Out of the darkness and into the light!

“Hey, why does my interview look so bad?”

It’s inevitably the first question many young reporters ask when they sit down to edit a story. They’ve gone out, shot the video, nailed the interview, only to find that their subject looks dark and the image looks flat.

Yes, it’s the often forgotten component of shooting a good interview … the lighting.

Talking to someone on camera requires more than just pointing a camera at someone and hitting record. You also need to make sure we can actually see the person. A camera is not as good as a human eye – humans can see much better in the dark than a camera. So while you may be able to clearly see the person sitting next to you in a dimly lit room, your camera will not. That’s where lights come in. Know what you need for the given situation.

One-man-band reporting


Always mount a light to your camera when you are in the field.

Every reporter should be carrying a light with them, regardless of what story they’re doing. As a one-man-band, you need to get the shot and get the story. You don’t have time to lug around a big light kit, then ask the busy police officer to wait for 20 minutes while you set everything just right. So that means mounting a top light on your camera. Leave it on there while you are in the field, and when you need some light to see something a little more clearly, you can just flip it on. When it’s time for an interview, your top light will be pointing directly at your subject’s face, making it appear visible and sharp.

This interview was lit with a top light mounted on top of my camera. Without a light, your viewers are looking at a dark blob instead of an interview subject. I also chose a location with street lights to put something in the background.

“But Steven,” you’re likely saying. “What about stories during the day time? Why do I need a light then? Can’t I just use the sun?”

Excellent question! The sun is a great natural tool for lighting your interview subjects, but it’s not perfect. If you position a subject so that the sun is directly on their face, they may be well lit, but they’ll probably be squinting. Remember how your mom told you never to look directly at the sun?

Therefore, the temptation is to angle them away from the sun. Simple, right? Wrong! Just the slightest angles can cause all kinds of shadows on a person’s face.

Brian is angled away from the sun, which causes shadows over his eyes and the right side of his face.

Notice how forestry officer Brian Ballou’s entire right side of his face is in shadow. The brim of his hat is casting a shadow that blocks his eyes. His nose is casting a shadow that blocks his right cheek.

We don’t want to see shadows on a person’s face.

Using a light in addition to the sun provides you with two light sources, allowing you to light two sides of his face at once and eliminate the shadows.

In-studio interviews and live shots

To paraphrase Han Solo, good in remotes is one thing, but good in a living interview? That’s something else.

It’s going to take more than a single top light to make a formal, in-studio interview look good. So plan ahead! If you know you are going to be sitting down with someone for an interview, grab the right gear, get there early, and set it up.

Whether it’s for the president or anyone else, set up your lights ahead of time for a sit down interview.

To achieve a good look for both your subject and the background, you’re going to need several lights. For a great demonstration, I recommended checking out Lowell EDU’s Components of Interview Lighting, which not only explains the purposes and positions of various lights, but also shows step by step what each light does (my thanks to KXAN’s Rob Scott for sharing Lowell’s lighting tips).

In a nutshell, you’ll likely have:

  • The Key Light – your primary, dominant source of light.
  • The Fill Light – which helps control the shadows caused by the key light
  • A Background Light – Self explanatory. Don’t shoot interviews in front of blackness!
  • An Edge Light / Back Light / Hair Light – Sometimes you’ll use more than one. The main purpose is to give a sense of separation between the subject and the background.

Put them all together, and the result is a well-lit subject and background!

Many of those same lighting elements will also be used for a reporter live shot. Photojournalists still need to know how to light their reporter and their background so that they are clear to the viewer, even at night.

Check out this video of the components in action, and picture the subject as a reporter ready for a live shot.

Are you a photojournalist, and do you have tips on lighting interviews and live shots? Have some video examples or well-lit or poorly-lit live shots? Feel free to leave them in the comments, or email me at steven.sandberg@oregonstate.edu



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