trial and error.

The Step Above: Studio Lighting

The next step above these common lights is purpose-built studio lights, designed for long term operation such as streaming. These lights are specifically made with content creation in mind and do this job better than a common socket or strip light.

These lights tend to be very expensive, and have several extremely useful features. However, our recommendation is to steer clear of Studio Grade lighting as a streamer. If you are curious, this article by bhphotovideo does a good job of explaining it.

Handy videos to understand how to use your lights effectively

With the tools and techniques described here, you are well on your way to dramatically improving the lighting of your face cam on your stream. If you want to explore more lighting techniques, I recommend checking out these videos that cover this subject.

Tackle your audio next, and you are well on your way to a premium streaming experience.

Did you find this post helpful to you? Spread the word to help other content creators!
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9 thoughts on “What a Key light can do to improve your Stream”

  1. Great post! Bit of feedback I’d like to give, however.

    I feel the bit about the importance of having a key light could be better articulated (by showing mid-stream images of w/ keylight and w/o keylight), since most streamers starting out DON’T bother to have an external light source, instead assuming that their monitor gives off the quality light that they need. That’s usually where most of the lighting issues lie – not having one at all.

    For those who are reading this and don’t understand what I mean, here’s why your monitor CANNOT be a reliable light source: Your monitor will always be changing its intensity and colour of its light, and your camera have to work to accommodate that. This additional work lowers the quality of the video feed your camera puts out, ultimately affecting the overall quality of the stream as well.

    That said, your room light WILL NOT WORK! You need light to reveal your face, and unless your room light shines into your face, they will not cut it. Please check out the rest of the blog post to see which light best suits your needs. For beginners, I’d recommend a ring light. Don’t be a doofus like me and get a desk lamp XD

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