The Twitch/PC streaming guide: Lighting video on the cheap

How to make your video feed look better with lights.

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Do you need a professional studio light setup?

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

Webcam video usually looks awful -- often because we fail to supply proper lighting. After all, we're already looking at a light source...no need to get more light involved, right?

Wrong. And because your webcam feed will be even smaller and less decipherable on a Twitch stream, lighting is pretty important. But professional lighting setups are expensive, and you just spent a ton of money buying a stream-ready computer and a fancy webcam. Here's how to light your video without spending a fortune:

Splurge on a key light

In photography, the "key light" is the main light source. This should be the brightest light in your repertoire, and it should be positioned somewhere behind the camera -- usually at a 30- to 60-degree angle.

For your key light, you'll want a relatively bright, consistent light source. Many new streamers try to use a computer monitor as their key light -- this isn't a great idea unless you have a monitor that's dedicated to the cause (e.g., a monitor that displays a large, blank white screen all the time), because your monitor is constantly changing light, temperature, and color. For the same reason, a window doesn't make a great key light -- you want something you'll be able to control at all times.

You don't need to go out and buy a fancy lighting set up for casual Twitch streaming, but if you are going to spend any money, spend it on a soft box for your key light.

Find a fill light

Using just one light can make you look a bit dramatic -- and not in a good way. In order to combat the shadows your key light will inevitably create, you'll want a fill light. A fill light is usually placed behind your camera, opposite your key light, and is softer and less intense than your main lighting source.

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Left: No fill light, just a key light.

Right: Key light and fill light.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

For a non-professional setup, a regular lamp can often work as a fill light. I sometimes use a broken computer monitor (it just displays a blank, white screen, and I can still adjust the brightness and temperature). You can also use a tablet, make your own cereal soft box, or reflect sunlight from a nearby window.

Adjust your webcam settings with every new lighting setup

Don't rely on your webcam's auto-exposure! Tweaking your Webcam settings is easy and free, and it will instantly make your stream look much better.

To do this, you'll first need to set up and turn on the lights you'll be using during your stream -- this includes your monitor and any other monitors you may have running.

Next, open up your webcam's settings. You find these in the software that came with your Webcam, or by opening up Open Broadcaster Software, right-clicking on your webcam source, clicking Properties and then clicking Configure next to your webcam's name.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

Depending on your webcam, you'll probably want to go into Advanced Settings. In Advanced Settings, uncheck any Auto settings -- this may be auto-exposure, auto-white balance, auto-gain, or, as you can see in my Logitech HD Webcam C525 software, "RightLight." Once you've un-checked these settings, you'll need to manually adjust them so that your picture looks correct.

This will take some tweaking, and your final product will be based on your preferences. But you should definitely fix the exposure (you'll probably want to turn it way down -- auto-exposure tends to overcompensate) and the white balance (computer monitors give off blue light, which makes you look pale and dead).

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