How to Set Up 3 Popular Interview Lighting Techniques

How to Set Up 3 Popular Interview Lighting Techniques

I’ve shot a lot of interviews.

A whole lot.

Maybe 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.

Here we’ve exposed for the windows and they happen to be playing nicely at this exact moment.

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.

This is an example of what the key light does by itself. Since he’s properly lit, allow me introduce you to my good friend Steven Conroy, who was gracious enough to model for us for these setups.

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.

Here we’ve added some fill to Steve’s right side by setting up a white V-flat to his right.

A behind-the-scenes peek.

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.

It’s very subtle, but that little bit of extra lift on Steve’s hair and right shoulder is coming from our back light.

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.

Easy Lighting Laws to Boost Shooting Performance

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.

That big, square white thing? That’s the diffusion frame with some fabric on it. You can try to make your own or rent one here.

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.

If you don’t have much (or any) diffusion, bouncing light is a great way to soften your key light without cutting too much overall brightness.

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.

It’s not the prettiest book, but we love it anyway. The light bounces off of the bead board on the right, and is then diffused through the frame on the left.

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. 

 

A Quick Note on Camera Settings and Lighting Gear

 

For this shoot, we used a Canon C100 with a Leica 50mm Summicron-R lens. We shot 23.976 frames per second (because CINEMA), 180 degree shutter angle, and we kept our ISO at the native of 850.For lights, we had 3 units at our disposal. First was the Fiilex Matrix, which is a beefy, versatile LED light that, in addition to having the ability to change color temperature, can also be adjusted for hue (green/magenta). This can be extremely helpful if you’re balancing your lights with less-than-pretty fluorescents that you find in most offices. Our second light was the Westcott Flex 2×1′ panel. I love these lights for their weight (essentially nothing), and their ability to bend, curl or velcro to anything. I’ve Gaff-taped this thing to walls, clamped it to kitchen cabinets, and used it as a key light for tons of work since I got it last year. Our third light was another Flex panel, but of the 1×1′ variety. This is my go-to backlight, and I can also run it off a battery if need be.

Custom White Balance and Color Matching for Video

INTERVIEW LIGHTING SETUP 1: DEAD-ON

 

If your subject is looking right into the lens, you might often find that you prefer to have your key light placed as close to your camera as possible. The example below illustrates this style. I find that this combination of eye line and light placement works well for emotional, motivational pieces. We didn’t have a specific cause to promote for this sample shot … so we just made something up. It’s hard to say where the inspiration comes from, so we’ll just let the clip speak for itself.

For this setup, we keyed Steve with two lights: the Fiilex Matrix and the Westcott Flex 2×1′. Both of these lights were set to daylight balance and we “pushed” them through a 4′ x 4′ frame of 1/2 grid cloth. Since the piece we were making was intended to look a bit more serious, we decided to increase the contrast on Steve’s face by adding some negative fill to his right side. We did this with a V-Flat we had in the studio, but you can do this with any large black fabric. Finally, we gave him a backlight by using one of my favorite tricks. We took a 1×1′ Westcott Flex panel, rolled it up into a tube and clamped it to the arm of a C Stand, which we rigged overhead. I use this technique a lot in smaller rooms because the rolled-up Flex panel will also give off a bit background fill in addition to giving your subject a nice backlight. In a room this big, the rolled-up Flex light didn’t do much to the background, but I figured “some” was better than “none.”

Here’s a look at how we lit this first setup.

Here’s what we call “Meehan’s Magical Lighting Roll.” Well, that’s what I call it, because branding is important to me.

INTERVIEW LIGHTING SETUP 2: CONTRASTY!

 

On the opposite end of the spectrum: Let’s say you’ve decided that you’d like for your talent to be looking off at an extreme angle, so you’re almost looking at him/her in profile. I’ve often found that in these circumstances, a key light that is more “side-y” instead of “frontal” looks better. Combine the eye line, angle of light, and maybe a slightly weighted framing, and you’ve got something that looks well-suited to an indie artisan documentary piece.

For this setup, we were going for a more contrasty look, so we didn’t diffuse our key source. Since we wanted to expose for the window light, we stacked the Matrix on top of the Flex 2×1′ and angled it so that it was almost perpendicular to the lens of the camera. We had 6 stops of ND dialed in on the Canon C100, so our key light had to be pretty close to our subject. By bringing the key source this close, the quality of the light ended up being a little softer than you’d expect for two bright sources with no diffusion. To give a bit of lift to the shadow side of Steve’s face, we used the silver side of a FlexFill to bounce the sunlight coming from the window back into Steve’s face, as well as the wall behind him. 

INTERVIEW LIGHTING SETUP 3: SOFT AND PLEASANT

 

Split right down the middle between these previous two examples is a style that I think you’ll find you use most often. In this case, we have our subject looking just off-camera and we’ve keyed them with a book light that’s just off to camera-left, leaving just enough room for our interviewer to squeeze in between the key light and the camera. This look, to me, feels like we’re talking to a cool technology company that’s about to launch an amazing new product.

For this setup, we set up a book light to key Steve from camera-left. We bounced both the Matrix and the Flex 2×1′ into bead board and then used 1/4 grid cloth on the other side of the lights, which diffused the source even more. We had to walk this setup in pretty close to Steve in order to get a good exposure on his face, and this setup also happened to fall exactly when the light outside the window was most intense. The blown-out windows work fine for the tone of this particular piece, but in an ideal world we would have used a brighter source to match the ambient light and adjusted our exposure to see more detail in the windows. We used the 1×1′ Flex as our backlight but swung it around so that it was catching more of the features on the left side of Steve’s face. This is a good way to fill in the shadow side of someone’s face without adding a third light to the mix.

SUMMARY: MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR SPACE

 

There are plenty of things that I didn’t cover in this article but I hope that my observations and tips prove useful to you as you go forward lighting interviews. If you’re looking for more lighting tips and tricks, take a look at our guide for the best low light cameras! The single biggest tip I can give is never to try to force a location to be something it’s not. You won’t be able to set up a book light in a conference room with an enormous, immovable table in the middle of it, so just think creatively about how to make someone look good given your location’s parameters. If you’re prepared ahead of time and think through what you’re trying to accomplish, all that’s left to do is try desperately to stay completely silent for the duration of the interview.

Oh, and don’t forget to sneakily take BTS photos while the interview is happening. The most important rule of filmmaking: if it’s not on social media, it never happened.

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Sean Meehan is a Director and Cinematographer based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's made cool stuff (mostly videos) for folks like Comedy Central, Al-Jazeera English, and Medisafe.

4 Comments

  1. Fantastic Read! As a filmmaker myself, I definitely can appreciate the value of good interview lighting. This article was really helpful for me to figure out best techniques for lighting, depending on the situation. And it was hilarious too, which made me want to read it again! Looking forward to more ‘how to’ types blogs in the future!

    Reply
  2. Excellent points on knowing your space before the shoot and the importance of scouting. Lighting setups are also very informative and will get you hired again. My inner grip is screaming at some of those c arms haha!

    Reply
  3. Thank you so much for this, it was so helpful and easy to read.

    Reply
  4. Great tutorials! Thanks so much, we’ll be using these methods for sure!

    Reply

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