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The Simplest, Fastest Interview Lighting Setup—Ever.

Years in the making, this technique works in almost every situation and makes almost everyone look great. That's about the best you can hope for when shooting talking heads on a tight schedule.

By Art Adams | November 17, 2011

For a long time my primary source of employment was shooting corporate marketing communications videos. As these consist primarily of "talking head" interviews, I tried every lighting setup I could think of to make people look their best quickly, as many of these shoots have tight schedules and not much turnaround time between interviews. This setup is the result of years of experimentation.

Here it is:

Yes, it looks simple. Deceptively simple. Believe it or not, it takes a long time to learn to light so simply. There was a time when I used every light on the truck (or the van) on my shoots, but as I've matured the number of lights I use has dropped dramatically.

That's very important, because it's not enough to be able to do great work as a DP. You have to do it in a very short period of time. Creating the prettiest lighting setup in the world doesn't help anyone if it takes so long that the director only has five minutes to get what they need. Lighting is important, but it's not the most important thing.

The seed of this idea formed during my search to make talking head interviews interesting for me to shoot. The bar for corporate marketing videos is often quite low, so I found myself able to experiment with lighting setups without getting in trouble for it. If I couldn't find a fast, pretty way to light something to my satisfaction most of my corporate clients were still very happy with what I came up with, so I took those opportunities to examine what worked and what didn't when lighting a human face under unpredictable circumstances. (Anyone who shoots these kinds of corporate projects knows there's usually no scout and no technical pre-production at all: you show up, see the locations for the first time, and make the most of the hand you're dealt.)

I started in the film industry before Chimeras became a household name, back when the grip crew would build soft boxes out of foam core and 1000H tracing paper at the beginning of every day and then trash them at wrap because tracing paper didn't travel well. When I started shooting video between film operating gigs, on broadcast shows like "The New Candid Camera Show" and "Inside Edition," the lighting kit consisted of a Lowell Tota kit and some umbrellas. The entire camera and lighting package fit on a small folding luggage cart.

The advent of the collapsible light bank for hot lights changed quite a lot, and suddenly every EFP location lighting kit had a small video Chimera in it. I played with these for a while but found them very frustrating: their size, at 24" by 32", resulted in a soft-ish light that still had a lot of directionality to it, and while I try never to flat light a face I also found that the small video bank cast a shadow that was just a little too sharp. The harder a light is the more precisely it has to be placed for each face that appears before it, and I found that small Chimeras weren't big enough to softly wrap around noses while simultaneously filling deep eye sockets.

Some people have narrow faces, so the light has to be moved near the camera to reach into both eyes; some faces are flat or round and require side light to appear three dimensional. Sometimes the light has to be placed quite low to reach into deep eye sockets, which causes the nose shadow to fall horizontally against the fill-side cheek. Classical portraiture calls for the nose shadow to fall along the "smile line," which connects the corner of the nose to the corner of the mouth. This isn't a hard and fast rule for dramatic productions, but for a dry corporate marketing video or documentary interview where the audience is staring at a person's face for a long period of time, placing the nose shadow along the smile line helps a lot.

Producers would occasionally express annoyance at my futzing with this small Chimera as we had very little time between interviews and they wanted to roll as soon as the subject sat down. Other camera people placed that small Chimera once and then never moved it, but I didn't like the results. I set out to find the perfect, fast way to light anyone's face so that results would be excellent at least 90% of the time.

I experimented with bigger sources, and while the medium Chimera light bank, at 36"x48", offered much better results, it wasn't as portable as the small video bank was, and producers balked at renting it as the small Chimera "works just fine for everyone else." I had to find a fast way to create a big beautiful source using materials that were extremely portable and cheap.

Turn the page for a detailed explanation...

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Don Downie: | November, 18, 2011

Thanks again, Mr. Adams!  Your posts—especially on lighting—are always appreciated.  I enjoy the way your articles take us on set with you and explain not just what you do, but why.

Your posts have helped me a lot.  I feel that lighting for camera is something that has just started to “click” for me recently, and your articles have had a lot to with that.  Thank you for sharing your expertise.

Art Adams: | November, 18, 2011

I’m very glad to hear that! I’m constantly finding new things that “click” for me, so I know what you’re talking about. It’s an ongoing journey, and it never ends. And it certainly never gets boring, which is what I love about it.

Thanks for reading and your kind words.

Jeff Foster: | November, 18, 2011

Awesome post Art!

What are your thoughts on low-voltage portable lights like Kino Flos (not LitePanels)? My experiments using BarFly 200s have been quite favorable only using less bounce and nobody has to sweat. wink

Would like your take on them…


Art Adams: | November, 18, 2011

Thanks for your kind words, Jeff. I haven’t done much with the Barflys, and for faces I probably wouldn’t use them unless I was going for a dramatic effect. They’re awfully small sources to use for lighting faces quickly and well in portrait situations. There is the possibility of using several of them to emulate a larger source, but I think the success of that approach depends a lot on a person’s face and the mood of the piece. For dramatic stuff you can get away with murder, but for corporate image stuff where at least some of the branding has to do with how the speakers present I’d lean toward something softer.

The smaller the light the more precisely it has to be placed, and the Barfly seems a bit small for this. I’ve used 4’Kino Flos for this kind of thing and they can work fairly well but while they wrap in the horizontal 4’ axis (I use them horizontally because I really want to control the quality of the nose shadow) they don’t wrap well in the 1’ vertical dimension. Sometimes that’s good for hiding cosmetic neck oddities because it casts a chin shadow, and other times it just has a different feel from a real 4’x4’ tungsten source.

I hope all that makes sense. It is Friday afternoon, after all.

Jeff Foster: | November, 19, 2011

Great feedback Art - thanks!

I have had some luck with them either bounced or through a portable silk, but you’re right about precise placement. The Diva 401 are great horizontally as you say because you have so much more control with noiseless dimming too, but as you say, it’s still a dramatic look, and not nearly as soft as bounced tungsten.


Art Adams: | November, 20, 2011

You can make them work if you need to and you like the look… I’ve just found that, for me, bigger is better when lighting faces. Up to a point, anyway: I’ve found situations where I could use an 8’x8’ bounce or diffusion to light one person and I’ll back off to a 4’x4’ because I want more modeling than an 8’x8’ at close range would give me. Bigger isn’t always better; sometimes it’s about picking the right size source for the object you’re lighting, based on your taste and experience.

It’s about learning what your taste level is, what you like and don’t like, and then designing a setup and acquiring tools that you can use to pull that look off quickly and predictably.

I got called to shoot a last minute corporate job last week where I had to use the client’s gear, and I ended up bouncing a Diva 400 off a 6’ long piece of foam core and using a 2’x'3 flag for negative fill. It worked fine. The setting and gear available weren’t ideal but I knew what I wanted to accomplish and I was able to figure out a way of doing something that I liked.

aterkel: | November, 20, 2011

Thanks for another enlightening read Art. The time you take to put these together is appreciated.

I’m always learning something new or at the very least rethinking how I do things.  I look forward to trying this setup on the next talking head shoot.


narongkorn: | November, 20, 2011

You can make them work if you need to and you like the look… I’ve just found that, for me, bigger is better when lighting faces. Up to a point, anyway: I’ve found situations where I could use an 8’x8’ bounce or diffusion to light one person and I’ll back off to a 4’x4’ because I want more modeling than an 8’x8’ at close range would give me. Bigger isn’t always better; sometimes it’s about picking the right size source for the object you’re lighting, based on your taste and experience.

davhud: | November, 21, 2011

Was on a set with John Toll recently and most of his CU’s for a given setup were bounced in. They were using HMI’s but the idea is the same. You seem to be in pretty good company. BTW they were shooting 5213 on Panaflex.
I’m still using backs though.

Thanks again for the info.

Zacka: | November, 21, 2011

I dont like it.  sorry.

firstly the example images are softer than an ice cream in the middle of summer.  Focus people, use it people.  I used to own an ex1 and may i recommend using the peaking function on the lowest setting.  Focus was crystal clear everytime.

Also i feel like i can see the light traveling across in front of the subject.  Any particles in the air will be illuminated and unless your going for that as an effect.

I would put the light source ‘house left’ pointing slightly further left, off screen.  Then i would place the white card in front of the light at a 45 degree angle to bounce it onto the subject at an angle, then the black card opposite the controllable fill bounce.  IMO this would work better and provide a nicer image without illumination floating particles in front of the subject.  thoughts?

Art Adams: | November, 22, 2011

The example images are screen captures pulled from Flash video. I didn’t intend for them to be examined for sharpness.

Occasionally there is an issue with dust floating in the beam and showing up on camera, but this is very, very rare. Same with interview subjects who lean forward into the light. This has happened, but not at all very often.

One of the reasons this configuration works well is that it can be crammed into small spaces, but please do modify it to your own individual taste. I never said this is the only way to do this, only that I’ve found that it works for me when I have to work fast and simply.

dtmp: | November, 22, 2011

Thanks for this article Art. It’s good to hear practical advice from those in similar “run and gun” and “one man band” situations, which I’ve been in all my career. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who feels the pressure to just “get it done” as quickly as possible, but still maintain some sense of professional (and personal) integrity. Thanks, again.

Evom: | November, 23, 2011

Great article, thanks Art!

Whilst working as an ENG News assistant years ago, the cameraman used a portable white board to bounce a red head like you have described. Half way through the Police Commissioner’s interview an almighty bang as the whiteboard ‘popped” out as the glue must have heated to the point it gave way.


Burn-E: | November, 23, 2011

I see you do not use hair light. I might think that with shallow DOF that modern DSLRs produce, this technique is less important, as shallow DOF separates subject by itself. The question is what looks more natural: blurry background or hair light. I guess it is a matter of taste.

scottieb: | November, 23, 2011

Wow Art this is awesome! Thanks so much for both the technique and the compelling explanation!

Art Adams: | November, 23, 2011

Burn-E: to use a hair light or not is a matter of taste. The reason hair lights came into being was to create separation from backgrounds in black and white movies: dark hair against a dark background would disappear unless it was lit. These days we can use other techniques to separate people from backgrounds: focus, or making the background a different tone or color from the hair or person in front of it, or composition…

There are no rules for lighting, only loose guidelines. It comes down to your taste, and whether it makes you money. All else is negotiable.

hddv: | November, 27, 2011

could you use a coldlight softbox instead of a bounce source for the main light, while keeping the black foam on the other side?  how would that be different than your method?  thanks for all the information.

Art Adams: | November, 28, 2011

I chose to use 4’x4’ foam core because it was a big enough source, when lit, to softly wrap around a face in a manner that I like. I could do the same thing with a 4’x4’ frame of diffusion, like Lee 129 or grid cloth, or a medium chimera.

A “cold light” won’t make any difference in how the light wraps around a face. The size of the soft box, or bounce, in relation to the face, is everything.

timb: | November, 28, 2011

Thanks for a great article. I really appreciate you sharing your experience. As a working cameraman for the past 20 years, the days I enjoy most are the days that I see how others approach a lighting situation. I find that I take a bit of everyone’s ideas to broaden the range of lighting solutions I bring to a shoot.

I agree that over the years my lighting set ups are simpler and produce constant great results - And that’s whats its all about.

Keep the great info coming !! Thanks again !

tedsta03: | December, 02, 2011

Art great article as always! I’m honored to have seen this technique in action as well.

If you didn’t have access to tungsten fresnel lights, and instead had a set of LED lights how would you go about doing this setup?

Perhaps continue to use the negative fill and then try to back the LEDs away from the subject to mimic the bounce of the white board? 

- Ted Allen

Art Adams: | December, 02, 2011

Hi Ted! I don’t think you’d want to back the LED lights away as that would make them appear smaller to the subject, resulting in harder shadows. I’d put them close and put them side by side in place of the white card, in effect making a large-ish source out of two smaller ones.

Or you could put them behind a larger diffusion frame, although you’d lose a fair bit of light.

tedsta03: | December, 02, 2011

Thanks Art,

  I’m definitely going to try that next time. I didn’t realize that by backing up the LEDs it could create harder shadows. Fortunately I can dial down the intensity of these LEDs so putting them closer is a great idea. Two LEDs side by side on a low power setting could do the trick.

Chris Lawes: | December, 19, 2011

Would this setup work equally well with a CDM (Ceramic Discharge Metalhalide) bulb such as the Cool Lights CDM 150 Fresnel? It is supposed to be equivalent to a tungsten 650w fresnel but it can use 5400K bulbs and it is cooler.

This setup should apply the same right?

Art Adams: | December, 19, 2011

It could… it’s not really about the light you use, but how big you make the light source, which in this case becomes the bounce card. If your light is big enough to illuminate a 4x4 bounce card and give you enough exposure on your subject then you should be fine.

Chris Lawes: | December, 19, 2011

I am wondering because I want to use this lighting setup but will sometimes be in rooms with windows. I can turn off the lights but I sometimes can’t avoid the windows or balconies.

So in that case my only options are:
- to gel a tungsten (which requires a really big tungsten to meet 650w)
- Use this CDM light from coollights.
- Use kino flo fluorescents bounce’d off of the card? Would that work?

What do you think?

Art Adams: | December, 19, 2011

That’s a little beyond the scope of this article… if you have a big enough light to compete with the ambient light in the location then you should be able to make this work.

I find that if I put the key source (lit bounce card) on the same side of the frame as the window light the effect is more convincing. Competing with window light is hard, but going with the window light is a lot easier.

Chris Lawes: | December, 19, 2011

Thanks for the info Art. We are starting a new documentary soon and I would like to try this out, only issue I can see is what to do when there is 5600K sunlight in the room.

Good tip about putting the key coming from same direction as window. But what do you normally use as a key? A tungsten fresnel gel’d to daylight? Wouldn’t you need around 2000 watts after the lightloss from the correction gel to be equivalent of your suggested 650watt fresnel?

Art Adams: | December, 19, 2011

It depends… a lot of office windows have green tint in them, so the light levels are lower and you can shoot across them pretty easily as long as you don’t shoot out them.

Also you can try using ambient skylight as your key and just add negative fill to taste, as long as the windows aren’t passing raw sunlight.

This technique works for a lot of situations but it doesn’t eliminate the need for powerful lights against bright backgrounds, or having the proper colored light to match the background.

If it helps, full CTB on a tungsten unit is often unnecessary. Try half CTB, and either white-balance to the foreground and let the background go a little blue or balance to the background and let the foreground go a little warm. Different cameras like different combinations, so experiment to see which of those works better for you.

Chris Lawes: | December, 19, 2011

Great info.

I was describing this setup to a sales rep at a lighting store to buy some lights for this, and he asked me what the point of buying a 650w tungsten fresnel was instead of just buying tungsten flood lights or lowel tota-lights etc. if they were just to light the whiteboard and were going to end up diffused anyway?

Also, if I am going to gel the lights, what wattage do I need to achieve in the end after light loss? 650 is an important number or just depends on your camera’s sensitivity?

The half-CTB sounds like a cool trick, thanks again for all your valuable advice!

Art Adams: | December, 19, 2011

Tota lights are largely pure evil. Great for Chimeras, not so great for anything else. Buy burn insurance.

An open face light for this kind of setup works really, really well. I used a 1K open-face Arri for this for quite a while but modern cameras are so sensitive you can get away with a lot less. Still, a 650w isn’t going to go up against sunlight very well.

If you’re going to do a lot of daylight interviews it might be worth buying or renting a light with more punch. I also own 2 6’x'6 grid clothes (full and half) and when I need to combat sunlight on a budget I can take all of the lights I have and line them up behind the diffusion to create one large soft source.

Chris Lawes: | December, 19, 2011

“A four-light Arri kit, typically with a 1k open face unit, two 650w fresnels, and a 300w fresnel. The 1k open face was great for situation where I needed more punch out of my key light, such as when I was lighting an interview in a sunny room or looking out a window. Depending on the senstivity of the camera I could use either a 300w or 650w fresnel to light my bounce card.”

Sorry that I’m a bit confused by this. With your four-light kit how exactly would you light a subject in a sunny room?
You use the 1K open face to light the bounce card which acts as your keylight or you use a 650/300 to light your bounce card and then use the 1K open face to do something else?

Trying to understand your daylight setup and see if I need to buy just a single 1K open face or if I need a 1K open face plus a 650w fresnel.

Art Adams: | December, 20, 2011

I guess I should take that out, a 1K versus sun won’t work. The 1K works pretty well in rooms with indirect light, but you either have to block the sun or work with it if sunlight is streaming in.

If I have to work with sun then I’ll try to diffuse it with big pieces of fabric or block it with blinds or foam core.

Chris Lawes: | December, 20, 2011

When you say “The 1K works pretty well in rooms with indirect light” you mean as a stronger light on the bouncecard right?

So if I understand your article correctly to setup a fast and simple lighting kit for single-person interviews in sometimes sunlit rooms I can do this:

650w fresnel
1K open face flood
Two 4’x4’ white foam cores
Two 4’x4’ black flags
Two C-stands
1/2 CTB gels

For indoor I can use 3200K and control the lighting, use a few fluorescent tablelamps and stuff if I want to. Just use a flag, a foam core, and a 650w fresnel. Done.

For indoor with some ambient sun I can gel to 4400K, WB for the sunlight/windows and stack the 1k open face and the 650w both on the bounce and have the bouncecard aiming from the same direction as the windows are, and use the flag to control reflecting light from the other side of the room.

Is this thinking correct?

Review Maze: | February, 06, 2012

Going with the direction of the existing light (i.e. window) should work better indeed. It is also a common technique in movies. For example, this is a popular trick for enhancing practicals which are not strong enough. Putting a decent size bounce just out of frame at the side of the practical creates a nice face-wrapping soft source which is seemingly indistinguishable from the practical.

DJMears: | February, 20, 2012

Hi Art,

Just wanted to say this is a great post and a great lighting set-up too! I gave it a go myself on a recent shoot and it works incredibly well! So much so I have even written a little blog post about it…

Keep up the good work!


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