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, 2011Let's look at that diagram again:
Here are two examples of the look that I get from this setup:
This was a three light setup: one light, bounced, on the subject, and two more on the background, which consisted of art glass.
This setup used a single light bounced off a 4'x'4' piece of foam core, plus a negative fill card with a smaller piece of foam core clipped to its face. Camera for both setups was a Sony EX3.
These are screen grabs from a documentary I've contributed to over the last few years. The fill is a bit brighter than I normally like but that's what was necessary to match looks established by other camera people.
There are certain magic numbers and ratios in the film industry, and 4'x4' is one of them. The 4'x4' bounce or diffusion frame is very common in the industry because it does beautiful things in close quarters, particularly to faces. When I first tried this setup, placing a 4'x4' bounce card 2' to 3' from the subject and lighting it with a 650w fresnel, the results were exactly what I was looking for. The nose shadow was very, very soft and gentle, and it almost didn't matter where it fell because it's difficult to see. The source wraps beautifully around the average face and light reaches easily into both eyes. The reflection of the light source causes skin to appear to glow from within. This quality of light, from a large source at close distance, works well on almost everybody.
There were still a couple of problems to solve. The first one was contrast: soft light goes everywhere, and a small room with white walls reflected a lot of unwanted light back onto the subject, resulting in a very flatly-lit face. I had to add some contrast, so I introduced a 4'x4' negative fill card.
"Negative fill" implies an active approach to removing light, whereas the reality is that you're passively replacing highly reflective surfaces with something darker to eliminate stray light. Right now, for example, I'm sitting in front of my computer with a window to my right, and although I'm directly lit from one direction I'm filled from every other by light reflecting off walls, the white ceiling, and the light rug on the floor.
For example, here I am sitting at my computer and lit by natural light (shot on my iPhone):
Here's what happens if I hold a large black card on the left side of my face, blocking ambient light from that side of the room:
The side of my face nearest the card is darker, as a reflective wall outside frame right has been blocked by a non-reflective surface.
Here's what happens when I block ambient light from the ceiling:
Now the top of my face is darker as I've placed a dark surface between my face and the white ceiling.
In 3D computer animation terms this is called "radiosity," and it was a big deal when it was introduced in the 1990's. An algorithm examined all of the surfaces in a 3D model, looked at where the virtual light sources were placed, and added ambient light into the scene to show what the environment would really look like when every surface became a passive reflector. Architectural firms jumped on this technology so they could see, for example, what would happen in a white hallway if they installed red carpeting. (Result: sun hitting the carpet would turn the walls, and everything else in the environment, red.) The reason radiosity is so useful in 3D modeling is because this is what happens in the real world: every lit surface around you, at this moment, is lighting you to some degree.
One of your tasks as a cinematographer is to decide whether this is desirable or not. If not, you have to figure out how to eliminate it or replace it.
Unless I'm lighting an interview in a big room with lots of space between the subject and the nearest wall, I add a 4'x'4 black card on the fill side to reduce ambient light and increase contrast. Ambient light looks okay to the eye, but once we frame a shot it can take on a very different feel. It can be the wrong color, or fail to reach into eye sockets, or just look sloppy. (That's why I found the old Dogme 95 movement so amusing: a lot of "natural light" looks awful once you put a frame around it. Light is a storytelling tool and should not be ignored.)
A really dark fill side, however, is not always desirable. My solution is to use the black card to remove the ambient light that I don't like, and then use a smaller bounce source to add the ambient light that I do like. My fill source of choice on fast-paced corporate and documentary shoots is:
(wait for it)
You can always find copy paper in an office, and in a pinch I've used my call sheet. It doesn't matter if it has type on it, just as long as it's primarily white and reflective. I'll usually place one sheet on the black card, as far forward as possible and at head height, to create a nearly invisible fill. Putting it forward, closest to the camera, prevents the front of the face from falling into shadow: a bounce that's placed toward the back of the card, on the side of the subject, will light the subject's cheek and ear but will leave a very dark area around the fill-side eye. That's usually not very flattering, so bringing the fill around the front of the face both eliminates that overly-dark eye shadow and hides the fill as a separate source as it no longer casts a noticeable shadow of its own.
If I want more fill, I tape another piece of copy paper next to the first sheet.
There are exceptions to this lighting method, as there are to everything. People with very round or flat faces may require the removal of fill light to create contrast, as the source wraps around their faces too much. A large source doesn't work well on people with reflective glasses. And it really doesn't work well with people who are crazily animated and sit forward into the beam of light that's lighting the 4'x4' bounce. None of this happens terribly often, and 90% of the time a person who sits into this lighting setup will look great.
There are a couple of things to watch for:
Foam core has a little bit of specularity to it. The light it reflects is soft, but there is a little bit of a hot spot that may cast a shadow. This can be remedied by covering the foam core's shiny surface with a matte material, like muslin. Generally this hot spot isn't a problem.
The light source usually wants to be a little higher than the average subject height:
While the nose shadow is very soft it's not nonexistent, so raising the source throws it down a little bit into the smile line.
The black card serves two purposes. The first is negative fill, but the second is to cut direct light from the lamp itself off the subject. All lamps leak a bit, and stray unwanted light wandering through a set is something that I really, really hate. I always walk the set, if it's large, or sit where the subject sits in an interview situation, and look around to see if I'm being struck by any unwanted light. In this setup there are two forms of unwanted light that I see most often: light from the glowing fresnel lens of the light, as seen through the gap between the barn doors and the instrument, or a reflection off the barn door farthest from the subject. The paint on black barn doors is shiny, and folding the far barn door the wrong way can mean catching the light from the fresnel lens and reflecting it directly onto the subject.
The best way to solve all of these problems is to back the lamp behind the negative fill card and use it as a flag, such that the subject can't "see" the stray light. (If they can't see it, they aren't being lit by it.) If you can't back the lamp far enough to hide the barn doors behind the negative fill it's often enough to open that far barn door all the way, eliminating the reflection.
Backing the lamp behind the black card solves the issue of direct unwanted light on the subject. If this isn't possible, make sure the gap between the lamp and the barn doors is wrapped with black wrap and open the barn door nearest the camera so the reflected light goes elsewhere.
Sometimes I add negative fill over the top of the subject, but not very often. Negative fill on the fill side is often more than enough unless the ceiling is very low and very reflective.
I'll often light interview setups with two lights: one on the foreground and another on the background. This makes for very fast setup and breakdown. I don't use back lights in interviews very often anymore, as I prefer the subtlety of placing the subject against a background of a different tone for separation, but this is a matter of taste. (And it's a matter for another article, as back lighting is an art in itself.)
Turn the page and I'll describe the basic interview tools I used for years when shooting hundreds of talking head interviews...
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