Karen’s Story – Part 1: Controlling Your Light

I used to think that in order to get the look I wanted, I needed to bring a lot of lighting on location, but the truth is, you don’t! If you learn how to control light you can bring a minimal amount of equipment—or none at all—and still get a look you love. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to break down a story we did recently and talk about the process we used to achieve a look we were happy with.

Take a look at Karen’s Story:

When we produce stories at Church on the Move, we do two separate shoots: an interview shoot and a B-roll shoot, which happens after the interview has been edited. In this first of three posts we’ll start by talking about how we lit our interview.

Here are our two primary camera angles for the interview:

The first thing to consider when lighting an interview is contrast. You want to create contrast between your subject and the background to draw your audience’s eyes to your subject. The key is to make the background interesting enough that it shows character behind the talent but not so distracting that it draws attention away from them.

In our case, the whole scene was lit with only two lights and the sun. When we walked into the house we immediately noticed the beautiful natural light already available. I wanted the scene to feel natural and still feel like a home, but spruced up a bit. So we took the natural light, controlled it, and added strategic light to boost the natural look already there.

Below is an overhead view of the layout. As you can see, we used only two lights but used four different pieces of fabric, plus some shades and curtains already in the house to control the natural light. It’s way more about control than about adding light.

The key light for this shoot was a Kino Flo 4Bank with daylight bulbs. It’s a great light with a small footprint and can use daylight-balanced bulbs so you don’t need gels. A basic rule of thumb is: the bigger the source of the light, the softer it is. I wanted a soft light so I put the 4Bank behind a 6’x6’ Silent Grid Cloth. This makes the source big and soft while still giving shape to the subject’s face. I wanted to mimic the light coming in from the window, but brighten her up to separate her from the the background. Below you can see exactly where the key light is hitting her face.

When setting up key light, I always look at three things on my subject.

The first is the ratio between the light and shadow on her face. Here you can see the light represented by blue lines and the shadow by orange:

I like my subjects’ faces to have a lot of shape to them, and you can create shape using shadows. You can see here (especially in the B shot) that there is quite of bit of shadow on her face, but because we used a big diffusion panel, the light is soft and doesn’t create harsh shadows.

That brings us to the second thing I look for, which is the shadows on the nose and chin. The easiest way to see the quality of light and how soft the light is is by looking at these shadows.

Here you can see the nose and chin shadows are smooth and fade naturally. If we didn’t have the big diffusion panel, the nose and chin shadow would be a lot more prevalent and crisp.

The third thing I look for is the eye reflections.

That little speckle in the eyes is our key light. This is achieved by positioning your key at the right height and distance from the subject. This is not an exact science. What I do is position the light in the general spot I want it to come from then adjust its height and position until I find the sweet spot where the eyes really come alive.

Now let’s look at what kind of control we’re using on the key light and the subject.

We put a 6’x’6 Matthbounce (with the black side toward the subject) on camera right to block some of the light from the windows on the left. Due to the trees in the backyard, we were getting some weird green bounce that made her skin tone look a little off color, and a simple piece of cloth fixed that issue right away.

The next thing we did was put up a 5’x3’ reflector to cut some of the light from the key light hitting the background. The purpose of this was to separate her from the background, create contrast, and draw your eye to her face.

Here you can see how everything was set up:

The next thing we need to look at is what’s happening in the background. We added a Kino Flo Diva 401 with daylight bulbs in the dining room. This was motivated by the natural light coming from the windows to add some bokeh reflections, and to add some interest to the background.

From the B angle the background looked good but the window in the dining room looked a little over exposed, so I added a 6’x6’ Silent Grid Cloth over the window to knock down the light and to soften and bloom out the highlights a bit. The grid cloth also added soft reflections and depth to the shot.

To Recap

The Big Idea: Controlling your light is more important than the amount of light you bring.

When setting up your key light look at three things:

  1. The ratio between light and shadow, using shadows to create shape on the face.
  2. Look at shadows on the nose and chin to get a feel for the softness of the light.
  3. Look for your key light to reflect in the eyes to get that sparkle and bring life to your subject’s eyes.

You want your background to be interesting but not distracting.

Create contrast between your subject and the background so that the audiences eyes should be drawn to the subject.

If you have any questions please feel free to add them below in the comments. We love to connect with other people doing the same thing in the church. In the next post we will talk about how we achieved a very unique perspective for our interview while not sacrificing the vulnerability of our subject.

comments powered by Disqus
Tory Cooper
cotmfilm Director
Tory came to Church on the Move in 2013 to join the NEXT Internship Program. He now serves on the creative team as the cotmfilm Director where his passion for the visual story and sharing the gospel in new and relevant ways brings every story we tell to life. He loves getting to help equip other filmmakers to use their gifts for the church. You can find him on instagram @tcooper and cotmfilm @cotm.film