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3 Simple Steps For Cinematic Interview Lighting

Interview lighting can be extremely challenging for a lot of new videographers, documentarians, and filmmakers for a variety of reasons. Every interview will present its own challenges based on the equipment available, the environment you’re shooting in, and the people who will be on camera. Let these simple steps for cinematic interview lighting serve as a guide that you can reference at any time for most lighting situations, and use the rule of thumb below as a starting point for every setup.

Start by setting your key light

For every interview you will ever produce, you will have at least one light source, one interviewee, one interviewer, and one camera. With these four elements in mind, here is the most basic rule of thumb for light and camera placement: always place your interviewer between your key light and camera. Here is the rule, broken down into three simple steps:

  1. Sit directly in front of your subject, and conduct the interview talking directly with each other.

  2. Set the camera at eye level height, to the left or the right of the person conducting the interview, as close to the eyeline as possible. As a guide, try to keep the camera between 6” and 2’ to the left or the right of the interviewer. To achieve this more easily, you can use a telephoto lens (85mm or longer for Full Frame Cameras) shooting over the shoulder of the interviewer from behind, still 6” to 2’ from the established eyeline.

  3. Use as big and soft of a light source as possible, and place it on the opposite side of the interviewer.

If you follow this rule of thumb as the starting point of every interview lighting setup, you will always have beautiful, flattering light on your subject. From here, you can go deeper into the rest of this article to craft an image painted with light worthy of the big screen.

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Color temperature for interview lighting

When setting up your interview lighting, color temperature is a huge consideration for making sure that you capture accurate color on your subject, and that your interview lighting complements the ambient lighting of your environment. You must pay attention to both the color temperature of your light source, the color temperature of the ambient light, and the white balance on your camera in order to capture colors in the way you intend.

It may be useful to memorize the following color temperatures to be able to set your lights and camera correctly without the need to take measurements at each shoot: daylight shines at 3200 Kelvin, which means the camera must be set to 5600 Kelvin to read colors correctly. Tungsten light bulbs (the warmest of common light bulb temperatures) shine at 5600 Kelvin, which means the camera must be set to 3200 Kelvin to read it properly.

Color balance indoors

When filming indoors, it is often best to match your key light’s color temperature to the ambient light in the room, and set your camera’s white balance to the corresponding temperature to capture it accurately. For example, if the ambient light in the room is coming from warm lamps and overhead lights, use a key light that is also tungsten balanced (very warm) and set your camera’s white balance to 3200 Kelvin.

Color balance outdoors

When filming outdoors, the sun will always be the ambient light you have to work with. The sun is naturally very cool in temperature at 3200 Kelvin, and your camera’s white balance must be set to 5600 Kelvin for accurate color. If the sun is not your key light, your key light should be set to a cool temperature of 3200 Kelvin to match the sun.

One extra consideration when filming outdoors: filming in the shade. Shade is naturally even cooler temperature than sunlight, and some of the coolest light you will encounter. If it is an overcast day, the ambient light can read 2000 Kelvin or even cooler. If you are shooting in the shade without adding your own artificial light source, you will need to set your camera’s white balance to 7000 Kelvin as a starting point. You can also use a grey card for a more accurate white balance setting, especially in extreme cases like this.

If you are adding a key light on an overcast day, or while working in a shaded environment, it is best to use a daylight balanced light source (3200 Kelvin) and then set your camera’s white balance to 5600 Kelvin to read your subject’s color properly. The ambient light will naturally appear cooler, but you will notice how naturally appealing it is to see shade as cooler than your key light.

Contrasting color temperature

In some interview lighting situations indoors, there will be fluorescent bulbs creating the ambient light. Fluorescent bulbs fall somewhere in the middle reading at roughly 4000-4500 Kelvin. Fluorescent bulbs also cast a bit of a green tint, and this combination makes them very hard to work with when setting up interview lighting.

When dealing with these odd-colored lights, it is best to turn them off, then re-light the scene with your own sources. If you can’t turn the lights off for one reason or another, you can use it to your advantage to create extra color contrast by mixing color temperatures. To achieve aesthetically pleasing color contrast, always keep your subject’s light warmer than the ambient light, and set your white balance to accurately read your key light.

If you have extra time to experiment, you can intentionally mix color temperatures in your interview lighting for deeper color contrast in your image. Setting your key light to be tungsten balanced, but using a cooler daylight balanced source for your environment is a great start, and you can experiment with what looks good to you from there.

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Adding additional light sources

Once you have your key light set exactly to achieve beautiful light on your subject, and your color temperatures in camera match the temperature of your key source, you can start adding other lights to further set the scene.

Rim light

A rim light or hair light is another source of light that can help separate your subject from the background by outlining your subject on the darker side of the face, where the camera is. This separation is important for cinematic quality, and fairly easy to achieve.

A good rule to follow is to place the light behind and above your subject, on the opposite side of your key light, and make sure that you cannot see the light in frame.

Fill light

A fill light is meant to add light and expose details in the shadows of your image left by your key light. For example, if we start our interview lighting setup in a conference room and turn off the overhead lights, after adding our key light we’ve likely created shadows on the wall, and the dark side of our subject’s face is very underexposed.

For a fill light you want a large, soft source, and you’ll need to be able to dial in the brightness of that source exactly to expose your image properly. Dimmers are extremely helpful for fill lights to be able to get exactly the exposure you’re looking for to achieve the contrast you’re aiming to see.

Fill lights can simply wash over your whole scene, or you can place them to specifically fill in the background, the dark side of the face, or correct specific shadows in the image. Just be creative, and keep your color temperatures matched.


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