Lighting Faces with Better Video Results

One of your most important jobs as a videographer is to make your talent look as good as possible. While this may seem like a simple task, it can get pretty complicated. Why? Think of the last five people who appeared in your videos. Were they the same? Did they have the same hair color? (Did they all have hair?) The same skin tone? Perhaps they all had perfect vision and didn’t wear glasses. Perhaps they came to the shoot with shirts that contrasted highly with their skin tone. As you’ll soon see, the people who will be in front of your camera are as different as the projects you produce.

In this column, we will take a look at the various lighting techniques used to light people with various hair color and skin tones, talent who insist on wearing clothing that contrasts too much with their skin tone or people who wear glasses. We will use basic three-point lighting techniques to solve the most common problems with lighting faces.


Problem: Glasses Glare

Solution: When lighting a talent who must wear glasses, you have to consider two major problems: the shadow of the rims crossing the eye and the reflection of the lights in the glasses. This might seem to be an impossible situation, but don’t sweat it. Lighting for glasses takes just a few minor adjustments in light placement. For three-point lighting, the back light stays the same while you position the key and fill lights about thirty degrees up from the talent’s face. Have the talent look toward the camera and adjust the height of the key and fill lights until the shadow from the glasses frame rises above the eye. If the key or fill light is reflecting too much in the lens, move the light more to the side so that the reflection will bounce away from the camera. This will take some fine-tuning because the surface of the lens will often play tricks with reflecting lights. If you can’t videotape the lenses without a reflection or shadow, minimize the problem by using a large diffused light. You might also spray a fine mist of hair spray or antiperspirant on the frames to dull them a bit. Make sure you don’t impair the vision of your talent.


Problem: Hairless Heads

Solution: Bald is beautiful! At least that’s what they tell you until you try to light someone who has a shiny, smooth head. Lighting for a talent with little or no hair calls for a large diffused light as your key. Set this light closer to the camera to evenly light the talent’s face with soft shadows. This soft light will spread its glow over the surface of your talent’s head and greatly reduce the reflection. You will need very little backlight and your fill needn’t be more than a white bounce card, used to bounce light into your talent’s face to add just a touch of light to the fill side of the face. Finally, lightly dab the talent’s head with a smooth coating of clear powder. This will provide a matte finish to the skin, making it less reflective.

If you are trying to dramatically light someone who is bald, set your key light at the three or nine o’clock position and at a height even with the face. Set your back light behind the talent, just out of camera shot and level with the talent’s shoulders. This will give you a very dramatic light with few reflection problems. It is still a good idea, however, to powder your talent’s head and face.


Problem: Dark Skin

Solution: Lighting talent with dark skin presents a few minor problems. Because the skin is dark, the lighting has to be a little more intense and the light may create a small bright spot instead of filling the face. These problems are rather simple to solve if you keep one thing in mind: you have to spread out the specular highlight, the reflection of the light source on the subject. Dark skin contrasts with the bright light and thus reflects back a spot of light equivalent to the size of the light used. If you want to eliminate the bright spot of light on your dark-skinned talent’s face, you have to make it bigger. Use a very large diffused light that spreads its specular highlight over the talent’s entire face, thus providing a nice even light instead of a small, bright point. Be sure to lightly powder the talent’s face using a powder to match the skin tone.


Problem: Light Skin, Dark Shirt

Solution: One of video’s shortcomings is its inability to handle a lot of contrast. Vast differences between the lights and darks in a scene will drive the camera crazy. Either the blacks will be too dark and turn muddy or the whites will begin to glow. Always ask fair-skinned talent to avoid black and navy blue, and ask dark-skinned talent to avoid white or light pastel colors. If you don’t, when your fair-skinned talent decides to wear a black shirt, you may find yourself in contrast purgatory. At least you may if you don’t know how to light for this situation. The primary goal is to lighten the shirt without making the talent’s skin glow. Once again, you need to turn to your friend, the large soft light. Place a large diffused light in the normal key position. Tilt the light so that its brightest light falls below the talent’s face and lights the shirt. The face will be bright enough because of its light skin tone; the object is to brighten up the shirt so that it doesn’t contrast as much. If you are lighting with harder reflector spots, you can add a piece of diffusion material to the top of the light to darken the face while making the shirt brighter. You can achieve the same results with a wire mesh half scrim. A scrim is a wire mesh screen that you place on or in front of a light to reduce its intensity without changing its color temperature. A half scrim would reduce the amount of light on the talent’s face without affecting the light on the shirt.


Problem: Dark Skin, Light Shirt

Solution: Although a dark-skinned person wearing a white or very light shirt may look fine to your eye, the video camera can’t handle it. Either the shirt is going to glow or the details in the face are going to disappear. To avoid this, you have to light the face while flagging the light from the shirt. Place your key, back and fill as you would for any dark-skinned talent. Make sure you focus the back light more on the back of the talent’s head than on the shoulders. Then place a flag in front of the key and fill so that the light does not fall on the talent’s shirt. Make sure the flags are close to the light source, not to the talent. The closer the flag is to the talent, the sharper the shadow. You want to avoid a sharp shadow. You can also use diffusion material and scrims much the same way we did in the example above, but flip them so that the filter or scrim is on the bottom of the light source.


Lit Faces

When lighting faces, the primary goal is to make your talent look good. Remember our tips on contrast, skin tone, glasses and hair. Experiment and don’t get tied to rigid formulas. The final test of any lighting setup is always the image in your viewfinder.

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