Components of Interview Lighting

In the course of developing skills in the craft of lighting, this lesson may be among the most important. The concepts covered here will reappear in many other lighting setups. Sometimes they are there on a subtle level, but they are almost always there.

As you go thru the different lessons, pay attention to how often these concepts reappear. The more you understand them, both individually and in the way they work together to create an effective image, the easier it will be for you to adapt them as needed in a variety of situations. They will also help you to create your own distinctive lighting style.

Using this interactive player, you can turn on each light in the setup individually to see its effect. You can also view the entire setup to see placement & choice of fixtures. These 4 lights: Key, Fill, Hair, & Edge, form the basics of a well lit portrait. Familiarize yourself with each light and its effect on the whole picture.

Key Light defined: The primary or dominant source of light in a shot. It often suggests an out of frame source. Choice of fixture (hard or soft) and its position will help set the mood of the shot.

Soft Key Light

In the setup shown in the viewer, the Key light is a very soft Rifa 88 fitted with a 1000-watt bulb and a soft Egg Crate to control its spill.

Look at the cheek closest to the camera. Notice the effect; the shadow line running down the cheek. Begin to notice how often you see this in movies, television, and photographs. It's everywhere isn't it?

**Hard Key Light**
This is an example of a hard Key light, instead of soft. We are using a 250-watt Pro-light. Notice the difference? The transition between the light and dark areas is more dramatic. If you move the key light until you see a light triangular patch under the near eye, you've achieved what is referred to as Rembrandt lighting.

Rembrandt actually experimented with having the main light coming from many directions but this is the look that stuck to his name. You may notice that both soft and hard key lights are approaching the face from the far side of the face, from the camera. What is referred to as the short side.

While it doesn't always have to be so, it is very common and a safe place to start. It might be so popular because it has a slimming effect on the face.


Key Light Techniques

Bad nose shadow Reduced nose shadow Hatchet lighting

When you practice placing the Key light on your subject, keep an eye on the shadow it creates from the nose.

The nose shadow is easier to see if you use a hard light but blends more attractively when you a larger soft source. As a start, find the angle and height for your Key light that places that shadow along the crease between the nose and the corner of the mouth.

Now try placing your light so the nose shadow is nearly gone. This will happen when your light is anywhere from directly in front of the subject, assuming they are facing slightly away from the lens, to directly over the camera. You will start to lose the shadow line on the cheek as you come around but the effect may be what you want.

Bringing the Key light 'face-on' is effective for lightening the shadows from wrinkles. Used with makeup it is even more effective. While this position tends to allow light to spill onto the background it is usually more important to have the subject look good. If possible you could move the subject and lights further away from the back wall to allow the spill to fall off. This position is very flat light so you need to balance the needs of filling wrinkles or a slimming effect.

Another look is what is sometimes called Hatchet lighting. Here the shadow line runs right down the center of the face. It can be a dramatic effect when paired with little or no fill lighting or some edge lights. You may also have to adjust the height of the key light to better fill deep set eyes. A larger softer light will be able to do this without causing the nose shadow to become distracting.

Simple Light Setups

Single light (Omni-light 500 W) with umbrella, positioned to function as Key light, with enough softness to also act as Fill light

Sometimes when power or time limitations are factors, one light will do the work of both Key and Fill. A second small light from behind to add a little shine to the hair adds a finishing touch. Experiment by adjusting the distance between the light and your subject to achieve the balance between your key light and the ambient light.

In this example a 500-watt Omni-light with a nylon umbrella worked well for the single Key / Fill light and a 125-watt L-light is providing the shine on the hair and shoulders. Don't forget to make the necessary changes in the height of your stand and possibly an exposure change to your camera as you adjust position of the lights. Perhaps your situation calls for a more or less powerful bulb or a different fixture. Get the feel of working with a small hard source (you can really see where those shadows are) and then perhaps add an umbrella and see that by increasing the relative size of the light source you increase its softness.

Fill Light

Fill light defined: Fill is used to lighten shadows and control contrast ratios (the ratio of amount of Key to Fill light). Combined with the Key light, Fill light helps define the mood by lighting the shaded areas in a range of intensities. It can vary from none, to a level equaling the Key light.

After setting the Key light, you may find that the darker side of the face is too dark for your tastes. There are several methods for adding Fill light to reduce the shadows. In the setup shown in the viewer at the beginning of this lesson, we have chosen a Rifa 44 soft light, with a 250-watt bulb, with a soft Egg Crate to control the spill. This doesn't just apply to lighting faces. Anytime you are treating the side left shaded by the Key light you are working on the Fill.

The amount of Fill that is added depends on your taste (or the preference of the person who hired you). Keep in mind the 'look' you are attempting; especially if you are shooting something that is dramatic. Generally you can most easily alter the mood of a shot by raising and lowering the intensity of the Fill. In fact on some soap operas the main difference in lighting between a daytime interior scene and a night setting is they drop the Fill almost all together and light the background a darker than normal.

Fill Light Techniques

More commonly, you may begin to consider light placement positions near the camera to hide the shadows behind the subject or more off to the opposite side from the Key light. When the Fill is directly over the camera it adds to the Key light's exposure so consider adjusting for it. The near-the-camera position can be considered when you want to both fill shadows and still maintain a little modeling on the subject. You will most often need a less intense light for the Fill side.

As with the Key light you could adjust the distance to lessen the intensity as well as by adding scrims or neutral density gels to the light. While it could be most any kind of light, a Fill light is usually a soft source so using an umbrella or a softbox is common. Images A & B to the right show differing levels of Fill light. Notice how image A looks more fully lit, while still maintaining the Key as the dominant light source, and the reduced Fill in image B increases its dramatic effect. Probably the only wrong way to do Fill is if it adds another set of visible shadows; visible to the camera that is (you only need to worry about what's in your frame).

A) Lower ratio of Key to Fill light B) Higher ratio of Key to Fill light

Reflected Fill Light


Another method of providing Fill is by bouncing the Key light off of a reflector. A specular reflector (the shiny hard side) will kick back nearly as much light as the Key light shining on it, in the same degree of hardness that strikes it.

In the example shown, the soft Key light is being reflected. A stippled reflector surface will soften the reflected light more and give less chance of secondary shadows.

Using a matte white card will provide a very soft reflected fill at close range. You may have natural fill already happening from light colored walls reflecting back to the subject. Indeed you might even plan such a situation.

Note: In highly reflective rooms, if your lighting is too flat, you might consider a technique called negative fill. This is often done by hanging a dark cloth or piece of black foamcore on the fill side to prevent stray light from providing too much fill. Experiment with different amounts of fill and see if you can manipulate the effect to change the feel of the lighting.

Hair Light
Hair light defined: A light from behind the subject, often weaker than the Key or Fill, aimed at the head & shoulders. It may also called a backlight. It creates a sense of separation between subject and background, and adds highlights & shine to hair, and is often widened to include a subject's shoulders. Working with Hair light gets trickier with receding hairlines, and may be done without in that situation.

Hair Light Techniques

Along with the amount of Fill light you use, you can continue to add finesse to the lighting to reveal the subjects form by using light from angles beyond what you use for the Fill. Both Hair lights and Edge lights fall into this category.

Traditionally Hair lights are placed directly opposite the camera. It creates highlights and gives a nice shine to the hair. Small hard lights will make small hard lines and edges, which are appropriate if you are implying the motivation for the light is a hard source. Larger sources provide an even, gentle wash.

In the nineteen seventies the extreme backlight was the rage. Find a glamour photo from the era and it will likely have a strong back light blasting directly at the back of the head causing the lion's mane hair style in fashion at the time to glow. If this is what you're after, just try to keep the light far enough back so it doesn't start your subject's hair on fire.

If you are dealing with thinning hair or bald heads, you probably already have enough separation from the background; either because of the contrast or color differences, and only want to play with adding a subtle edge to the side of the head and neck. You may just need an edge on the shoulders of a dark garment that is blending into the background. See the Edge Light description below for more information. For shiny heads you could have separate lights for each shoulder or put up a traditional hair light and block, or flag, the part of the light falling on the head.

Since all backlights are aimed in the direction of the camera be careful to keep any light from shining into the front of the lens, causing lens flare. Wave your hand in front of the light and see if a shadow falls on the camera. With the advent of modern cameras there is less need for the really heavy use of hair light unless it is to appear as motivated or logical in the scene. Watch for programs done in film or HD and notice how natural these highlights are compared to older video programming.

Edge Light

Edge light defined: A light from behind the subject, often weaker than the Key or Fill, is placed to create an edge of definition between subject and background. Similar in practice to Hair light, it is also a form of backlight normally used to define one dark object from another, for example a dark jacket from a similarly dark background.

Edge Light Techniques

Edge lights create subtle defining 'edges', and line-like highlights, which can be added to your setup to delineate the edge of your subject. You may hear them referred to as kickers, liners or edge lights.

If your subject's dark hair or jacket seems to blend into a similarly dark background you can add an 'edge' to visibly separate, or cut them away, from the background. You provide a clue to the viewer where the subject leaves off and the background begins. If you have decided to use little or no fill an edge of some sort can enhance the dramatic effect.

To experiment with these effects start with small fixtures and keep an eye on the shadow from the subjects ear. It is popular to have a light edge along the jaw line. Try hard sources at different distances and angles. Try using a small light with an umbrella or with a diffusion gel.

Edge lights are also aimed in the direction of the camera, so be careful to keep any light from shining into the front of the lens, causing lens flare. Wave your hand in front of the light and see if a shadow falls on the camera.

Background Light

Background Light defined: Used for lighting the background of a set, as a whole or specific areas. Or for lighting objects in the background of the set that are significant to the image. It also contributes to creating separation between subject and background. Often the function of the light is fulfilled by more than one fixture at a time. It is possible to use multiple background lights.

Background Light Techniques

How you deal with backgrounds depends on whether it is part of the story or just a neutral setting for your subject. Either way you may notice the background level is usually down, or less bright than the subject. However it is not unusual to highlight something in the background for interest. A plant or dim lamp is a common set dressing.

For the setup used in the Viewer above, we created a mottled shadow pattern on the background by shining a hard light through a cookaloris (a random pattern cut into wood, foamcore, or black foil). It was lit by a 250W focusable Pro-light, a hard source. If you look at the Setup shot in the Viewer, you will see the cookaloris, tho' the Pro is hidden from view by the Rifa Key light.

By the time you've put up your Key, Fill, Hair and Edge lights you might have light bouncing off the walls and ceiling lighting up the background too much. You can try turning off any room lights, or by adding distance between the subject and the background. In combination with these is the ability to control the lights you've placed in the setting. Since large broad sources tend to spill on the background consider using an Egg Crate on any softlights you use. Other lights should all have barndoors to direct light only where it's wanted. You can finesse more by specifically flagging spilled light from where you don't want it.

Background Light Options

Slash Accent
It is also common to 'treat' the background using a slash of light made by putting two barndoors close together on a hard light source.

The image to the left shows a slash created by a focusable Omni-light. Focusing the light to flood will give a larger and more consistent output level to the slash.

You can mix the slash with general background fill, making it less prominent, or use the slash accent alone in a darker background to increase its effect. Coloring the slash with a gel is also a common approach.

Highlight Accent
A more practical approach to adding visual interest to the background would be to add a highlight to an object in the setting.

In this shot, we used a tiny L-light with 100 Watt lamp directed to place a small pool of light on the flowers and the picture frame. The hard light character of the lamp created a sharp shadow.

The result looks like it have could come from track lighting or a recessed ceiling light, adding to the natural feel of the effect.

Color Background
A popular technique in news magazine format TV over the past 10 years has been to give the background a more obviously treated / theatrical effect. It provides a contrast of color and feel between the environment and the subject.

In this shot, we added red gel to an Omni-light, focused wide enough to cover the background area of the shot.

Use barn doors on the fixture to trim any spill that may fall on the subject, as its color will make it very noticeable.

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