Image of a pink clock

Lights in a world of, “Camera. Action!”

To people unfamiliar with photography and videography, the camera gets all the attention. Sure, it’s hard to take photos without a camera, but it is also important to remember that a camera’s job is to capture, not to create.

Let’s use cooking as an example (probably a terrible choice since I know next to nothing about cooking, but here we go). A camera is kind of like a pot used for making stew. It’s the vessel that holds and processes what you put into it. In the case of a pot, you can make a tolerable stew just by throwing in the ingredients you have around the house—a little meat, some potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms—turn the stove on and voilà, you have a stew. (That’s how I imagine it working, anyway.) As long as you didn’t put in anything atrocious like, I don’t know, Jell-O, it’ll probably turn out okay. But if you really want to make a good stew, you have to pay special attention to the ingredients.

Well, I’d argue that ingredients are to cooking what lighting is to photography. In case you hated analogies like these in school, let me translate. If you put mediocre lighting (the ingredient) into a camera (the pot), you’ll get a bad image (stew). If you pay attention to lighting and you specifically and intentionally craft it, you’ll get a much better result.

In today’s virtual presentation environment, most people’s lighting is determined by the location of their desks. Lighting takes a back seat in a world of “Here’s my camera. Let’s roll.” It’s time to think more intentionally about lighting. You ready? Lights, please…

Hog the Spotlight (The speaker should be the brightest thing in the scene.)

During a theatrical production, the AV team puts a spotlight on an actor during their grand monologue. Why? We pay more attention to brighter objects than those in the dark. While I wouldn’t recommend shining a spotlight in your speakers’ eyes while presenting, being better illuminated than their background will look better and grab their audience’s attention more easily.

The Silhouettes Have Got to Go (Avoid backlight.)

Related to the previous point, don’t position your speakers in a place where the primary light source is behind them. Don’t let them sit with their backs to a window, for example.

All cameras, including webcams, have a limited dynamic range, meaning they aren’t as good as our eyes at simultaneously seeing light things and dark things. So, while I might be able to see your speaker pretty clearly if he is standing in front of a bright window, a camera will have a much harder time and he’ll probably become a silhouette. The quickest solution? Ask him to turn his chair around 180 degrees, and just like that you’ll be using that distracting lighting to your advantage.

An Interrogation This is Not (Avoid harsh light.)

Ever tried to hire a photographer to shoot outside in the middle of the day? How’d that go for you? Probably not great since most photographers are mid-day recluses. They only come out for a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the evening. Why? Because afternoon light creates harsh lighting—blown-out highlights, deep shadows, and a very compact gradation between the two—which is a lot harder to work with and typically less flattering in portraiture.

You can avoid harsh light by asking your speakers to not sit in direct sunlight, not shining a light on themselves like a spotlight, or by not sitting next to an unshaded lamp.

Look for a Window of Opportunity (Find soft light.)

Soft light is the alternative to harsh light. It’s characterized by smooth transitions between lights and darks. How do we get soft light? The bigger the light source, the softer the lighting. A lightbulb, as a small light source, produces harsh, high-contrast light. That’s why we put lampshades on light bulbs—to expand the size of the light source and soften the light.

If you’ve ever been in a photography studio, you’ve probably seen photo umbrellas and those big boxes with flashes in them. These are called diffusers. The goal of a diffuser, like a lampshade, is to increase the size of the light source in order to soften the lighting.

Most people don’t have professional lighting equipment handy, but there are some workarounds.

Advise your speakers to sit near a window. A window is like a giant lampshade. As long as people aren’t sitting in direct sunlight, ambient sunlight from a window will produce soft, flattering light.

Shine a spotlight against a wall. Light bounces. This effect is known by most people as “reflection.” By bouncing light off a nearby white wall, the wall becomes the light source instead of your light (kind of like the moon at night). Since the wall has a greater surface area than the lightbulb, the lighting will be softer and more flattering.

What’s Yellow and White and Blue All Over? (Your speaker is if you try to mix natural, fluorescent, and incandescent light.)

Not all light is the same color. Incandescent lights are yellow, florescent lights are blue, and sunlight is right in between. Our brains compensate for these color differences so that we barely notice them, but cameras aren’t as smart as we are. Cameras will exaggerate the color of lights. Mixing lights can be an interesting trick in cinematography, but is distracting and should be avoided for the average webinar recording. Pick a light source (typically use natural light if possible), and then turn off all the other lights.

Running Out of Daylight (If you’re filming for a long time, use artificial lights.)

Even with all the upheaval in 2020, the world is still rotating—thank goodness! That causes the sun to appear to move across the sky. As the sun moves, so does the location of our light source if you’re using natural light. For a five minute video, that’s fine. No one is going to notice or care that, during a presentation, the sun moved .25 degrees across the sky. But if you’re filming a two-hour-long presentation and hoping to cut and rearrange the speech in post-production, people are going to start to notice if your speaker’s shadow starts skipping backwards and forwards between clips. In recorded history, the sun has never moved backwards. Seeing the sun do so in your speaker’s presentation is bound to raise a few eyebrows.

Shed Those Quarantine Curves (Side light will make your face look thinner.)

Does Zoom add 10 pounds? Probably. Wide angle lenses like the ones on webcams distort facial features and make people’s faces appear wider. While it’s best for your face to be pretty evenly illuminated, introducing a bit of side light can actually make your face look thinner. It’s amazing how lighting and angles can transform how someone appears on camera.

Eyes Are for Seeing and Being Seen (Make sure your eyes are not in shadow.)

If your speaker’s eyes are hard to see, it will be very difficult to feel a personal connection with them. In videography and portrait photography, lighting people’s eyes is one of the most important considerations.

The best way to prevent dark shadowy eyes is to avoid having the primary light source directly overhead. A traditional lighting setup uses a main light that is in front of the subject, slightly elevated above eye level, and slightly off to the side.

Stay tuned next week for tips on composition and check out the first post in the series on selecting and setting your background.

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