How to Set Up 3 Popular Interview Lighting Techniques

I’ve shot a lot of interviews.
A whole lot.


Interview01Maybe too many.
We can save that discussion for a different blog (or a discussion with my therapist), but the sheer number of “talking heads” I’ve lit has made it necessary for me to learn a ton of different ways to illuminate the human face. When the fine folks at BorrowLenses asked me if I’d write an article about various lighting techniques for interviews, I had one word for them.

“Totes.”

Okay, technically speaking, I think my response was more like “Totes! I’d love to wax technical about how to make people look good in interview setups, so long as my writing style can be all weird and full of fake quotes.”

Alright, enough of that. The fact of the matter is that I have actually spent a lot of time experimenting with different ways to light interviews. By no means will this be some sort of exhaustive masterclass, but I’ll do my best to outline some tips, tricks and observations that I’ve developed over years of pointing cameras at faces for money, fame and glory.

FIRST THING’S FIRST: LOCATION. IS. EVERYTHING

If you’re making a list of what factors to consider as you head into filming an interview, the location should be the very first thing you contemplate. Often, we don’t have a ton of choice when it comes to where we shoot interviews and at least half of the time the location that we need to use is less than perfect. Knowing what I’m getting into (literally) is the biggest determining factor for me when it comes to lighting interviews. If it’s at all possible, try and scout your location ahead of time. If that’s not possible, you should certainly try to get answers to a few questions, like:
1. How large is the location in which we’ll be filming the interview? How tall are the ceilings?
2. What ambient light is already in the room? Photos of the location will be helpful here.
3. What does the space look like? Is it very colorful? Just a bunch of white walls and a conference table? Again: get your hands on some photos of the space.

If you know how much space you have to work with and what that space is going to look like, you’ll be much more prepared to light your interview well.

For this article, I’ve selected a space that, I would say, splits the difference between a “perfect location” (professional sound stage) and a “terrible location” (small conference room, or broom closet if your client is a weirdo). I’ve selected an area that gives me a lot of room but doesn’t give me absolute, 100% control of the ambient light. I wanted to give you all a look at a scenario where I have enough room to demonstrate a few techniques, but not so much room and control that my tips are only applicable to a very specific, special place. Big thanks to the folks at Brooklyn Grain for allowing us to come in and use their space for this demonstration. If you’re in the NY-area and you’re looking for a photo studio, give them a shout! They rule.

We only had access to three lights for this shoot, so this is a good time to discuss making the most with what you have. If you’re working with limited gear (like we were), I often find that the best way to get going on-location is to start with the background. Using just your camera and no lights to start, try to find an exposure for the background that you’re happy with. If the location has some overhead lighting, don’t be afraid to turn them on and see what they’re doing for the overall space. I find it’s much easier to use your fancy film lights and modifiers to match the ambience around you as opposed to starting with your subject and then addressing the background. Of course, if you have access to a ton of lighting, then you can certainly start with your subject and play with the background after the fact. Since we’re often working with just a few lights, I prefer not to commit them to my background unless it’s absolutely necessary.

In the case of this location, one thing you’ll notice is that we have a ton of window light to contend with. This is great in some respects, but a bit of a nightmare in others. The upside is that the abundance of ambient light allows us to light our background without adding additional fixtures. The problem with that plentiful, natural light source is that it 1) constantly changes direction and intensity and 2) is only useful if we open the windows, which we’ll then likely see in our shot. Windows are bright. Like, REALLY BRIGHT. So bright that they can pose a problem when it comes to getting a good exposure. When we first started setting up, the sky was overcast, so using the windows seemed like a great plan. By the time we were ready to roll, the clouds had magically scurried away, almost as if they wanted to see me sweat a bit. After a moment of cursing nature for making me look like a fool, I opted to do my best to expose for the window light, and work to make our interview lighting match as best as we could.

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I’ll point out that this fight with nature happens all the time, so it’s actually a good case study for this article. This location seemed absolutely fantastic but we immediately needed to compromise once we decided on an overall approach to the setups. That approach, it turned out, was going to be one of “we’re going to need to use as much light as we have access to.”
So, what do we know so far? Location is crucial.

Perfect, let’s chat about lighting.

KEY, FILL AND BACK LIGHT: MIX AND MATCH

Depending on your skill level, you may already be familiar with the concept of 3-point lighting. If the idea of reading another explanation of Key, Fill, and Back light makes you want to slam your laptop shut*, feel free to skip ahead to the discussion of light quality. It won’t hurt my feelings.*note: don’t slam the laptop. It might crack the screen and make it hard to read all of this wisdom that I’m bestowing upon you.

For those who don’t know, 3-point lighting describes lighting your subject from three different angles. Those angles are known as the Key, Fill, and Back light.

The source that is doing the majority of the work illuminating your subject is referred to as the key light. You’ll often hear people using “key” as a verb, too. You’ll typically be keying your subjects with the largest, brightest source that you have, and you can sometimes even get away with keying your subject with the light coming from a nearby window. The key light is also typically the source that gives you that wonderful little sparkle in your subject’s eye. We often call this the “catch-light,” because it sounds cool.

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The fill light well … fills in the shadow areas that are often created by your key light. In the sample below, you’ll see our fill light giving some lift to the side of our subject’s face. The fill light is less bright than your key and sometimes isn’t even provided by a second light. A lot of folks simply use a reflective surface like a FlexFill or bounce card to give a very subtle bit of lighting to the shadow-side of someone’s face.

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The back light is typically placed above and behind a subject and you’ll sometimes hear it referred to as a hair light, rim light, or edge light. Technically, each of these names describe something a little more specific, but “back light” is a good catch-all for any light source that is more or less placed behind your subject. A lot of folks use a harder source as a back light, which leads us (brilliantly) into a discussion of the quality of light.

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Hard vs. Soft Lighting

When I discuss the “quality” of light, I’m typically referring to how a particular light source casts shadows on a subject. The two most-used terms to describe the quality of light are “hard” and “soft” lighting. Soft lighting creates a more even spread of illumination across a subject, which decreases the intensity of shadows, and is usually more flattering on human faces. Generally speaking, soft light is created by larger sources, which is why you see so few shadows on a cloudy day. The sky essentially becomes one huge, bright source.

A light source is “hard” when it creates sharper, more-defined shadows on a subject. In general, hard sources are created by smaller fixtures, and often those sources are placed farther away. This is why you see long shadows and raccoon-eyes on sunny days.

When it comes to interview lighting, the interplay of hard and soft lighting will drastically affect how the viewer will feel about the images. For most interview setups, our key light is going to be a soft source. If your client is looking for pleasant, flattering-looking images, soft lighting is usually the way to go. It hides imperfections and often makes a large catch-light in a person’s eye, which makes their eyes look larger, more open and friendlier.

Now, not every interview needs to be keyed with soft lighting. You’ll often find harder key lights for very dramatic interview setups. If you’re looking to make something that has a bit more “edge” to it, you might want to consider a harder key light.

Okay, so if I’m (sometimes) supposed to use soft light for my key light, how do I … y’know … do that?

Get Bigger

The larger the light source, the softer the light will be. If you’re looking to soften a particular source, what you’re likely going to end up doing is finding a way to increase the physical size of the point where the illumination is coming from. Below are a few ways to do that.

Diffusion

One major way to soften a light source is to diffuse it, which essentially comes down to shining the light through a semi-translucent material. There are many, many … MANY diffusion materials at your disposal, but a fairly common solution you’ll find is grid cloth, which comes in different intensities to suit your specific needs. You can use something like a 4’x4′ frame, which you can wrap with diffusion, and place in front of your light source. Since most units will be smaller than 4 feet across, shining the light through that frame effectively makes the source larger. BorrowLenses has the fantastic Westcott Scrim Jim Reflector Kit, which will allow you to make up to a 6’x6′ frame. This will give you even softer light, if you’ve got the space for it.

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Bounce with Me

This method for softening your light is actually the simplest. Instead of pointing your light at your subject, point it at a reflective surface (white poster board, bead board, or even just a white wall), which is then pointed back at your subject. By bouncing the light off of a big reflective surface, you’ve again increased the size of the light itself, and therefore softened the light. In the BTS still below, you’ll see my good friend Adam Kerchman bouncing our lights into bead board. Even though this setup isn’t exactly right just yet, you can already see the quality of light that it produces on both his face and Steve’s.

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Combine!

One very popular method for interview lighting is something called a “book light,” and it’s a personal favorite of mine. You accomplish this by bouncing your light into a reflective surface, and then placing a layer of diffusion between the light and your subject. The bounce material and diffusion are angled in a way that looks like an open book – hence the nifty title of “book light.” This softens the light twice and gives a very beautiful key light for interviews. I would note that in order to accomplish this technique, you’ll need a decent amount of light output to start. Each time you diffuse your light source, you’re decreasing the overall output, so keep that in mind as you plan your lighting.

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Okay, so now where do I put these lights?

Of course, the positioning of each individual light source is going to vary depending on your location and on the subject matter of your interview, but over the years I’ve made an observation that, while by no means is a hard and fast rule, seems to usually hold true for interview lighting. We created a few different setups for this article that will illustrate what I’m talking about.

I’ve found that the angle from which your key light is set tends to be related to your subject’s eye line. An “eye line” describes where your subject is looking. Are they looking into the camera? Just off-camera? Are they looking way off at an extreme angle? I’ve noticed that, for the most part, the closer to on-lens your subject is looking, the more straight-on your key light will end up.