The rugged and the glam.
Lighting rugged means emphasizing depth, enhancing the planes and angles of faces, and bringing out skin and hair texture for an overall impression of strength and character. Classic rugged lighting works with highlights and shadows, and that requires small-source lights, primarily spotlights and broads (small floods).
Start with a spotlight placed at about 8 o'clock, on our standard clock face floor plan, and as much as two feet above eye level. This will deliver strong highlights and shadows to model the features, especially if you use no diffusion. A broad makes a good fill light. Set just above eye level and at 4 o'clock, it will soften the shadows for good contrast. For even more punch, fill with a second spotlight instead of a broad. Set the focus to flood and soften the beam with spun glass diffusion clipped to the barn doors. (Of course, you would reverse the key and fill lights if you were keying from the right side instead of the left.) At eight and four o'clock, both lights are farther to the side than usual, to provide more cross lighting for extra definition.
The back light should be another spot, very high and just off-camera on the key light side. Keep the back light very moderate, to avoid a feeling of un-macho glamour. Just dust the hair and shoulders enough to separate the subject from the background. Incidentally, a dimmer on the back light is useful for controlling intensity and the warmer (color temperature) quality of the partially dimmed light can look very good.
Nowadays, interviewees and other talking heads are often lit with soft lights, for a more natural look. Soft lights are the enemies of rugged because they minimize the highlights and shadows needed to bring faces into strong relief. There are, however, ways to work around this.
To produce more rugged soft lighting, start by making the light positions more extreme. Move the key and fill lights around to nine and three o'clock and raise the key light higher, so that it's aimed as much as 30-degrees below horizontal. To create deeper shadows, back the fill light way off and then move it in until the camcorder can just resolve shadow detail.
If you have a choice, use umbrellas instead of soft boxes, especially with the silver-thread fabric that creates a slightly harder light. Omit back light altogether to complement the stark and simple look.
Flattering lighting reduces the three dimensional relief of a face, smoothes skin textures and compensates for other weaknesses. These are the jobs that soft lights were born to do, so pack up the spotlights and swap the broads and umbrellas for softboxes or big fluorescent pans.
Begin by setting the key light in a more conventional position, about 7:30 on the clock face and about a foot above eye level. This will help the light seem to wrap around the subject. The fill light should come around toward the front as well. To add some dimensionality to the flat image, move it far enough away from the subject so that the fill side of the face is noticeably darker. Another way to enhance apparent depth is to dim the fill light so that it's warmer as well as darker than the key. If you want a true window light feeling, try pulling the fill waaay back or even losing it entirely. Often the wraparound from the key light will deliver a soft, flattering fill.
For backlighting, keep that small hard spot in its traditional place. The rim light on the hair and shoulders will add badly needed separation and depth, without throwing skin and facial planes into relief.
If your kit doesn't include soft lights, you can create glamorous lighting with spots and broads. Keep the key and fill lights more frontal, as we've just explained. To soften the hard-edged light, use diffusion on both instruments, perhaps a single layer of spun glass over the key and two layers over the broad used for fill. As for the backlight, use as much as you can get away with, without creating a hokey "yearbook portrait" look.
Special Problems and Styles
Wrinkles and blemishes are harder to conceal with spotlighting, so study your subject carefully as you move the key light closer to the 6 o'clock position. Remember: the farther to one side a light sits, the more it cross-lights wrinkles. Incidentally, you can minimize wrinkles and blemishes even further by dialing in diffusion during editing. As a rule, softening the image works best with big close-ups, which is exactly where cross lighting is cruelest to skin irregularities.
Balding subjects can suffer from reflections off their heads, particularly from key lights. The best solution is a light dusting of neutral powder on the offending domes, but if this is not practical, adjust the height and horizontal angle of the key light to minimize reflections. Moving lights experimentally is about the only way to eliminate, or at least minimize, reflections from glasses.
No one seems to mind thin heads, but fat ones require careful attention. There's nothing like a softlight to turn a Charlie Brown head into a full moon with ears. To add modeling to a round head, deploy a spot key, a broad fill and a second fill (or a reflector) as follows:
This recipe won't turn Alfred Hitchcock into a beanpole, but it will de-emphasize an overly round head by highlighting the front and keeping the sides in relative shadow.
Now that we've covered the conventions of old-fashioned male/female lighting, consider ignoring them. If you're taping a CEO in her office, you can be sure she won't want to look like Betty Boop. To enhance her authority, use a variation of basic rugged lighting:
Lighting Darker Skin Tones
Event videographers sometimes have trouble with darker complexions. The answer is a camera-mounted "obie light" which is usually used to hide facial imperfections. Start by buying a professional model that features three intensities (or else continuous dimming) and provides for diffusion. Then, when shooting darker skin tones against lighter costumes, adjust this front fill to equalize brightness.
Under studio conditions, it's often easier to take the opposite tack by reducing the light on the clothing. Use those versatile spotlights for the job, since they offer three different ways to cope. First, you can slip single or double screens in front of the light, so that only half the opening is covered. By rotating the screen half to the bottom of the light, you can reduce light on bright clothing by a stop or more.
Alternatively, rotate and adjust the spotlight's barn doors to keep the light off the clothing. Set the lamp focus at full flood, so that the transition from lighter to darker is imperceptible to viewers. And if all else fails, use a flag to block the excess light. To prevent excess fall-off, make sure the fill light adequately lights the clothing.
Contributing Editor Jim Stinson is the author of the book Video Communication and Production.