Light Your Backgrounds

Always keep your backgrounds in mind when you set up your video shots.

We spend a great deal of time talking about three-point lighting, lighting your talent's face and other general lighting techniques. However, we rarely talk about lighting the background of a shot. It's not that lighting backgrounds is unimportant, we just tend to think about the subject of our shot more than the environment. A well-lit background however, might be the difference between a merely adequate shot and a shot that is dynamic. In this column, we will look at some of the techniques you can use to light backgrounds so they add to the shot.

Background Basics

One of the hardest things for busy videographers to do is think beyond the subject in the shot and consider the background as well as foreground. (See the What Do You See? sidebar.) When you do your lighting setups, you have to think of both. One of the first choices you have to make when setting up a shot deciding what kind of background you want. (See the What Do You Want to Say? sidebar.) As you set up your camera and subject lighting, you also need to think about how you will light your background.

The first major rule of thumb when lighting backgrounds is that the background must be darker than your subject. If your subject is darker, the viewer's eyes will be drawn to the brighter background.

You might ask, "How can I darken a background if the lighting I am using on my subject also lights the background?" The simple solution to this problem is the use of flags, opaque cloth or posterboard rectangles you can put in front of the lights to shade the area behind the subject.

Flags are easy to use. Your key and fill lights should be about 45 degrees above the subject. At that angle, if you place a flag in front of and above your light, you should be able to gradually lower it until the shadow of the flag darkens the background behind your talent without reducing the light on the subject's face. Make sure your talent stands or sits at least two feet in front of the background, so that there is space for the shadow to fall. Once you get the background as dark as possible, it is time to light it.

Lighting Backgrounds

Once you have flagged your talent's lights to make the background as dark as possible, you can go to work making it look as dynamic as possible. You have several options when lighting the background. We'll detail just a few of them.

If there is any kind of equipment in the background, you can make it look interesting by placing small spots with deeply colored gels above and below the objects. By lighting just the top and bottom surfaces of the background objects, you will slightly color them without making them too bright. Add a touch of soft white light by bouncing light from your key light towards the background. The result will be colored rim lights on the background objects with a soft light filling the scene and letting the camcorder see what the objects are.

If your background is fairly plain or you are forced to shoot in front of a backdrop or blank wall, there are ways to make even these backgrounds interesting. Place a light with barn doors high above and to your left of the talent. Close the barn doors as much as possible and slant the light coming through the narrow opening of the barn doors so that it creates a narrow band of light falling diagonally across the background. Make sure you can see this slant of light passing behind your subject. For a dynamic effect, use deeply colored gels in front of the light to color it. Make sure the color does not clash with the background color or the color your talent is wearing. You can use this technique with multiple lights to create a variety of interesting streaks behind your subject to make the background more interesting.

Another interesting way to light your background might include some visual magic. You can shine a light through a set of mini-blinds to create stripes of light. To accomplish this, hang the blinds from a light-stand off to one side of the talent. In front of the blinds, place a light with flags all around so that the only light coming from the spot light falls through the blinds onto the background. By opening and closing and pivoting the blinds slightly, you can change the width of the stripes as well as the angle of their slant. This can add a very dynamic pattern to a rather plain background. By adding gels to the light, you can change the time of day and mood of the light. Adding a diffusion gel to the front of the light will soften the bands and make them less intense.

If you want to personalize an interview with someone important, ask if you can conduct the interview at the person's home or office. For an office, flag the background to darken it and then add a soft glow reflected from a bounce card. Add to this a small light, set high, adding a sparkle to the picture frames of family or kids that you have placed within camera shot. This light should not be so intense that the camcorder can see it. All you are doing is adding highlights.
Sometimes, you need your background to feel like home, even though you are in a studio. To accomplish this, make sure that any furniture you have in the shot is pulled a couple of feet from the wall (you will not even notice it in the camera shot) and add a table lamp with a 15-watt bulb. The lamp will add a nice glow to the background and it will make your scene seem very warm and friendly.

The most dramatic background might be one in which you see nothing at all. To accomplish this, flag the key and fill lights so that absolutely no light falls on the background. You may have to raise the key and fill to a slightly higher angle to achieve this. This technique, called "cameo lighting," is used quite often. Only use it, however, when you want to concentrate totally on your talent and the subject is fairly dramatic.

Final Background Check

Before hitting that Record button, check your background again and make sure it accomplishes what you have set out to do. Check for any unwanted glares and make sure the background lights aren't adding anything undesirable to your talent. You may have to flag your background lights so they do not shine on your talent. This is important because you want to avoid strange shadows coming from unlikely directions. Experiment a little. Try different colors and angles. You are the lighting director; look at your subject, determine the type of feel you want to create and go to work. Most of all, enjoy yourself as you create dynamic, well-lit videos.

[Sidebar: What Do You See?]

When you learned to drive, you were probably taught to quickly look at your side and rearview mirrors as well as through the windshield to make sure you weren't going to hit anything.

Use the same technique to improve your production shots. The technique is quite simple. When you look in the viewfinder, consciously look at the foreground, then the background and then your subject. If any of the three planes of the shot do not look good, change it slightly and do the quick look technique again. You must train yourself to do this three-step process automatically every time you frame a shot. Once you get into the habit, you will notice that your shots become more powerful and your footage more consistently good.

[Sidebar: What Do You Want to Say?]

When choosing a background, think about your subject. What are you trying to say? Is the talent a professional in a specific industry or profession? Is the mood of the piece fun and exciting or is it serious or academic? Do you want your background to be very personal, dramatic, low key or nonexistent? Once you have asked these questions, look around you, move your camcorder around and make sure that your background helps tell the story. Limit your use of backdrops for interviews because they do nothing to assist in telling the story. The background is an essential part of the image.