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Shoot Expertise: The Light Stuff

Figure 1: Flat lighting is used to minimize or eliminate shadows, even when the subject moves around. Left, flat lighting produced by a dual-key setup; right, a single-key setup.

The dramatic shadows created by three-point lighting have been a staple of movies and television production since their inception, and three-point lighting remains highly touted in most tutorials, articles, and books on video lighting. However, a quick survey of news sites such as ESPN and CNN, both online and on TV, confirm that most newsrooms eschewed three-point lighting in favor of flat lighting years ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, business-oriented, online-only sites such as BusinessWeek and also use flat lighting.

With two very different shoots coming up — one a physician seeking to go online with some pre- and post-procedure advice, and the other a local band wanting interviews for a promotional DVD and YouTube and MySpace videos — I had some decisions to make. What’s the best lighting technique for streaming videos: flat or three point? If flat, what’s the best technique to achieve it?

Some background

For those new to lighting, the goal of three-point lighting is to “model” the face, showing off the edges to make them more distinguishable and add character. As mentioned above, mood is another goal — an example being the mysterious tension created by hard lights with deep shadows, à la Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

As you would suspect, three-point lighting uses three lights: a key, fill, and rim (or back) light. The key light provides the primary lighting in the scene, and is typically placed about 45 degrees to the left or right from the direction the subject is facing and about 20 degrees above the subject and pointing down.

When placing the key light, you should note that the guidepost is the shadow created by the subject’s nose, sometimes called the nose caret. Slide the key light away from center until the shadow reaches, but doesn’t cross, the “smile” crease that extends from the subject’s nose to the edge of his mouth. The shadow becomes very obvious once it reaches into the cheek. Adjust the height of the light so that the shadow is slightly below the nose, but doesn’t extend into the lips or mouth.

The fill light moderates the shadow created by the key light, and is placed on the opposite side of the subject. Typically, the fill light uses about half the power of the key light or is placed farther away to simulate the same effect. Finally, the rim or backlight creates contrast between the subject and the background wall, which is critical when using either three-point or flat lighting.

In contrast to three-point lighting, the goal of flat lighting is to minimize or eliminate shadows. Most modern TV newsrooms use banks of fluorescent lights that evenly light all subjects on the set, even when they turn or move around. I’ve always produced flat lighting by essentially using two key lights, both of equal power and placed at opposite angles in front of the subject.

Figure 2: On DL.TV, producer Roger Chang uses a single fluorescent key light behind the camera, supported by fluorescent rim lighting, to create a flat effect.

Which is best?

I had my own opinions on the matter of which lighting technique to use for streaming. However, I wanted confirmation, so I contacted Roger Chang, who produces two shows for Ziff Davis Media — DL.TV with Patrick Norton and Robert Heron and Cranky Geeks with John Dvorak. Chang has a degree in broadcast journalism and has been producing online videos for about six years.

Chang made a number of interesting points. First, as you would suspect, lighting should match the mood of the show. Because DL.TV and Cranky Geeks are newsy, informational shows, not film noir, Chang uses flat lighting for both. He originally started with a three-light setup, but found that shadows would occur as the subjects moved and turned.

Chang then moved to a bank of fluorescent lights, but found the lighting too flat. Ultimately, he moved to a single fluorescent key light behind the camera, supported by fluorescent rim lighting (also called back lighting) to highlight the head and shoulders and other lights on the background. Chang recommends using soft lighting when shooting for the Web, which minimizes detail and contrast, but he also notes that fluorescent lights, while cooler, are much larger and more expensive.

When lighting promotional and other videos where shadows are appropriate, Chang cautions against too much contrast between the light and dark regions, which compression enhances and makes more severe. He also notes that three-point lighting and the associated shadows work better with higher-resolution streaming videos such as 320×240 and larger because the contrast would get lost in lower-resolution videos. (For the record, Ziff Davis publishes its shows at 640×480 resolution in multiple formats at data rates that approach 600kbps.)

Flat lighting

After speaking with Chang, I was eager to try his idea of using one key light behind the camera because this would save transporting another light on portable shoots and would guarantee absolute even lighting across the face. Rather than using the ad hoc lighting I’ve assembled over the years, we asked Lowel to supply one of its more popular lighting kits, the DV Creator 44, for our use. While hard tungsten lights power the kit, it includes a Rifa-44 soft box, an umbrella, and various gels and diffusion materials to soften the otherwise hard lights.

The first shoot was the physician’s pre- and post-procedure advice. Because this was an informational-type video, flat lighting was most appropriate. The goals of this shoot were to determine if a two-light setup could match the look and feel of the three-point setup and identify any implementation issues. Obviously, this required two setups — one with dual key lights, the other with the single key light in the back.

The Creator 44 kit includes four different lights. In my initial dual-key setup, I used the Omni-light and Rifa-lite as my two keys. I used a 500W bulb in the Omni-light, faced it away from the subject, and attached the umbrella to shine the soft light back at the physician. On the other side, I used the Rifa-lite soft box with a 250W lamp positioned much closer to the subject. Both of the other lights (Tota-light and Pro-light) were too powerful to serve as backlight in the confined space of the physician’s office, so I used a clamp light with a bulb that matched the 3200-degree-K color temperature of the Lowel lights.

In the second setup, I used the Omni-light and umbrella directly behind the camera, positioned at a 25-degree angle above the physician. The results are shown in Figure 1 on p. 16, with the dual-key setting on the left and single key on the right.

You can see that the dual-key setup yielded slightly better light to the sides of the face, and slightly less shadow under the chin, but no significant difference in modeling. Looking at the images side by side, I wish I had gone down one more f/stop on the single-key shoot to brighten the image. However, the dual-key setup wasn’t perfect either, considering the slight nose caret on the left. Otherwise, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, you probably wouldn’t know which lighting setup is which.

During the shoot, the physician said the single key was a bit harder on the eyes, but not that big a deal as long as he looked into the camera. You can see the glare on the magazines over his right shoulder, which definitely would trigger a backlighting condition if I were shooting in automatic mode. The single-key approach is definitely a non-starter if your subject wears glasses because the reflection on the glasses would be pronounced.

On the other hand, the single-key shot is shadow-free, eliminating shadows seen in the dual-key approach on the bookshelf and the small shadows from his collar. While shadows weren’t a problem in this shoot, the single-key approach would be much simpler in situations in which shadows are an issue — particularly when shooting for greenscreen in close quarters.

Figure 3: Traditional three-point lighting is used to create mood in non-newsy video. Note how the shadow from the nose doesn”t cross the “smile” crease.

Three-point lighting

As mentioned above, the interviews with local band No Speed Limit were primarily to create a DVD to send to festival promoters along with a couple of songs from a concert I shot on New Year’s Eve. The group also wanted to upload the interviews to its MySpace page, and perhaps YouTube.

I wanted the interviews to create a warm, intimate mood, which sounded ideal for three-point lighting with soft lights. Although they were also bound for web distribution, I knew that MySpace videos can be at least 480×360, which was plenty of resolution to support the contrast introduced by the facial shadows. If the group had planned to stream the videos at 320×240 or smaller, I would have advised them to consider flat lighting.

I used the same two main lights as before, but I positioned the Rifa-lite close to the subject as the key, and the Omni-light, again equipped with umbrella, about 15ft. away as the fill. Because I was shooting the interviews at the concert site, I had plenty of room to use the Pro-light, with a 250W bulb, as the rim light. You can see the result in Figure 3.


Overall, my conversation with Chang confirmed that flat lighting is appropriate for most business- and news-oriented videos, as well as smaller-resolution videos bound for web distribution. You can create flat lighting using fluorescent banks, or via the dual-key or single-key approach using soft lights — especially when you’re having a tough time eliminating shadows in the background. For studios, consider a fluorescent-based system. For portable use, a tungsten-based system such as the DV Creator 44 is ideal because the compact tungsten bulbs and light fixtures provide plenty of powerful light you can soften with a soft box, umbrella, gel, or reflector. When the mood or tone of the video is appropriate, use three-pointing lighting, although this may degrade the quality of lower-resolution videos distributed via the Web.

Jan Ozer is a writer, consultant, and video producer who lives in Galax, Va.

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