Light Source: One Location, Five Different Looks

Recently, I found myself in a situation where I had to complete five interviews in one 10-by-10-foot office space. The participants were part of a board of directors for a large nonprofit organization and I had to conduct the interviews on the evening of their board meeting. The meeting was in the main conference room, so I was relegated to the executive director’s tiny office. I was also under a strict shooting schedule, so I didn’t have the luxury of interviewing them in their offices or homes.

The interviews were supposed to look like they were shot in five different places. So what did I do? I created five different setups and five different lighting schemes to make it look as if I traveled far and wide to accomplish my goal — variety and interest — here’s how.

Setup No. 1: City Sunset

My first major hurdle was the size of the room. I was in a small office with a window on one wall and furniture to negotiate. I decided to move things around and get as far back from the talent as possible.

Since it was still light outside and the view out the window was gorgeous, I decided the first interview would take advantage of the evening sun and beautiful cityscape. I positioned the desk so it sat between my camcorder and the window with the business-suited woman seated at the desk. I then placed a color temperature orange (CTO) gel over the window to allow the camera to see the outside light in the same color temperature range as my indoor lighting. (I actually used Roscosun 85N.3 gel, which is a CTO combined with a neutral density filter of .3, reducing the intensity of the outdoor light by one full stop while also changing the outdoor color temperature to indoor.)

Next, I decided to soften the look of the interview by lighting her with a large soft light set up at the seven o’clock position to the camcorder. I then set up a bounce card to fill in any darker shadows. The end result of this setup was a beautiful sunset in the background, softly lit talent with sparkling eyes and an interview that accomplished everything it was meant to do.

Setup No. 2: Highlighting Facial Features

While the previous setup took advantage of the evening sky, the next took advantage of the talent’s face and particular story. Since one of the purposes of the production was to educate the audience on how a particular disease ravages its victims, I decided to shoot the next person with dramatic lighting and take advantage of his weathered face. I set the gentleman in a small upholstered chair, with a table-lamp beside and a little behind him. The lamp provided a soft, warm backlight. The lamp had a three-way bulb in it, and I set it to the lowest setting so the lampshade didn’t glow in the shot.

For the key light, I set up a Lowel Omni at the eight o’clock position to make it a bit more dramatic and create deeper shadows in the lines of the talent’s face. I then flagged the light so that none of the spill lit the background or the front of the lamp I used as my backlight. I added a small amount of fill using a white bounce card. There was just enough of a fill light to enable the viewer to see the talent’s face yet not enough to dilute the dramatics of the key. The end result was an interview full of drama and angst as the talent talked about his mother’s fight with the disease.

Setup No. 3: Cheerful Mood

My third subject’s age, late-50s, dictated that I use a brighter, merrier setup than No. 2 and that I soften the light to make him look younger and smooth out his complexion a bit. To accomplish this, I sat him in a soft upholstered love seat I scrounged from the conference room. I set up a plant slightly beside and behind the love seat to add a bit of greenery to the scene. I then lowered a large landscape painting that happened to be on the office wall, so that it hung in the top third of the picture. With my setting in place, I hung a Lowel Tota light from a scissors clip attached to the drop-ceiling as my backlight. To this, I added an ND filter so that it wouldn’t be too bright. I then set up my soft light at the seven o’clock position to give the man a soft, smooth key light and filled in the shadows with another Tota reflected from an umbrella set up as far as I could get it at the four o’clock position.

The end result of this setup was a nice, cheery shot that looked like it was shot in the man’s living room.

Setup No. 4: Props in the Frame

For this subject, I wanted to go middle of the road. Once again, I rearranged the furniture and placed the woman, the nonprofit group’s board president, in an armchair next to a bookcase full of knickknacks and literature as well as promotional bulletins for one of the group’s events. On the other side of the chair, I arranged a plant so that it just peaked in on the other side of the shot.

For the lighting, I chose as the key a Lowel Omni since the talent was young and had a smooth complexion. The light made the image pop out and added a bit of an edge that the soft light wouldn’t. I then used the Tota I hung earlier for her backlight, yet removed the ND filter to accent her dark brunette hair. (Note: always use more backlight for brunettes than blondes. Also, increase the amount of backlight to create a more glamorous look.) For the fill light, I reversed the umbrella so that the Tota was shooting through it instead of reflecting from its center. This cut down the amount of fill and again, the resulting deeper shadow added a bit of edge to the interview. The lighting added a bit of drama without going overboard.

Setup No. 5: A Dramatic Edge

This setup provided the most dramatic lighting possible. The talent’s father had just passed away after a lengthy illness and her story was poignant and powerful. However, I didn’t want the woman’s face to look hard, so I used a soft light as my key. The first part of the equation was her position. Choosing a comfortable straight-back chair, I sat the woman in the middle of the room as far from the wall as I could without creating a problem for my camera lens. (I didn’t want to shoot at a wide angle and distort her face, so I ended up with her about 3 feet from the wall and my position backed up to the opposite wall.)

The lighting solution consisted of a soft light placed at the four o’clock position. All spill light flagged from the background. The Tota was called into service once again, yet moved to a higher 60-degree angle opposite the key so the light focused on top of her shoulders and hair. I used no fill light. One side of her face was shadowed, the other softly lit with the key. You could see both of her eyes sparkle as she told her story. In the camera, there was no background just total darkness. The end result was an interview with no distractions. The audience was forced to look in the talent’s eyes and feel her pain.

Final Thoughts

As a videographer, you will often find yourself in precarious lighting situations that seem impossible. Look at them as challenges. If you know in advance what the end-result of your shoot should be, use your lighting to carry you to that result.

Lighting is a powerful and controllable tool. With some imagination, pre-production planning and a good understanding of lighting basics, you can make any impossible situation possible.

[Sidebar: Around the Clock]
Throughout this article we refer to light positions as numbers on a clock dial. All positions are relative to a camera at the six o’clock position and a subject sitting in the middle of the dial (where the hands would meet), regardless of the direction they would face in the room.

[Sidebar: Plan Ahead with Pertinent Props]
Since I knew beforehand that I would take advantage of the fact that five people would be in the same place at the same time, I told them ahead of time to bring a couple personal items to dress up the set. This added to the variety I was able to achieve as I shot five interviews in one indoor setting.

[Sidebar: Soft Light Tip]
To solve excessive indoor lamp brightness, carry a 15-watt bulb with you. Stick it in the lamp to prevent it from turning into a glowing blob in your shot.

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