The gene came from my mom’s side. I know this because her brother, my uncle Nick, has the same dark shadows under the eyes that I do. I don’t notice it so much when I look in the mirror, but the camera tends to amplify my raccoon-ish look when I’m on video. So the issue of lighting the face for video is one that, quite literally, hits home for me.
Years of working in broadcasting and a lifetime on and off the performance stage taught me how important lighting is to the visual experience of the audience. Unfortunately for the performers, it also means that the lights shine right in their eyes. Proper lighting for the camera’s lens is a tradeoff between looking good and being partially blinded. To be honest, when your face is properly lit for video it’s likely to feel a little uncomfortable until you get used to it.
Since video production now happens anywhere – wherever there’s a webcam or smart phone – the “inconvenience of looking good” pops up. If you get nothing else out of this article, get this: Start paying attention to shadow and light, especially when the camera is on. It’s important for the people on both sides of the camera.
“Wait! What? Dude wants me to pay attention to shadow and light all the time and everywhere?”
Yes. Yes I do. Trust me – it will make you a better person and people will just want to be around you for reasons they don’t understand.
To get you started on this journey of shadow, light and video, I have three concepts to share:
- Lighting usually comes down from above.
Light fixtures are attached to the ceiling more than anywhere else, resulting in shiny heads for those of us whose heads are cue ball-ish (you know who you are) and shadows across our eyes (and if you’re already a raccoon like me, this gets accentuated).
- Lighting up your face is easy.
A table lamp or floor lamp placed in front of you is often the easiest way to get light on your face. LED lights are good, too, and are inexpensive and ubiquitous.
- Soft, diffused lighting solves a lot of issues.
Shadows happen when there is a “single-point light source” that illuminates a subject. Think about your own shadow outside on a sunny day. The sun is a single-point light source and your shadow is very noticeable and has sharp edges. Compare that to a cloudy day. The sun lights the clouds from above making every point on the bottom of the cloud a little light source. Now you have millions of tiny, less intense light points illuminating you and your shadow is gone.
Lighting in office environments run the full gamut from direct & shadow-causing to diffuse and shadow-eliminating. Conference rooms designed for videoconferencing use diffuse light specifically to eliminate shadows. Lighting in work areas often use the same because it’s easier on the eyes.
I do a lot of video calls from my office, so I’m going to use it as an example.
Here is a shot of the fluorescent lighting above me – probably one of the most common kinds of office light fixtures.
The shiny grating helps to create a multi-point light source but it’s not as diffuse as I need for video. Here’s what I look like with just those lights on:
Here are two different lights that I use to illuminate my face. The easiest one is my table lamp. I usually take the blue shade off to expose the curly, compact fluorescent bulb in order to get more light on my face.
Using the lamp without the shade is a trade-off. A more diffused light would be better, but since the light is directly in front of my face it doesn’t create any shadows that the camera sees.
To contrast, here is an inexpensive LED light designed to mount on a tripod or camera.
This works really well and also has a dimmer built into it, so that I can make the light only as bright as it needs to be to make me look good.
There is one other source of light that is often overlooked and which can help out in a pinch: Your computer screen. Try this: Open a blank document in a word processing app and maximize it to fill your screen. The whiteness of the app (unless you’ve changed the default color scheme) will light up your face if it’s close enough. Even though this light casts a blueish light, it’s still better than nothing.
So before you fire up that video call, take a few moments to evaluate the shadow and light where you are. The folks on the other end of the call will come away from the experience thinking, “I wish that I looked that good!”