Basic Interview Lighting – A guide
From someone who was scared of anything lighting related ten years ago, but now thinks he can get away with it.
Lighting has always scared me. It was never my strong suit, and probably still isn’t. When I first started back in 1999 in regional commercial production in Australia, budgets were tight and deadlines even tighter. “Lighting” back then consisted of putting up one Ianiro ‘redhead’ with a piece of diffusing paper, and a full CTB converter gel, and frequently aiming it at a white ceiling and flooding the room. You barely had time to shoot anything, so you didn’t waste time putting up more lights than the basics.
Then, moving into news, again, time was your enemy. But now you also had a toplight on your camera that you could rely on to get you out of a jam. But it was hardly crafted light, more a ‘flood the room/subject and hope it works’. Since I didn’t shoot with zebras on in my camera back then, I can only cringe when I think of how much footage I shot overexposed back then.
Now, flash forward to 2010. I’d moved to London, and was now shooting for US networks, where lighting is categorically the number one demand. The live shots that you did using just one light (If you’d brought it along!) now demanded a minimum of three, and if you forgot a backlight for your talent in their live shot, you’d hear about it when you got back to the office.
Suddenly, I was using “over-arm” stands to fly in lights, setting precise output levels and diffusing lights in order to squeeze out a few more f-stops to soften the background of the shot. It just started happening after watching some far more senior operators light their interviews, and seeing the same patterns.
We’re very fortunate nowadays with modern lighting tools that we can control almost every aspect of the light. Intensity, colour and direction are easily changed with the turn of a dial, flick of a switch, or mounting with velcro on the light itself. As an added bonus, they’re lighter than ever.
So how do you light an interview?
You may have heard of the method called “Three-point lighting“, made up of, naturally, three lights:
- Fill light
- Key light
- Back light
This is the standard starting point, and you are spoiled for choice these days for lightweight devices that can do this. My preferred method at the moment is to use two softened LED panel lights as my key and fills, and an older Dedolight for my backlight, which I always set to be quite strong and spotted.
The overall goal is to create a neutral, relatively shadow-free face, and separation from the background. Example below:
Three-point lighting example:
Kylie Minogue, December 2019
In this example, we were filming a “down-the-line” interview with the amazing Kylie Minogue, for an Australian broadcaster. She had to look down the barrel of the lens whilst speaking to a journalist in Australia, who spoke through an earpiece into Kylies’ ear.
We were fortunate to be shooting this in winter in a London hotel, so we could shoot towards a window at four pm and deal with the brightness. Since there were light fixtures outside, the need for a backlight was eliminated, as we had something natural. (The two columns lit up on the building opposite the hotel window)
I was shooting this on a Sony PMW-F5, which allowed me to really soften the background as much as possible and keep the brightness of the lights to a minimum. In this example, I believe the fill and key lights were only running at about twenty percent.
For those lights, I used my lightweight and reliable Fomex FL-600’s, with the basic softbox package on the front. (No eggcrate) They are positioned very high, as with the window right behind the talent, you would get reflections coming back into the cameras lens. The reason I ditched the eggcrate (Which would focus the light onto the subject) was that since the softbox spread the light far and wide, it also filled out the curtains and the small Xmas tree and flowers on the table behind Kylie, but enough to distract from the subject, like lighting them with a background light would.
There is a Dedolight backlight on a Manfrotto “fly-over” stand, in order to get the backlight as central as possible behind the talent, in order to create an even spread across their shoulders. This works best in down the line interviews, where you have both of their shoulders square to the camera. When they’re speaking to a person in the same room, their shoulder that opposes their looking direction tends to be on the same side as your backlight, and often gets more of the light from it, on it.
You don’t need a fly-over stand for your backlight, but if you have access to them, make use of them. They’ll change your workflow, and they’re very useful if you’re doing two or three camera interviews. You can see my backpack acting as a counterbalance on the stand, just behind the left side Fomex. You must always have something counterbalancing your light on these boom stands, unless it is an extremely lightweight device, like an Aladdin A-Lite.
Another three-point lighting example:
London Bridge terror attack, November 2019
I mentioned earlier that US networks LOVE their backlights, even for a live shot that takes all of 20 seconds airtime.
In this example for ABC News World News Tonight, we were sent down to London Bridge, hours after an attempted terror attack, to broadcast into their bulletin. There was no power available, so absolutely everything ran on battery. Thankfully we live in an age where this is possible, even with large HMI-Esque lights like the Litepanels Astras’ we used here.
In this example, it was two Astras’ with diffusion sheets over them (Taped on with gaff tape I believe, classy) aimed at our talent. Even with modern LED lights, you should always aim to diffuse them, otherwise, you may get sharp shadows, caused by the pattern of LED chips.
For a backlight, I brought out the over-arm stand and mounted a Litepanels Chroma on it, giving some lovely separation between our talent and the background, which was critical this time, as it was eleven-thirty at night, and our talent wore a black coat. You can see in the photo the lovely ring of light surrounding our talent.
The Astras’ were powered by an Anton Bauer gold mount battery each, and the Chroma by AA batteries. It just goes to show that if you have enough people to help you carry the gear, you can have nice lighting even outdoors.
Have a boring background?
Make it four lights!
So, this is only practical indoors, unless you have access to a very powerful outdoor light like the Nila Boxer. (I actually demonstrate lighting up the houses of parliament with it on that page)
So you have an interview lined up, but the only option is to shoot towards a grey or white wall. Grim, but this happens often particularly in corporate scenarios, who are fine working in sterile white rooms, but not us. So sometimes a splash of colour, or using a colourful object to fill the space is necessary. In the example below, I do both.
Four-point lighting example:
Margot Robbie, January 2020
Margot was kind enough to sit in the chair after the interview to show the lighting setup, so thanks to her!
We were doing another “down-the-line” live shot interviews for Network Ten Australia, in a major hotel in central London. Sadly, most hotel rooms are pretty bland, particularly when they have been stripped out for “Junket” interviews like this one for the film “Birds of Prey”.
The room was completely empty, save for a pink bedhead on one wall, two paintings and floor to ceiling windows on one side, thankfully with a diffusing curtain in front, as well a colourful curtain as you can see in the picture. Not an ideal room, but hotel rooms rarely are.
So, I solved this by using as much depth in the room as possible, shooting from one corner to the other, setting up Margot’s chair in the centre, allowing the background to be completely soft.
I ran the same lighting setup as before in the Kylie interview, with two Fomex FL-600 lights as the key and fills, except this time I used egg crates on the LED lights, to focus the light onto only subject, and avoiding any spilling of light anywhere else around the room. This helped keep the background darker than our subject.
I also had a Dedolight flown over the back as a backlight. This time though, I also set up an extra Dedolight with a blue gel, barn doored down to a stripe aimed at the back wall. It certainly made the grey wall more interesting. We also aimed the shot to have the curtain in the background just sneaking into the shot to offer a bit more life.
I was really happy with how we made a bleak grey room look somewhat interesting just with a touch of the curtain, and a blue light cast on the background. The backlight was the right strength to lift her out of the background, and the fill and key lights were the right intensity to cancel out any shadows. Keeping the spill from the fill and key lights off of the background was the right move.
TL;DR – The steps to set up basic interview lighting
- Talent position
Set up your chair/talent at least two metres away from your background. If they’re too close, then you’ll get shadows cast by the key and fill lights.
- Camera position
Set up the camera as far back as is reasonable in the room you’re in. Two to three metres is usually good enough, but the further you go does make the next step easier.
- Blur the background
Open the aperture on your camera as much as you can. Possibly add some neutral density on your camera to if this makes the shot overexposed. The key thing is that you are lighting to match your background. If you want it to be dark, we’ll need more light on the subject. Likewise, if you need it to be brought up, then you’ll want less light on your subject. If you’re shooting outside at night time for example, you might need to use some electronic gain in your camera to brighten up the background.
- Setup your lights
Position your key, fill and backlights around where your talent is going to be. Set them at 100% for now.
- Test on a human
Get someone to stand in for the talent (As invariably the actual talent won’t be there until the last minute) and adjust the position of your lights to avoid any reflections or shadows that the camera picks up.
- Drop the intensity
Decrease the intensity of your fill and key lights until the video level for your stand-in talent hits 70% if they are Caucasian. Adjust accordingly for other skin tones. Also, drop your backlight until the highlights on the shoulders & hair aren’t overexposed anymore. On professional cameras, you can set the zebras at the level you’re aiming for and drop your light intensity until the zebras only just appear.
- Light the background
If possible, toss a small light across the background. Keep it subtle, and use a simple colour like red green or blue. Some cameras can deal with colours better than others, so keep an eye on the colour saturation on a colour monitor. In fact, using no colour gel can be better sometimes. Consider putting something in front of the light to cast some shadows on the background for a texture effect. Keep the intensity fairly low though.