Lighting an interview can obviously be handled in a lot of different ways. Your approach will depend on your expertise, the scope of the project, the equipment you can access, and the time you have to set up. This blog post will cover a simple lighting setup for an indoor, single-camera interview. You can see the video companion to this blog here. Look for other installments of this series where I discuss, ‘The Shot,’ sound and interviewing techniques.
Standard three-point lighting starts with a Key light - the strongest light - which in film making establishes the main light source for a scene, but in an interview is usually the light the subject looks toward.
The Back light helps separate the subject from the background, giving the shot a third dimension: depth (more on that later). It also gives the subject a rim or halo of light on their hair and shoulder. This is especially nice for people with big, dark hairdos. To keep the Back light from shining into the lens, you’ll want to put black wrap on the barn doors, or use a flag on a C-stand. Black wrap is a heavy-duty aluminum foil material that’s very malleable, and really great to have for keeping light from spilling where you don’t want it. When the Back light is rotated slightly around to the side of the subject, it becomes what’s called a “kicker.” That puts just touch of light raking across the side of the forehead, the cheek, and/or the neck. It can be a nice modeled look.
The Fill light is self-defining: it fills in the opposite side of the Key light. If it’s the same intensity as the Key, that’s flat lighting… very boring, in my humble and experienced opinion. Often, the Fill light is not a light at all, it’s a white surface (usually foam core) to reflect light. OR... you could just go without a Fill light for a more dramatic look. Large sheets of foam core (also called foam board) can be purchased at framing stores and most office supply chains.
Regardless of how you choose to light your interview subjects, here are a few rules of thumb I like to live by:
Don’t use the overhead lighting at your location. Top light is ‘fugly,’ and you have no control over where it goes. You should be controlling all the light, so turn everything off before you start the lighting process.
Soft light is better than hard light. Direct light is harsh and glaring; it creates hard shadows, which are not flattering when lighting a face. Direct light also can create ‘hot spots’ on the forehead or cheek. Ugly for sure.
If you’re using open-faced lights (the lamp on the light is not covered by glass) you’ll need to put diffusion on the light or place a silk or net (attached to a C-stand) in front of the light to soften it. A better solution is to use a Fresnel light, the type that has glass in front of the lamp. These lights have ‘spot/flood’ capabilities. The spot/flood mechanism slides the lamp forward and backward within the body of the light, making the light beam wider and narrower.
There are several thicknesses of diffusion, so you have the flexibility to cut the light down a little or a lot. If you Google ‘lighting diffusion,’ you can see the options and how it’s used. I also show you the options in the accompanying video to this blog. Some other softening options include umbrellas, which many light kits have. They’re attached directly to the light. Some light kits have soft boxes that mount on the front of the light. If you have C-stands and a silk, that’s also very good for softening the light. Bottom line for interviews: When the light beam gets spread out (diffused), it provides a much nicer aesthetic. When using an umbrella, heavy diffusion or a soft box, you can move the light in very close. It’s a great option for tight spaces, and it won’t be too blinding for your subject.
To add depth to the shot, I mentioned the Back light separation, but you should also use a BackGROUND light. Splashing a little light on the background helps create that third dimension, and you’ll certainly want to do that if the background is relevant to the subject material.
These same principles can be used in outdoor setups as well, you’ll just need bigger lights to compete with the sun, and you’ll obviously want to use the sun as a Key or Back light, using a 4x4 silk on a C-stand with a 35-pound sand bag.
Look for the other parts of this series, where I discuss ‘The Shot,’ sound and interviewing techniques. And check out the results of this lighting approach here.