Lighting for Film & TV: 10 Tips for Making Your Subject Look Good

26 Mar

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So I’m trying something a bit different here… I’m thinking “bite-sized blogs” – I thought shorter, quicker to read blogs (interspersed amongst more substantial ones) might be enjoyable for people who want a ‘quick fix’. Let me know if you like the idea, just a thought!

So this one is short and sweet. We’ve been busy over here at Free Spirit – we’re getting a lot of interest in our courses so I’ve been a bit snowed under of late! I appreciate that it’s been a week or so since my last post so I thought I’d bash this one out to give you something to chew on while I’m working on more substantial posts.

Just a quick, cheeky note, I’ve added a donation button to the side of the blog. If you feel like these posts are helpful in any way, financial support would really be greatly appreciated and will help keep this blog going!

Ok anyway, onwards! Continuing my series on Lighting for Film & TV here are a few tips for making sure you’re giving your subject the best chance of looking great on camera (sometimes they need all the help they can get!!). If you havent already checked out part 1 and part 2 (all about the basics and 3 point lighting respectively, I’d recommend checking them out). These are more ‘tidbits’ if you will, things I’ve picked up over the years. It’s nothing too substantial, but …

10 Tips to make your subject look great:

  1. Hard, direct light is never very flattering:
    It all depends on the look you’re going for but if I want flattering lighting, I tend to use a diffuser (scrim or spun) on the Key light as well as the Fill Light.  If you do this, always make sure you still maintain that 3:1 ratio, remember the Key light always has to be stronger than the Fill. This technique is also good because with a less intense Key Light, people feel less intimidated during interviews (and it’s far more flattering, especially when lighting women).
  2. Think about your background:
    It’s not just about the person in the frame, it’s about what’s going on behind them. Obviously keep an eye out for an interesting background and, as always, be creative with your lighting. But specifically, watch out for your subject’s shadows. Try and keep the subject (interviewee) as far away from the background as possible to avoid their unsightly head/body shadow on the wall or backdrop.
  3. No space? Raise the lights!:
    If you’re filming an interview/scene in a  restricted area like a small room and can’t get the interviewee far enough away from the wall or background to get rid of their shadows, raise the lights up. This will ‘drop’ their body/head shadow down the wall and out of camera shot. Huzzah!
  4. Key Light Position:
    For interviews, I personally prefer to key from the side of the interviewer so that the interviewee is looking towards the Key light, this avoids any unsightly nose shadows etc.
  5. No spun/scrim? Bounce!:
    Another way of providing soft fill light (instead of using a fill light direct with scrim or spun) is to reflect/‘bounce’ the light off a reflector OR if you’re in a room with white walls you can bounce the fill light off the walls – it will reflect back onto the interviewee and provide a very subtle, soft Fill.
  6. Looking boring? Try some Gel:
    Try using a coloured gel on the backlight, but make sure its subtle: for interviews, something like a light straw (amber) works well and can give the persons hair a pleasant sheen, in drama you can go to town with different gels  and can make the scene very atmospheric (Avoid purples and greens… unless of course you are making a Zombie movie!)
  7. Rid your Room of Reflections:
    When filming people with spectacles, always try to find the optimum position for the Key and Fill Lights so as to not get lamps reflecting in the spectacle lenses.
  8. Get to know your subject:
    In drama, you’ll (hopefully) be able to direct your actor on how they should move in frame but for documentaries/interviews you don’t want to interrupt spontaneous moments. So, if possible it’s a good idea to sit the interviewees down before filming starts, that way you can see how they move as they are talking and fine tweak the lights accordingly (This isn’t always possible and it does depend on the nature of the interview).
  9. Powder to the People!:
    Always keep some neutral coloured make-up powder and tissues in your kit, as people tend to sweat during filmed interviews. Sweat causes unattractive highlights and glistening, giving the skin an unpleasant shiny, greasy appearance. No one wants to perspire on camera right!? So don’t be afraid to ask them if you can “just clear that up with a dab of powder“… you never know, you might discover your secret love for make-up design! (Of course it’s always preferable to have a professional Makeup Artist on hand but we sometimes don’t always have that luxury!)
  10. BOKEH baby!!:
    Finally, building on No.2, keeping the subject further off the background will allow you to ‘throw‘ the background out of focus. This will mainly be noticeable on a longer focal length lens and can create some beautiful effects. In the current world, where ‘bokeh’ is king, I think a lot of you will be enthusiastic about this one!

So there you have it, they’re quick, simple little things but they’re quite useful. Remember if you have any questions about anything don’t hesitate to contact me, I’d be happy to help! I really hope you’ve enjoyed this post, please be sure to share it with your mates (it’s free!!) – I want to try and get this info to the people who want it! Oh and please show your support by following us on facebook and twitter (it’s free!!), and if you’re interested in receiving updates and future e-books then sign up in the email form to the right.

Finally, I run Lighting and Camera Operators Courses  so click the link or get in touch, if you’re interested in coming and learning in person!

Stay creative people and see you next time!


Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.

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8 Responses to “Lighting for Film & TV: 10 Tips for Making Your Subject Look Good”

  1. TT March 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    This is so helpful for me going into production for my debut film. thanks for sharing ur knowledge with me (us) indie filmmakers.

    • freespiritfilm May 31, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

      No problem! Sorry for taking so long to get back in touch, your comment slipped through the net 😦 Means a so much to hear things like that so thanks for your support!


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