I’m absolutely not a lighting DoP – I’ve worked with some deeply talented people and learned lots from them but they’re in a completely different league in terms of lighting skill. That’s as you’d expect – it was their job and their craft, 24/7, whereas mine was being a director. But, since I have been self-shooting, I’ve applied some of the things I’ve learned over the years. So here’s some simple lessons I’ve learned about interview lighting techniques and lighting interviews on a budget.
Less is more
Don’t blitz your poor interviewee with blinding lights. I see this time and time again when students are taught classic three-point lighting with small, powerful lights. Modern cameras need much, much less light than you think. Keep it as low and subtle as you can. If you’re using available daylight then avoid direct sunlight like the plague. Think about using a reflector or white panel of some sort to bounce fill light into the darker side of the face.
Bigger is better
The larger the lights, the easier things get – or, more particularly, the larger the light surface facing the contributor, the happier you’ll be. If you can, use dimmable lights and a light diffuser like this one from Aputure. It’s a totally brilliant bit of design, sets up in 30 seconds and allows a lovely, diffused glow from its 90cm face. Use dimmable, powerful LED COB lights like this one from Aputure or this one from Godox – which is a bargain, ridiculously powerful and dimmable down to 10%. There’s a great review of it here from the always excellent Gaffer and Gear chap. Again, you’ll need some sort of diffuser. Godox do their own brand, substantially cheaper than Aputure but more of a faff to assemble and de-rig. If you need to light an interview with just one light, then you could use one of these lights with a diffuser dome and a reflector to bounce in fill. Or go for Aputure’s lantern style diffuser – placed over and above the interviewee, it gives soft, even light over the whole face. I think that’s what Steve McQueen is using in his utterly brilliant Uprising series which you’ll still catch on BBC iPlayer (a frame below) plus a bit of light to glow up the backdrop. But, whatever you do, keep the keylight subtle. Soft, big and close are your watchwords for lighting.
Spin the light
The temptation is just to bosh it straight at the interviewee, centred in the beam. Don’t. Instead, think about angling the light. If you put your interviewee at the front edge of the lighting circle, then you can use the spill to light some of the background. If you want to take light off the background, you could spin it forward of the interviewee.
Much of the mood of an interview is set by the light/dark ratio on the face – how bright the key light side is compared to the fill side. It’s called the contrast ratio and it’s SO much easier to manage using an old fashioned light meter like this. You’ll find plenty on Ebay. Yes, I know it’s deeply unfashionable but it makes the whole thing so easy. If you know you want, say, a 3 to 1 ratio of light to dark to make it match the other stuff you’ve filmed then it’s a simple job to set the key light and then use the light meter to fade down the fill light by the requisite number of stops. Tip – when you are taking the readings, make sure you shield the meter with your body from the other light sources around you. If you can’t get a light meter then consider an app like Cinemeter II for around £20 – but make sure you calibrate it in advance otherwise the measurements won’t mean anything. And you’ll need the little plastic white dome from Luxi to diffuse the light. Cinemeter II also gives you a colour temperature meter – again it’s pretty accurate as long as you have calibrated it against a light source where you know the colour temperature.
Split the key
Generally, put whoever is asking the questions in the interview on the key light (brighter) side of the camera – so they’re splitting the camera and keylight positions. That will mean the interviewee’s face angles round towards the key light, allowing light to fall more easily across the face. Like all rules, you can break it but know why you’re breaking it.
Whatever the lights you are using, try to diffuse them before they hit your interviewee. You can buy thin gauze like this as cheap as anything. Try folding it over to double or triple its thickness, draping it over a couple of stands or a wire and diffusing your light through that. Generally, the nearer to your subject and the wider the light surface, the better results you’ll get. Getting nearer to the subject also means you can dim your light down lower. Again: soft; close; big.
Recce the location
If at all possible, have a good look at the location for the interviews in advance. Check the fall of light in the room. How many different sources of light (and colour temperatures) are there? How many can you control? Where are the power points for your lights? Is there a simple rejig of the room layout to get more depth in the shot? How many alternative set-ups can you get from the same location by flipping round your set-up? What other spaces are available nearby? If you have to do a few interviews, can you get a variety of right-to-lefts and left-to-rights? What are the background noises? Take photos so you can have a think about it – it will save you time and panic later on because you’ll know exactly how you’re setting up for the first shot. If you can’t get there yourself, ask someone to send you photos of the room or, better still, a clip of phone video while they’re walking around it?
Here’s some frames (below) from recent interviews here in Oxford. They’re all shot using the two lights described above with the lights spun to gently light the background. I haven’t used a backlight because I don’t much like the effect. For the geekier of you out there, they’re shot on a Canon EOS R6 with a Samyang 85mm AF lens at f/1.4 and using the Aputure LS300D mkII/Aputure light dome II as keylight and the Godox light and diffuser mentioned above as fill. I’ve swapped the Canon R6 now for the new Canon R5C – blog post coming.
Tips for saving money. Always check if you can get it second hand from Ebay or from the “used” stock of large gear suppliers, like CVP or ProAV or DigiBroadcast Think if you really need “this year’s model” or will the discounted one from last year suit you perfectly well? Do you really need bi-colour lighting, for example? Don’t be snobby about gear, particularly ancillary equipment. Remember anything with the word “cine” or “photographic” in front of it will cost a multiple of its value. I always think gear bags are a classic example. Why pay £££s for bags from Mr Portabrace when you can get something perfectly suitable from the local toolshop for a fraction of the price?
P.S. I don’t do a specific lighting course but the info here is the type of background stuff you’ll pick up on my Interviewing for Documentary course – and a bit of it on the Self Shooting course. Have a look at them and if they’re what you’re looking for then – as I often say to people on film courses – PRESS THE RED BUTTON here