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How to Shoot Great Looking Interviews

Searching the internet, I’ve had a tough time finding a decent article on interview lighting that goes beyond basics, so I decided to write my own guide based on my own experiences.  This guide goes beyond getting that basic “news” look and instead focuses on finding ways to create real artistry within your shots.  As my experience shooting interviews is mostly for promo videos, some of these techniques work best when used in that context. 

Step 1. Choose a Reasonably Quiet Location

The first step to setting up any interview shot is deciding on a location. Make sure the area you’re filming in is devoid of any distracting noise. Be aware of HVAC units that may turn on or off during the interview. A little noise is sometimes tolerable as long as it stays consistent. If the noise adds a necessary sense of place, it CAN work to aid your story, but the general rule of thumb is to keep it minimal and consistent throughout the interview.

Step 2. Find your Background

Once you’ve ruled-out sound issues, the next step is to find your background.  Take your camera off-tripod and scope out the area, taking snapshots of many possible setups. It helps to have an assistant with a folding chair who can act as a stand-in.  When choosing a background, there are 4 main elements I focus on: depth, framing, lighting, and color.

1. Depth:

Having depth in your shot allows you to throw your background out-of-focus, while keeping your subject in sharp focus. To create good depth, make sure you’re subject is far enough from any background elements to get the amount of background blur you want. It’s also a good time to mention that you typically want your interviewee sitting in a low-back seat that doesn’t rise over their shoulders. A high-back seat will share focus with your subject, creating unintended juxtapositions that can make your interviewee seem smaller and less significant. Stools and folding chairs work well and never use a swivel chair as subjects will unintentionally sway back and forth during the interview.

2. Framing:

How does the background “frame” your subject? I think of a background like a complex picture frame. You always want to put them in a hypothetical “picture frame” within the whole frame.  Look at the lines and boxes, highlights and shadows, that appear naturally in your background and place your subject accordingly. If there are strong vertical or horizontal lines in the shot, use them to frame your subject instead of having them go right through your subject’s head.

3. Natural Lighting:

Always gauge the natural light before you bring in any lights and modifiers.  You’ll want to look at the lighting on your subject AND your background to make sure one doesn’t overpower the other. Also take note of which direction the light is coming from, whether it’s hard light or soft light, daylight or tungsten, whether it can be turned off.  Typically, your background can start out much brighter but you can use a strong key light to balance out the exposures. Know that day light is bluer than tungsten light, which can be used to stylistic effect.

4. Colors/Textures:

Colors and textures are two elements to keep in mind to enhance your shot.  Put consideration into what your subject is wearing.  Someone wearing a black shirt in front of a dark background might create the effect of a disembodied head if not carefully lit.  Save yourself the headache and ask them to bring a couple shirt options.  Keep in mind that warmer colors (red, orange, yellow) draw more attention to the eye while colder colors (green, blue) recede optically.  Using wood or shrubbery in your background can create a calming effect.  If you’re in a very monotone environment, take an inventory of anything nearby you can use to add a little color to the background.

Step 3.  Adjust the Camera Angle

If you want the audience to connect with what you’re subject’s saying, a straight-on, eye-level angle can be incredibly sincere and persuasive. Looking up at subjects, especially women, is rarely a flattering angle, as you often lose the outline of the chin and it creates a less angular face. When interviewing, I also try to position myself as close to the camera as possible to achieve the effect that the subject is speaking directly to the viewer (but remains natural and expressive, as they’re still looking at a human face)  Notice in political ads, the opposing candidate is always looking away while the promoted candidate looks directly into the camera.

Step 4. Light the Face

Once you’ve decided on a general composition, it’s time to fine tune it with lights. Lights help shape your subject’s face and create a more dynamic background.  Three-point lighting is the most commonly used style of interview lighting and consists of the following 3 lights.

Key Light

The first light to set up is your key light, typically a large diffused light source such as a softbox or diva light. I typically place

An "artist's" rendering of my 3-point lighting setup

it about 3 to 6 feet in front of my subject, shining down on them at about a 45 degree angle. Adjust the height as needed in order to avoid shadows under the brow line.  For my basic style, I use what’s called “short lighting”, which positions the light so the shadowy side of the face is towards the camera.  Creating a large shadow on the cheek facing the camera will have a somewhat slimming effect on the face.  After you get the key light positioned to your liking, you can tweak the brightness and color of it by affixing neutral density, daylight, and/or tungsten gels in front of the light. What colors you want to use really comes down to your personal taste. I like to use tungsten-balanced light and daylight-balanced light within the same frame.  Others may want a more natural look, keeping it all daylight or all tungsten.

Fill Light

For the next step, I look at the shadow side of my subject’s face (opposite side of key light) and determine how light or dark the shadows should be. A lot of lighting guides tell people you need a light or reflector to fill in the shadows but I personally like having a lot of shadow and contrast in my lighting. In outdoor interviews where sky light completely surrounds your subject, it’s sometimes useful to put up black cloth (called duvetine) to add more shadow. On clear sunny days, you can often shoot using only light modifiers (diffusers, flags, and reflectors) rather than electrical lighting. It’s usually simpler than dealing with extension cords and outlets anyway.

Back Light

The back light is positioned behind your subject and helps separate your subject from the background by adding an outlining glow to their head and shoulders.  The most common placement is on the opposite side of the subject from the key light.

It’s not always necessary to set up 3 light sources for every subject, but it’s important to know how these lights are utilized and what effects they achieve when set up properly.

Step 5: Light the Background

To create pleasing compositions, make sure the background composition looks balanced in terms of highlights, shadows, and colors. As the eye is drawn to brighter colors, never let the highlights overpower the darker areas of the picture.  The brighter the highlight, the smaller the space it should take up on the screen. Lighting a dark background selectively with several small lights can look great.  If you have a plain background, you can throw a “splash” of light on the wall to create a sense of texture and depth. 

Light the background to help your subject stand out. Here’s a still shot of myself when I was first starting out with portrait lighting.  I spent about six hours in a small room just experimenting with different lighting effects.  This turned out to be my favorite shot so I studied it to figure out why.  I realized what made it appealing was the subtle contrasts within the frame.  I set this shot up with no back light to separate me from the background.  Instead, it’s the contrast between me and the background that creates the separation.  On the lighter side of my face, the background is darker.  On the darker side of my face, the background is lighter.

In Conclusion

Most importantly with lighting…Practice.  There are so many discoveries you’ll make as you hone your craft and create more and more lighting setups.  If you’re fairly new to interviews, I highly recommend experimenting with different setups around your home. Don’t just look for the pretty backgrounds, practice making plain or ugly backgrounds pretty by experimenting with lighting and composition. Practice using only natural daylight with light modifiers and reflectors.  If you are completely new to this, you’ll have to go through many bad-looking setups during practice until you start to develop a decent ability to light and frame shots.

Feel free to comment and ask questions in the comments section, or just send me an email! Thanks for reading!

-Trent