Specialty Lighting for People

All video shooting starts with light because without light your camera won’t “see” anything. All video shoots end with post-production where you edit, tweak and package your polished video into something you hope to distribute to friends, perhaps through a social media site, your church or school. Or you may be shooting for clients or maybe the broadcast media.

Once you have distributed your hard work you hope your audience will appreciate it and give you lots of praise or better yet, help you earn royalties or creative fees. It’s really simple, you capture what you see so your audience can see it too. So the last thing you want your audience to see is dull – or worse – unappealing video, to avoid making dull videos means you should shoot exciting subjects like ski jumping or fashion runway shows, right? That way everything you produce is exciting and everyone will want to see your work. Pretty simple huh? Simple – but not realistic.

In the real world we are frequently asked to shoot mundane subjects like an interview of the local janitorial supply salesperson or your friendly neighborhood dentist. Not that these people are boring. They may even have a compelling story to tell such as “where I was standing when the meteorite hit the church steeple” or “what the spaceship looked like when it finally landed after terrorizing the entire campground.” Or, more realistically, “how a class of children used finger paint to create a mural that inspired future generations”.


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You probably aren’t going to be that lucky though. More than likely your subject will discuss day to day events in a rather matter-of-fact conversation and the last thing they need is blown-out lighting to make them look silly while telling their story. The best way to avoid this is to gain an understanding of specialty lighting when it comes to lighting people and how to capitalize on the lighting you have at hand or supplement the existing light with some of your own.

Familiar But Difficult to Deal With

The two most difficult subjects to light are food and people. This is because we see both in our daily lives and we have become so accustomed to their presence that we take them for granted. Take the lighting you might see in a fine restaurant. It’s probably contrasty and not very flattering for the food or your dining companion. Humans fill in the blanks when the lighting is contrasty – we make the food look delicious and our companion appear absolutely fabulous. We fix the lighting internally and we do it so well that we aren’t even aware we’re doing it. The problem is that our cameras don’t fix the lighting, so videographers must take special care to recognize lighting problems before they become post-production problems.

Tame the Beast

The most difficult source of light to master is also the most readily available and that’s the sun. It’s harsh, hot, makes for high contrast and a host of other adjectives you may want to assign it. Difficult is my personal favorite because it never fails. It’s always in the wrong place, and worse, it’s impossible to move. The good thing is that it’s plenty powerful and gives you more power than you can possibly hope to use. Since you can’t move it, you must accommodate this beast and move yourself and your subject so that you can tame its harsh qualities and harness its gentle love.

The Bald Facts

A classic example of the universe messing with your lighting karma is to be assigned to shoot an interview of – how shall we put it? A follicle-challenged person in front of his wheat farm. Ouch! There’s no place to hide. No trees. No buildings. Nothing, just you and the bald farmer! But the good news is he’s a morning person and so are you, so you arranged the shoot to take place in the morning and all you had to do is place him in such a way as to not have the sun in his face or his head. Bam! Solution found. Shoot finished and you’re off to the next assignment! Wait. What just happened here? That was too easy. Yes, it was.

Lighting bald heads can be difficult, but if you timed the shoot when the sun was low on the horizon you solved what could have been a difficult shoot by planning ahead and that’s the secret to great lighting – planning ahead so you are in control of the situation. You used the sky – that great big sky – as your main light source and the sun was there for your enjoyment. You could have put the sun directly behind him and captured a dramatic morning scene or you could have put the sun far to his side and let it become your fill light. You did not have it in his face and more importantly, on his head where it would have created the dreaded “chrome on the dome” effect. Your main light was “that great big sky” and the bigger the light source the softer the light which gave pleasing soft light to his face and did not accentuate his bald head. (See sidebar “Lighting for Bald Heads Indoors.”)

Four-Eyed Beast?

Another challenging situation is lighting people with glasses. This can be a real problem because as your subject looks around, the glasses may catch the light and create a flashing effect which can be distracting. As with most interview lighting setups you want to flatter your subject with soft lighting, but this can be problematic if they wear glasses because that large, soft, flattering light becomes a huge beacon for their gasses to catch and reflect back.

The larger the surface of your light, the easier it is for the glasses to find a glare. You can make the surface area smaller by moving it back or switching to a smaller soft-box but then you get harsh lighting and that won’t flatter your subject. You can ask them to remove or tilt down their glasses and many times they will volunteer to do just that – but if they always wear glasses then you should leave them on and besides, you like to show off your lighting skills anyway. Lighting people with glasses is difficult, but not impossible.

So how do you hide your lights from becoming visible in the reflections of glasses? You put the lights up above the subject so the glasses won’t reflect into the camera, instead they’ll reflect onto the ground. The best way to see this in action is to watch the news. Many anchors wear glasses but you never see reflections because the studio is lit from above. If you try to light your subject from too high above you will probably get a zombie look in which their eyes are in deep shadows. The secrets here are numerous lights in a TV studio. Often a grid that spans the entire ceiling allowing one huge light source just like the sky in our farmer scenario. Additionally, these lights are already shifted to an effective point above the subject that will provide good lighting.

The first thing I do on an indoor shoot is bounce the light. I put one or more raw lights straight into the ceiling (Figure A) and fill the whole room with light. It’s fast, easy, effective and almost guarantees great results. All you have to do is move the light around a bit until you get the desired results. Since I can’t always hire assistant, I carry an extra light stand and put a white cloth with my own glasses on it so I can test the setup before my subject arrives. This is helpful because you want to sit everyone down and start shooting as soon as possible because if they are not comfortable in front of the camera, they will definitely be uncomfortable while you fiddle around with your lighting.

If you are in a room that has high ceilings then you must move to plan B which would be a large soft-box or scrim placed as close as possible to your subject. You are going to have to place it to one side so that it can’t reflect into the glasses and give your subject harsh shadows opposite the light.

One solution (Figure B) for this is placing a reflector low and just in front of the subject. It has to be low enough so it won’t reflect into the glasses but close enough to be effective. This will catch some of the spill from the scrim and bounce back into the set. You also might try a large reflector opposite the light where your subject is facing and place it about eye level, but make sure your subject does not face towards that soft-box during the interview.

Dark Complexion

Here’s another situation you may encounter; lighting dark skin. This is where experience comes in handy because they may also be bald and wear glasses. You will have your work cut out for you but with a little tweaking and effort anything is possible and this is no exception.

Start with a very large light source just like the example of lighting people with glasses then light the darker toned subjects just as you would people with glasses. This is exactly how I approach lighting when the subject has a dark complexion because if you light as you would a person with a light complexion you end up with speculars on their face! The trick here is to put the lighting on the sides of the face (Figure C) otherwise the speculars look like a ‘T’ pattern projected right down the center of the face starting with the forehead, running down the nose and chin. Yep, a perfectly symmetrical ‘T’ which isn’t very flattering.

Avoiding this requires placing a large light source such as a 6-foot soft-box or scrim just to the side and a bit in front or your subject. You need a large light source to wrap the soft light around your subject. An extra large light source is needed not just for the soft shadows but to completely light all the surfaces of their skin. There is no substitute for large soft lights in this situation and any speculars from your lights can be very unflattering because they create odd lighting patterns such as the ‘T’ mentioned.

All the examples here use soft lighting because it provides a soft flattering quality that your subject will appreciate and also reduces reflections on darker skin. While it might require more time to set up, the forgiving nature of soft light reduces the chances of making mistakes on an assignment which improves the flow of your shoot and that gives you more time with your subject. This instills confidence in your subject because you are more relaxed and that gives you much better results than rushing around trying to fix a flawed lighting setup. Another consideration here is the shadow created by the light source. A broad light creates soft undefined shadows, whereas a sharp pinpoint light creates very harsh and well-defined shadows which projects the shadow of glasses frames on your subject’s face and makes darker skin have great contrast which is not pleasant and difficult to fix in post.

It seems like a lot to consider, but you’re becoming an expert in specialty lighting and such situations become just another day in the life of the production lighting designer – go forth and light, you’ve got the skills down.

Sidebar: Lighting Bald Heads Indoors

You can easily reproduce the lighting bald heads outdoors scenario by allowing the ambient light to be your fill light and balancing that with a large key light such as a 48-inch soft-box. Here is a great practice setup for you. If you have access to a bald person, great – otherwise a soccer ball will work. Get indoors where you have plenty of ambient light and set up your soft-box as a key light about two feet from your subject. From this distance it is really quite large and casts a nice wrap around light with soft but distinct shadows. The surface is bathed in soft light and the speculars are large enough to spread out over the surface. Now move it back a few feet and see the difference. Then remove the soft-box and take a look and see how the speculars really take over the lighting to create a chrome dome on the ball.

Terry O’Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.

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