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Video production can be a daunting, even arduous task. The seemingly endless amount of gear, upfront costs, a glossary full of jargon, and a sea of unknown obstacles. Well, I am here to reassure you it is not, or rather, it does not have to be. You can easily produce a high-end video right in your office, home or elevator with just your phone, planning, and some general knowledge. So for this post, we will focus less on gear and more on the ideology and setup of a specific style that is accessible to us all: the interview or talking head video. One of, if not the most, important aspects of video is lighting. You can invest your entire budget on expensive, esoteric gear with the expectation it will create something great, and at that price, hope that it’ll maybe even tie your shoes or write your blog post for you (PSA: I did not use ChatGPT for this blog post). But no amount of fancy gear is going to produce for you if you don’t know how to use it, or, even have use for 8k cinema quality video. Side note: do you know how much storage that requires? One revelation that comes to light when you invest in a cinema camera is the immense amount of storage required for the files. We’re talking troves of terabytes. Anyway, what’s more important is how you light a scene or subject, as improperly doing so will immediately become apparent and hard to watch. Lighting is what’s going to make your image standout and your audience wonder what type of camera it was filmed on… “On an iPhone SE?! No way!” (Yes, I still own an iPhone SE)

So, here’s a few quick tips on lighting and filming a subject, in this case, a person speaking on or directly to the camera:

1. Never backlight your subject

Do not place the largest light source directly behind them.

Let’s say you’ve been tasked with filming the CEO in their office and that floor to ceiling, corner window is teeming with sunlight, begging you to film in all its glory. Should you beckon the call? Absolutely. But don’t just plop them in front of it. This is where what we’ll call “spatial light awareness” and a little planning will go a long way. Place the window either to one side of or in front of your subject. This largely depends on what type of look you want and available space. For a more dramatic, contrasted look, place the light source (the window in this case) either on the left or right of the subject and film into the “shadow side”. This means if the person is looking off to the left on the screen, the dark side of the face is what we’re seeing the most, their left side. And vice versa for the right side. To get a more bright, “high key” look, which constitutes minimal shadows and a fully, soft lit subject, place the light in front  and let it flood their face. 

A backlight will create a dark silhouette on your subject making it hard to see them.

2. Positioning

 If your subject is determined to speak into the camera, as if addressing the audience directly, position them in the middle of the frame. If it’s more of an interview style, as if they’re speaking to someone off camera and we as an audience are just listening in, set them to one side of the frame with plenty of negative space in front of their eye line. (example here from our friend, Samuel L. Jackson). Now, of course, rules are meant to be broken and that means you can frame the person in the center and have their gaze just slightly off camera and not down the middle. Creative freedom, it’s yours, run wild.

Align your subject in the middle of the frame when they are speakin
directly to the camera, looking into the lens,
Offset your subject in an interview style video and have their eyes looking off camera
towards the interviewer, not directly into the lens.

3. Depth & Background Separation

Tacking onto that last bit about available space, an ideal setup allows for some space in the background and preferably something of interest that is not distracting, but also breaks it up a bit, especially if it’s just a plain wall. For example, a tall plant, some hanging art, or even a piece of antique furniture. The further away from the background the talent is, the better. We don’t want to all feel cramped in the room with you while we watch. Also, make sure there are no objects or lines from window frames, poles, etc. popping out of the person’s head. That can become…unbecoming.

Keeping an f-stop under f/3.5 will create a gentle focus fall off. For a more cinematic look, an f-stop under f/2 will create a more extreme focus fall of, pulling your subject even farther out from the background.

4. Camera Setup

Set the camera about eye level, maybe even just a little above. Too low and it’ll feel they’re looking down on us or if too high, it will seem they are looking up at us as if we’re their looming parent about to dish out some discipline.

Use the ‘golden ratio’ or ‘rule of thirds’ and align their eyes near the upper third horizontal.

5. Push record

Don’t be afraid to do these hand-held either. Small tripods are great, but with today’s phone technology, a somewhat steady hand can produce a quick video ready to publish.

Now you have some video on your phone that everyone can agree with and looks great. So, get to editing and posting. I’d give you some tips here on that process, but that is an entirely new lesson, so you will need to come back another time when ChapGPT finishes that post.

Bonus: Techniques in Action

Want to see some real world examples of everything we’ve just discussed? Check out our YouTube channel to see how we put these techniques and many more into action across all our video work.