Let me guess, the video interviews you are filming right now are alright but not great? I bet they could look could look more better, more cinematic and overall just more professional. You’ve come to the right place!

In this article we will break down the best lighting tip, advice and ways you can improve your lighting setup for video interviews. But first the why.

Why improve the quality of your videos?

There is always a way to make things better for you and others who consume your content. Making any change requires you to follow new rules, more innovative technologies and adoption of different ways of doing things. But without them change will never happen and the quality of the content we create will become stagnant.

When it comes to creating a video in this day and age, picking up a phone camera or setting up a mirrorless camera has never been easier. The evolution of technology has also made recording video on practically any device a fraction of the cost.

The premise of recording yourself is simple, you just have to setup the camera on a tripod, hit the record button, then everything will be taken care of by the device right? Kind of, but not really. Sure recording ‘all-natural’ and set on auto can sometimes work out, but without the addition of other tools such as good sound and proper attention to lighting you are missing a huge opotunity to make your videos look that much better.

How does lighting help your video?

Lighting is sadly one of the aspects of the video-making process that most people don’t pay enough attention to when setting up a video interview. Which is really disappointing since it is the lighting that will make a video stand out more in a crowded online platform such as YouTube or Facebook.

Think about it this way, if a person has lighting issues in a video call within his organisation, other members on the video call would have a hard time seeing his expressions and find it more difficult to judge his attitude and views on a particular topic. This is especially relevant if you are interviewing a client for a client testimonial video. A well lit, professional client testimonial will always, without fail, outperform a dingy looking smartphone, client testimonial video.

Enough foreplay, let’s get to the question in hand, What is the best lighting for video interviews?

The best lighting setup for all sorts of video interviews, whether they are professional commercial ads, zoom based remote interviews, podcasts, or Hollywood documentary filmmaking is the 3 point lighting setup.

3 point lighting setup

When it comes to lighting with the 3 point lighting setup, you will need three lights (surprise surprise). Each one of the lights will play a different role to each other. This is a really important point to make so I will say it again, each of the lights will play a different role to each other. Therefore each light will have a different intensity both qualitatively and quantitatively. If each light were to serve the same role it would eliminate all shape and create a very flat un-inspiring image.

The basis of the 3 point light setup is as follows, the subject is lit mainly by soft sources of light called the ‘key light’ at a 45-degree angle from the subject. A second less intensive light called a ‘fill light’ fills in the shadows on the opposite side of the face. And a smaller, yet harder light shines onto the back of the subject called a ‘backlight’ or rim light.

The key light

Position of the key light

The key light should be the strongest, yet the softest light in the scene out of all three lights. Because it will light most of the subject’s face during the interview. That is the reason why the key light is placed right in front of the subject. It is placed around 45 degrees above and 45 degrees to the right or in some cases left of the subject.

Strength of the key light

The key light will need to give the subject the exposure they need to stand out from the background (optimally 1 stop (double) the exposure to the background, so when selecting your key light you must choose a light source that is strong enough to do this.

A Soft Key light is a good key light

When it comes to lighting your subject, soft lighting will always be more flattering for your subject. Soft lighting can be characterised by not allowing any direct light from the light source touch your subject.

The easiest way to soften or diffuse the key light is by putting the light through a somewhat transparent clothe, umbrella or professional diffusion paper called ‘216’.

Benefits of using a key light

The real benefit of having a key light is to allow the video’s audience to focus on what the interview subject is saying without the distraction of the background being lit and the subject sitting in the dark. The key light is often called the primary light point for the scene. That is why the key light is always placed right in front of the subject. So, it will only illuminate only one side of the subject, the angle of the key light can range from 15 to 70 degrees. But the most frequent angle for key light is at 45 degrees. Often times in more commercial settings a cinematographer might decide to move the angle of the light around the subject more creating a more distinct roll off of the key light across the subjects face, this can result in a more cinematic look than the traditional 3 point lighting setup goes for.

Ultimately you can place the key light wherever you want so long as it remains in front of the subject and a certain degree of angle (do not face straight on).

The Fill Light

Position of the fill light

Just as the key light provides an angled strong light to the subject, so can be said that the fill light covers the shadows on the opposite side of the subject’s face. When setting up your fill light set it at a 90 degree angle from your key light and roughly a similar height.

Strength of the fill light

When you are talking about the intensity of the fill light, it has half the power of the key light. The strength of the fill light should never over-power the key light, nor should it even out the other side of the face. The fill light should simply tamper off some of the shadows caused by the key light. Often times a reflector is used to bounce the key light as a fill light, this should provide an indication as to how low of an intensity the fill light really needs to be.

Should your fill light be soft or hard?

Because the fill light is still hitting 20-40% of the face of your subject it is important that you keep the fill light relatively soft.

Benefits of a Fill light

By now we should know that our video interviews would look very weird if we were to only have a key light for our subject. With only key light focused on the subject, there will be a lot of shadows that have to be dealt with. That’s is why having a soft fill light is more important than ever, not just to fill in the other side of your subject’s face but also to not have too much contrast across our image. Fill light generally help with creating greater depth in the shot with lighting.

A little extra note on the fill light

Some people may think that fill light has to be placed identical to the key light, but no. you have to rely on symmetry if you are shooting for a more professional, polished look. That is why a fill light carries 50% of the power of common key light. Sometimes the number sits at 75%, but it never goes beyond the impact of the key light in any way. For high-lit commercials, the number goes up instead of down for the fill light, in some cases 85% or 90% of fill light is needed to get the even look of the subject. But in cases of cinematic lighting, the number goes down to 25% to 40%. All of this is done on purpose to mimic the emotional mood of them who are being interviewed.  Each light sources serves their own purpose without interfering with another.

The back light

The Backlight also known as a ‘hair light’, ‘the kicker’ or a ‘Rim light’ is the final piece to the 3 point lighting puzzle. While the first two light sources are meant to enhance the visual feedback of the subject’s face and what they are doing. The backlight is there, to provide a soft glow on the back of the subject body, back and hair.

Position of the backlight

The backlight is placed behind the subject, yet is always paced out of the shot. Most cinematographers will place the backlight on the opposite side to the key light, however, the placement of the backlight is usually more dependant to where it can be best placed without being seen. It is important that the backlight is actually behind the subject and does not spill around their face. If you are finding it difficult to hide the backlight you can always hide it with the subject themselves, that’s right, hide the light directly behind the subject!

Strength and Intensity

Unlike the key light and fill light the backlight can be a hard light, and should match the strength of the fill light. If the backlight is too soft it will curve around the edge of the subject’s face and wreck your shot. Make sure that the light strong enough to do its job, but don’t over-do the intensity.

Benefits of using a Backlight?

I would argue that a backlight is possibly the biggest difference between an good looking video and an awesome looking video. Having some amount of backlight on your subject allows you to separate your interview subject from the background behind them. When it comes to making videos look professional, separation between subject and background is crux!

The Winning Formula

And there you have the formula!

This is it, this is the three-point video system that literally every professional uses to capture a cinematic, professional-looking video interview. All you need are 3 light sources and let’s be honest, it is really not that difficult. So for your next video give it a go because anything less would make the shot look average and your content creation deserves better!

Wait, can I use natural light?

Absolutely! But just remember the rules we have set:

  • The key light must be front on and no direct light source shining onto our subject.
  • The fill light must be 50% of the key light
  • The backlight needs to be a hard light and out of the shot.

Tips regarding using natural lighting

  • Using an open window with no direct sun coming through works well as the key light.
  • Make sure there is no overhead lighting (both sun or ceiling lights)
  • Make sure the ambient lighting of the room will not change as you are filming.

Why should you use a 3 point lighting setup for video interviews?

3 point video lighting has always been considered as the most reliable way to shoot any video involving a person talking to a camera/interview. The three light sources ensure that the subject is seen focused on in the frame and that everything helps elevate the overall quality of the video interview quality. There is a reason why professionals from corporate marketing teams to hollywood’s best trust the 3 point lighting setup and that’s because it creates a three-dimensional look in the shot. When you place all three light sources in their specific positions, at the specific intensities it doesn’t matter on the location, the depth of the shot increases. Each light souces will illuminate one dimension of the subject. As the light will help create an image with height, width, and depth in mind. That is something not achievable when you have to shoot a video without considering any lighting to make the recording better.

Intensity ratios of each light

The relationship between each light is fairly unique. The relationship that these lights share with each other is called a light intensity ratio. Normally, the key light to fill ratio is 2:1, that is the power of Key light is twice as bright and impactful as the fill light. That is why the relationship between intensity and placement can be configured depending on what you want to achieve. But if you are looking for the best lighting for your interview set up, then you need to place all the light in the right position so they can create a cinematic look for filmmaking video interviews or to make a truly polished client testimonial.

Mix it up and play around with it a little!

As I mentioned before, the key light to fill light ratio is 2:1, but it shouldn’t be always that way. Having different goals can change the number to other degrees. Let’s say you want to make a corporate video for your organization, then you can change the ratio to 1:5:1. When you are making a corporate video, you want to create an inviting image, rather than an unappealing one. Setting up the camera angle to 1:5:1 will be the right key that will help you unlock this door. If you want to use a flat image for your video without any dimensional benefits, then you could try to stick to 1:1, but personally I am not a fan of this look.

Emotionally connecting with your audience through lighting

Lighting placement changes based on the work that you are going to do. So if you are going for more of a narrative-driven film making interview video. Then you need to pay attention to three things: Source of light, angle of light, and intensity of light.

With the source of the light coming in from different angles we are able to convey different emotions from our audience. A word of caution however, covering the entire place with heaps of lights will put less value on each light and create a very flat, high-key lighting setup.