One of my favorite films is The Hunt for Red October. Not only does Alec Baldwin play a terrific Jack Ryan, but there’s also a great submarine chase toward the end. In it, the good guys are bathed in a blue light and the bad guys are bathed in red. While this method of distinguishing the heroes from the villains may seem rather contrived, it’s a good example of how lighting can effectively emphasize mood, feeling, tone, and various other visual and storytelling elements.
Just as composition and framing weigh heavily on every shot, so too does lighting. In fact, some of the telltale signs of a poorly made video are overexposed shots, an underlit subject, and uninspired flat lighting. Good lighting, however, is like great artwork: Sometimes you can’t put your finger on what makes it good, but you recognize it when you see it.
While a lot of event videography doesn’t lend itself to staged lighting, interview lighting is considered the bread and butter for corporate, industrial, government, and educational videos. A written resource covering all the possibilities of the various lighting scenarios (even just for interview lighting), would be a multiple-volume set of paperweights. For this reason, I’ve chosen to highlight a handful of helpful techniques that can be used when shooting a single-subject interview. Specifically, we’ll cover two different environments: the office and the outdoor interview.
Before we jump in to office and outdoor interviews, however, let’s go over some lighting fundamentals.
Lights give off different colors depending on what the light source is. Without getting too detailed, the color temperature of light is measured in Kelvins. 5600 Kelvin is considered typical outdoor lighting. It is possible to go higher (7000 K or 8000 K), which might happen if you’re shooting on an overcast day, and would give off a bluer light. Conversely, color temperatures below 3200 K (candlelight, for example) give off a more orange light.
In practice, when performing a white balance, your camera is trying to figure out the current color temperature to adjust accordingly. Footage from an incorrect white balance will often end up too blue or too orange.
The theory of three-point lighting (left) is rather simple. It involves a key light, a fill, and a rim or back light. In most interviewing situations, you’ll want to use three-point lighting. Three-point lighting does not mean you only use or need three lights; rather it implies that the lighting comes from three separate directions.
Most professional interview lighting designs will also add a fourth point or source of light: a background light. This light is often critical in helping to set up a particular theme or mood for the interview and adds depth to the shot. It might be colored light, or specific points of light; the light might also be set to enhance a "practical" light that is already in the scene. In fact, enhancing existing lighting can keep it from looking flat and dull.
I once watched an interview with Michael Jackson where he was surrounded by a dozen or more lights to make him look good from every angle. Often professional lighting designers will use multiple lights for the same light direction or they’ll add specific lights to emphasize the hair, shoulders, or background.
One of the objectives of interview lighting is to create good "modeling" of a subject, where one side of the face or body is brighter than the other. Usually a one-to-two f-stop difference is good, but it is highly subjective. The position of the lighting is critical to achieve this look. The key light should be approximately 45 degrees to the side with the fill light at the same angle on the opposite side (left).
This would place the lights at approximately 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock in relation to the subject (left).
Additionally, the key lighting should also be about 45 degrees (vertically) above the subject. This helps to keep shadows from falling onto the eyes or creating too much nose shadow. The rim or back light is typically placed approximately 180 degrees from the key light.
Tools of the Trade
Like a painter with a wide assortment of different brush sizes and paint colors, a videographer needs a range of lighting fixtures to "paint" the light as desired. Outdoor lighting may be a different story, but great indoor/office lighting is very difficult to pull off without several lights at your disposal.
While this article is not intended to be a review of any specific lighting products, I will make a general recommendation that if you are in the market for lighting gear, you should take a look at Kino Flo lights. Kinos are excellent lights not only because of the great light they give off, but also because they are extremely lightweight and generate almost no heat, all of which are a blessing for office shoots. They also give a good "wrap" on the subject making harsh shadows less of a problem. Kino Flos can turn mediocre lighting into a beautiful and professional lighting setup.
There is a wide range of lighting choices available for corporate videographers: fresnel, open-face, fluorescents, HMIs, and more. All can get the job done, but should be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on the situation. As a general rule, you should use a large, soft source for your key and fill lights. In fact, the larger and brighter the key, the softer and more pleasing it looks on the subject through the camera.
Obviously, there’s a tradeoff when using brighter lights. The brighter the light, the more uncomfortable the subject will become. That said, large, bright key lights also help to soften and take away wrinkles and lines from subjects’ faces. Conversely, it’s usually better to use more focused background lights such as a fresnel or ellipsoidal—ones that you can mold and direct better than a soft light. Rim and backlights can use either with great success.
The Office Interview
Typically, the biggest challenge for getting good lighting for office interviews is not having enough setup time. The more pressed for time you are in the setup stage, the more likely you are to overlook details and end up with footage you’re not happy with. The best way to combat this problem is by being persuasive and sharpening your communication skills. Most interviewees work with tight schedules and reluctantly carve out just enough time for you to do a mediocre job. Rather than accepting these time constraints and being rushed, you need to explain to the people you’re interviewing (or their representatives) that an extra 20 or 30 minutes will go a long way to achieving a better end product for all concerned.
Many office interviews take place with busy, influential people. CEOs, VIPs, company presidents, and the like are inevitably working you in between appointments, but you can give yourself more setup time by not holding the interview in their office, and by using an assistant or some other stand-in to perfect the lighting before you call in the actual interview subject. This allows the interviewee to go about their business right up until the point that you’re ready for them. In the end, everyone is happier.
Once you’re in the office, the first thing you need to consider is the best position for the subject. The next question should be, Do I have to fight with the existing light (windows, fluorescents, desk lights, etc.), or can I use it for the shoot? Usually these two questions are intertwined and your answers will be significantly affected by how much time you have to set up.
If time were not a factor, you could block out all the windows with neutral-density gels or black wrap lights to your heart’s content to yield a great-looking interview. In the real world, this could easily take from several hours to a full day. This presents a challenge in that the best-looking shot often takes a great deal of time to set up. So it’s often a compromise between what you want to do and what you have the time to do.
For the interview shown in the image on the left, we had about 30 minutes to set up in a very small office. It was immediately apparent that we needed to place the subject in front of his desk to give him some distance and to provide some separation from the office wall. This particular office was so small that we were limited to shooting diagonally across the office with the camera in the doorway. Because of this and other spatial limitations we were forced to include a small portion of a window and we closed the blind so as not to blow out the video. Also because of the tight space, we included a computer screen. As you can see, we were able to effectively use a piece of white foam core as our fill.
We ended up with nice model lighting on his face, as shown in the figure on the left, and added one background light to brighten the surroundings and to give it some depth. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and available space, we didn’t get to add a rim light but that would have been a nice addition to the setup.
For me, outside interviews are the most fun and challenging. At every setting you are given the limitless opportunity to create whatever scene you envision for the purpose at hand. As I mentioned earlier, unlike an indoor shoot (unless you have very powerful HMI lighting), it’s more about working and molding the available light and less about creating your own.
However, as with indoor shoots, positioning the interviewee is critical. Time of day becomes another important factor when planning/shooting an outside interview. Avoid shooting when the sun is directly overhead, as it will cast shadows straight down a subject’s face.
The background is another important consideration. Think less about what the background is adding to the scene and more about making sure that the background isn’t adding too much. You don’t want the background to be blown out too white, which can easily happen when shooting with the sky as the background. You also don’t want the background to be too busy with competing colors or patterns.
Just like the benefit of having a good arsenal of lighting options for indoor shoots, it’s nice to have some good grip gear to help control the sun outdoors. Overheads, silks, scrims, bounce cards, and a supply of C-stands can really help to make an outdoor interview look great. Some people like to use the sun as the ultimate key light. There’s no question that it’s convenient, relatively consistent, and cheap. But if you do choose to use it as your key light, beware of hot spots on subjects, harsh shadows, and how dynamic it is. Another problem when using the sun as a key light is that your background is usually being lit by the sun as well, and this will usually overexpose the background. An approach that I like to use is to use the sun as my rim or back light (left). The sun makes a great-looking rim light, and by positioning your subject so the sun is behind him, you automatically shoot into the shady side of the background. This helps to eliminate blown out whites and hot spots. The biggest challenge with this type of setup is that you will occasionally need to add a bright key light to offset the background or rim light.
Similar to indoor lighting, you’ll want to try to achieve a key and fill setup. Fortunately, there is often enough ambient light to create the fill light without any extra hardware.
In the shoot shown in the figure on the left, I was able to use the sun as the rim light as well as the source for the key by bouncing it off of the white foam core. This also set up the shot so that we were shooting into the shadows of the trees, thus allowing us to focus on the interviewee, rather than the background.
By necessity, we used a full black scrim to cut down the sun’s rim light. Ideally, the bounce card should be up at a 45-degree angle, but in this instance, the card would have been in the shadows, casting very little bounce light. Even though the bounce card is not ideally positioned with the ambient sunlight creating the fill, harsh shadows are not an issue (left).
The figure on the left shows another similarly positioned shot, taken later in the afternoon. You can see the rim light much more clearly. Again we’re shooting into the shadows, giving us a colorful but subtle background. The sun is also adding a nice rim light to some of the flowers. It is worth noting that the light is much more pleasing and less harsh closer to twilight time. This setup is close to "magic hour" when videographers love to shoot due to the warm pleasing light and the direction of the sun.
Light the Way
The fundamentals of lighting are very important to understand and will carry over into any lighting production environment. Whether you’re shooting SD, HD, or film, the principles of lighting are constant.
Regardless of how good a videographer is at telling a story through the lens of a camera, he or she must also understand the significance of proper lighting. The best framed shot in the world isn’t going to mean much without the light to see it.
Todd Gillespie works in Television Production at UC-Santa Barbara.