Education, Pro Tips

Face Time: A Guide to Simple Three-Point Interview Lighting

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Whether you’re shooting for broadcast, documentary, narrative, or reality television, how you light an interview helps create the tone it telegraphs to your audience. Even before your subject has uttered a word, lighting can help provide context. Basic three-point lighting is, as the term implies, a technique you can accomplish with three sources of light. In the examples below, I’m using a three-light kit to get through the basics. For extra credit, I’ll add fourth and fifth lights for some added texture and nuance. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need actual lights to achieve three-point lighting — you can accomplish the same thing with the sun, some diffusion, and a reflector. The key is just being able to control the relative strengths and the position of each point of light.

Three-Point Lighting Basics

It’s generally accepted that the three lights in a three-light interview setup are known as the key, fill, and kick, rim, or backlight. The key provides the main source of light on your subject; the fill controls the contrast between the left and right sides of the face; and the backlight provides some exposure on your subject from behind, to help separate him or her from the background.

Interview Lighting Setup

For the key and fill lights, modern aesthetics dictate that you use a large, soft light source. For the rim light, you’ll want a small, “hard” source of light. On a sunny, clear day, the sun is an example of hard light — it creates harsh shadows and is difficult to look at. Lighting from bus-stop billboards is an example (perhaps a weird one) of soft light — it’s a nice, even light that “wraps” around you and doesn’t create hard edges. In the images below, notice how the light gently tapers off across the subject’s forehead for a good example of “soft” light. The vanities they use for hair and makeup in the film industry are another example of soft light. (The dressing-room ones with incandescent lightbulbs rimming the mirror.) In order to soften the appearance of your lights even more, use translucent powder (or a makeup artist) to help take shine off your subject.

Light & Motion 3-Light Kit
Light & Motion’s Stella lights

In the lighting examples here, I’m using two Light & Motion LED Stella Pro 5000 units with two-foot softboxes as my key and fill lights; for the backlight, I’m using the smaller LED Stella 2000. I use this setup as my traveling three-light interview kit because it’s lightweight, can be battery operated for long periods of time, and is completely waterproof, in case things get inclement. These lights, unmodified, produce a “hard” light, which is useful because hard light is easier to shape, can help balance the sun, and can be aesthetically desirable, depending on your approach. Adding the softboxes, which in this case have two layers of diffusion inside them, helps create the type of soft light we’re looking for in this specific type of setup. Having a kit that can produce both hard and soft light helps you stay flexible under changing lighting needs.

Three-light interview setup
Three-light interview setup

Setting the Tone

It’s important to decide ahead of time the kind of tone, or feeling, you’re going for. Is this a Godfather-style interrogation? Is this a bright and airy, lighthearted chat? Decide how you want your scene to look before you start unpacking your lights; it will save you time down the line. Whatever style is best for you, if you’re shooting indoors, I recommend starting with a blank canvas, at least when you’re first starting out. In the example here, I’m lighting for a documentary. In my case, it’s important that my audience get a sense of the space, and that my subject not appear to be sitting in a studio back in Los Angeles. I’m going for adequate “production value” with a touch of on-location authenticity.

Black out your interview room and start with no light. This way you’ll know exactly what each light is doing as you add it to the mix. In the photos below, you’ll see examples of what each light does on its own. As an exercise, as you light your next interview, alternately go around and see what each single light does when it’s the only one on. As I took these photos, I found that my background light was spilling somewhere I hadn’t anticipated and was able to correct the issue; I would have never noticed had I not auditioned each light in turn.

I recommend lighting around a stand-in so that your interview subject is fresh when the camera is ready to roll. Getting lighting right can be deceivingly time consuming, and nothing is worse than starting with a wilting interview subject.

Framing the Subject

I always place my interview subject to the left or right third of the frame and have them look across the frame in the opposite direction. In the sample here, our interview subject is looking from screen left to screen right to an interviewer whose eyes are at the same level as the lens, adjacent to the camera. It’s important for most interviews (unless you’re Errol Morris) that the subject doesn’t look directly into the lens at any point, as this can be distracting for your audience. This is known as breaking the fourth wall.

There are also clear differences when approaching filming men and women. These differences are based on things like physical features — for example, men generally have more pronounced eyebrows, larger noses, and stronger jaw lines. For men, I generally shoot slightly up from below their jaw line. Pick out your favorite male actors in Hollywood films and watch for camera height during dialogue scenes to get a sense of how the convention applies in everyday practice. Conversely, for women I bring the camera either to or slightly higher than their eye level. Doing this helps create the appearance of high cheekbones, softens the jaw line, and emphasizes the eyes. Your framing choices will dictate the decisions you make in lighting, most notably the heights you place your lights at. You’ll notice in the behind-the-scenes photos here that my fill light is below the subject and the key is above. I did this to split up the eye lights, so he didn’t appear doe-eyed in the final shots.

Anna from Frozen
An example of Disney’s modern eye light from Frozen. © Disney-Pixar.

The framing you decide on will also play an important role because it will dictate where you can physically place your lights. If your shot is wide, your lights will have to be further away, thus changing or limiting certain characteristics you may have been hoping to achieve. I generally like to shoot my interviews in what would be considered a “medium” shot — in the frame, you’ll see from the subject’s chest to the top of their head.

The Key Light

For my interviews, regardless of who the talent is, I’m tasked with making the subject look great. This means that through lighting, we have to smooth the skin, erase under-eye bags, brighten eyes, and conceal any unsightly bits. For both men and women, I like to place my key light just to the side and above the subject’s eye line. For women, I like to move my lights in and up to create large reflections in the eye — in the fashion industry, photographers often chant “high and bright” as the standard for beautiful lighting. Doing this can create a Disney-type reflection in the eye that’s considered attractive. Notice where the key light on Anna from Disney’s Frozen is in the image here. If you start paying attention to eye-light reflections in fashion or beauty advertisements, you’ll almost always see massive softboxes in the reflection of the model’s eyes.

For the angle of the light relative to the face, there are several things to consider. One easy rule of thumb is to look for the angle that best produces a small triangle of light on the far side of the nose. This is known as “Rembrandt lighting,” after the artist. You’ll see here in the example that the light from the key spills only to the subject’s right cheek at the top, creating a small triangle of light while still catching in his far eye.

Key light only
Key light only

The Fill Light

Your fill light determines how much of a difference in exposure there is between your key light and the rest of the face. A generally accepted rule is for the ratio to be 2:1 — in other words, your key is two times as bright as your fill. For men, especially those with deep-set eyes, I like to lower the light and back it off a few inches, so it looks more like a small bright spot in the eye, as opposed to a large swath of bright light. A “harder” light is generally considered more masculine, as well. With the softbox, the light from the Stella 5000 is bright, even, and soft when close to the subject and can be “hardened” a bit by backing the light away from the subject.

Fill light only
Fill light only

With your fill, make sure you’re not casting any undue shadows on your talent or your background. Ending up with shadows that fall in multiple directions can create unpleasant results. You’ll notice in these photos that my fill light is providing quite a bit of exposure on the background. You can’t see any shadows because they’re falling offscreen. Remember not to overpower your key with your fill, as you’ll unintentionally swap the roles your lights are playing. Another general rule to keep in mind is that the camera should be shooting the “dark” side of the subject’s face (that is, the fill side). So if your subject is framed camera-left looking camera-right, the “dark” side would be the side to camera-left. This is a rule that is often broken, but it’s a nice guideline to have because it helps create a pleasant atheistic.

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The Rim Light

Rim light only
Rim light only

The rim light can be positioned to do several things, but whatever you do with it, make sure you can control it. In my case, I have a set of barn doors on the Stella 2000 that allow me to tightly control where the light is falling. You can elect to light the subject’s head, shoulders, the side of their face (as I’ve seen in many ESPN or sports interviews), or a mixture of all of the above. A rim light is particularly effective when shooting against a dark background; it’s a nice way to separate the subject from his or her surroundings. A nice mixture of light on the shoulders and the side of the head can also yield appealing results. The backlight is generally diffused very little or not at all and is kept at about the same power as the fill light — again, you don’t want to overpower your key by creating a bright distraction.

Here’s your finished three-light setup. Notice how the left side of the subject’s face is darker, but not too dark.

Three-light interview final lighting setup
Three-light interview final lighting setup

Adding Additional Lights

If you’re satisfied with your subject but finding yourself wanting more, you can always add more lights to your interview setup. For the next example, I’ll bring in a new backlight — a Westcott Flex 1×1 panel, which I place above and behind my subject to give him a nice even rim. You’ll notice that the Flex light is a bit softer than the unmodified Stella 2000.

Next, I repurpose my Stella 2000 to act like a museum light for the piece of art we have hanging in the background of our shot. Here’s a photo of the illumination that only the background light brings — I have it hitting the books in the top left of frame, the books in the bottom right, and the painting on the wall. I’ve set the light up so that it mimics the lighting present in the painting itself. It’s important that this light doesn’t bring up the background too much, or your subject will get lost in the frame.

Background light only
Background light only

Now, here’s the setup with the Stella 2000 lighting the background and the Westcott Flex acting as the rim light. You’ll notice that I have the Westcott off to one side of the subject, diagonally opposite the key light. I like to move the light off the axis to provide some additional shape to the subject and help counter the key.

Four-light interview setup behind the scenes
Four-light interview setup behind the scenes

Below is the final four-light setup (I’m including the light from the porthole). The daylight is also still coming in, a slightly cooler light on the right side of the subject’s head. This setup is one with mixed color temperatures — the Stellas are set to 5000K and the Flex light to 5600K, while the daylight appears slightly cooler than everything else, possibly somewhere north of 6200K. I would guess that the glass, time of year, geographic location (somewhere near the equator here), and the neutral density gel I placed in the porthole are all responsible for the sun’s color temperature being a bit off from the Flex light. The color temperature in the camera is also a factor. In this case, it’s set to 4850K. Cinematographers will often make their rim light slightly warmer or cooler to help offset it from the key and fill even more.

The final four-light interview setup
The final four-light interview setup

If you had previously blacked out windows in your location and are finding that you need more general fill to help your camera expose for the environment, you can open a nearby window — preferably one that’s not in your shot — to bring up the ambient light levels. In my case, I could open the other porthole in our studio to give us plenty of new light to work with. If you do this, however, make sure you’re not overpowering the lights you’ve just set up.

These general guidelines should give you a solid foundation to approach lighting, especially if you’ve never done it before. Once you’re comfortable with the rules outlined here, you’ll naturally find ways to improvise and improve your technique. And if you’ve already done that and have other tips to share, let us know in the comments below. In the meantime, happy interviewing!

Gavin Garrison has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery). In 2013, Gavin filmed the sports series Nock Out for NBC, and his history with network and studio production includes work on The OC, Mad Men, and The Middle. Gavin also worked in development for Paramount Studios while receiving his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California. Today, he consults, directs, and produces for clients around the world, including Ford Motors, Costco Wholesale, and Michelin. Gavin is a Samsung Imagelogger and Pond5 Ambassador. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gavingarrison.