Polishing the Talking Head Interview

If an audience is going to stare at a face for a long period of time, it had better be worth staring at.

I’m constantly experimenting with common lighting setups and trying to make them better. There is no more common lighting setup than that of the talking head interview. Here are a couple of tricks I tried the other day that seem to work quite well.


In my work I’ve seen trends moving away from backlights, scratches and edges. Most of my clients and directors don’t want them. I’m okay with this. Often they are unnecessary, as their original purpose—which was to separate people from backgrounds when photographed on black and white film—is no longer a concern. (A person with brown hair will disappear into a red wall in a grayscale image, whereas this is less likely to happen in color.)

The traditional cheek scratch can be quite beautiful if done properly, but unfortunately the recipe varies based on the shape of a person’s face, the size of their ears, and the color of their hair. I’ve found myself having to tweak cheek scratches for each subject who sits in front of my camera, and this is generally not a good thing as interviews are often scheduled with very little time in between.

These days I focus on the one light I know I’m always going to use: the key light.

Long ago I learned not to use a small source when shooting interviews as their sharp shadows are unforgiving, requiring the light to be precisely set for every face. A side angle that works well for a person with a round face and small nose will not work for someone who has deep eyes and a long nose, but I am rarely afforded the time to make these adjustments. Recently, for example, I shot a project consisting of eight sit-down interviews spaced about ten minutes apart. There was little time for tweaking.

One method that I used for quite a long time involved a 4’x4′ frame of diffusion set close to the subject, often no more than 2-4′ away. I had noticed that the size of the source, in relation to its distance from the face, worked well in a 1:1 relationship, and I’ve followed that rule ever since, both consciously and unconsciously. For example, yesterday’s shoot employed a 6’x6′ source placed 6′ from the interview subject, although I didn’t realize I’d done this until after the shoot.

There are several reasons why I like to use large sources when lighting faces:

  1. Softness. Soft light works on everyone. It reaches into eyes and washes away imperfections. Most imperfections are revealed by their cast shadows. Eliminating or softening these shadows makes imperfections disappear. Facial features are enhanced by their shadows, so soft shadows underplay facial features that might be distracting.
  2. Specular highlights. A large source reflects in healthy, shiny skin and creates a subtle yet beautiful highlight. This is most obvious in dark skin, but it has a noticeable effect on light skin as well.

In the distant past I placed my sources high in the air, as the last thing I wanted to see was a horizontal nose shadow. Even though these are quite common in real life, nothing says “lit” faster to me than a sharp nose shadow that falls horizontally across the face. It feels sloppy and wrong to me. I’ve eased up on this perspective in recent years, but for my own work I avoid this whenever possible. Classic portraiture lighting sees the key light above and to the side of the subject, such that the nose shadow falls along the “smile line,” the invisible line drawn between the corner of the nose and the corner of the mouth. Placing a soft light higher than the subject’s head pushes facial modeling in a similar direction.

I also like to light with soft sources from below the lens. Light bounces off all the surfaces in a room, and this is most obvious in a set that has no ceiling: hair becomes unnaturally shadowed at the top of the head, and something feels wrong or off. It’s common to hang a dim light source or white reflective material over the top of a set to reintroduce the subtle highlights produced by a white ceiling. Light bouncing off the ground is less obvious when it’s missing, but when added it almost never feels wrong. In fact, when I’m at a loss as to how to light a bland room in an interesting way, I’ll almost always bounce a light off the floor or other flat surface, such as a tabletop.

(I’ve often wondered why ceilings are almost always painted white. As best I can tell, colored ceilings will dramatically shift the hue of ambient light in a room, while a neutral white ceiling ensures there is always some measure of white ambience such that walls appear, say, blue, but people within the room do not.)

For a long time I focused on using horizontal light sources, as they preserve chin shadows (often useful to hide a chin imperfection that one of my DITs referred to as “the gobbler”) while softening nose shadows. The sharper the nose shadow the more precisely it must be placed, while soft light is much faster to work with as it is very forgiving. Later, though, I experimented with vertical light sources: while those enhanced nose shadows, they also felt more “ambient” as the lack of a chin shadow made the direction of the light less obvious. It also felt more “ambient” as most soft ambient light comes from the side and below, so it does not cast a chin shadow.

Over time I’ve come to combine these lighting techniques. I’ll use a large soft sidelight that’s a little higher than eye level, in conjunction with bounced soft light below the lens that wraps the light around the front of the face. The combined look is that of window light from the side combined with ambient sunlight bouncing off the floor.

Here’s producer Courtney Harrell sitting in as a lighting reference:

The light is clearly coming from the side, but it also wraps around the face from below. The look is very much what you’d see if Courtney were sitting next to a window with sunlight streaming in, where she’d be lit both from the side and from below with a bit of shadow on the side of her face opposite the window. There’s no hard nose or chin shadow here, but the light has a definite direction. (This image was captured using my iPhone and a Sony A170 OLED monitor.)
This is a 6’x6′ book light. They don’t get much softer than this. An Arri M18 HMI bounces light off a 6’x6′ Ultra Bounce and radiates forward through a 6’x6′ Magic Cloth diffuser whose top is tied to the Ultra Bounce frame. This big soft source creates most of the look, but the 4’x8′ piece of foam core at the bottom is the finishing touch.
The foam core bounce creates the feeling of ambient “floor bounce” that wraps around the underside of the face and softens chin and nose shadows. (The sheet of 4’x4′ bead board on the far side of the light acts only to prevent light spilling out the side of the book light.)

This is the kind of lighting setup that works for everyone. It’s handy when there’s no time to tweak between interviews, and/or you don’t know what the subjects will look like.

I’ll often overexpose skin by 1/2 stop to give it a bit of a glow. This works on cameras that don’t distort or easily clip bright skin tones, such as the Arri Alexa and Amira, RED One Dragon/Weapon, and the Sony F55/F5/FS7 cameras (in Cine-EI mode). I used to overexpose flesh tones by up to one full stop, but while this looked great on the on-set monitor the final product often looked less flattering when compressed to 8-bit color for broadcast or web distribution. This eliminated much of the subtle tone and hue detail on the bright side of the face.


Backgrounds can be a pain. They’re always present, and commercial and corporate clients often want them to sing, but many locations tend to not photograph well. The latest trend is to use lens flares and highlights to bring otherwise dull backgrounds to life, so I did my best to do exactly that in this 19th floor office location.

The camera was to move constantly back and forth on a 4′ slider, so I devised two tricks: one for intermittent flares and one for sparkles.

I knew I wanted to hide flare-causing items within the shot, so I ordered some old Zeiss Super Speeds (for their flare-ability) and set them to somewhere between T1.3 and T2, depending on the subject’s skin tone. This threw the background out of focus enough that I could hide some 1’x1′ mirrors in the background:

I had my grip cover them with black tape, leaving only a 1″ slit in the middle. We then propped them up in the background, where they appeared to be nondescript black squares, or tall thin shapes that resembled some sort of textured glass vase. We lit the background with JoLekos (Joker HMIs through Source 4 barrels) projected through some office plants that we found nearby, so we placed the mirrors to catch some of that light and aim it toward the camera at specific points in the camera move.

I had one mirror aimed into the lens for the left end of the slider; another for the right; and one just off center. I made sure that I had enough room at the end of the slider move to get out of the flare, so I didn’t sit on it for too long when I had to change camera direction, and we made the slit narrow enough that the flare came and went fairly quickly across a camera move of about 4-6″. I wanted a two second flare that came and went quickly, adding interest but not upstaging the interviewee.

The couch in the foreground is soft, so focus is farther back than when we rolled. The final background was softer.

It occurred to me that some shiny round sparkles might add a bit more interest. I asked Courtney to send a PA to the nearest hardware store and buy some cheap 2″ round convex mirrors, which we then ran across the background wherever they could catch some of our fake dappled sunlight. The result was a series of tiny sparkly hits that drifted slowly through the frame during the camera move.

Unlike flat mirrors that have to be precisely aimed, convex mirrors will reflect any light in front of it across a wide angle of arc. If the camera saw the mirror, and the mirror saw the light, the camera would always see the light reflected in the mirror.

Our primary camera lenses were 50mm, 85mm and 135mm primes, and the background was 20-25′ away. My lighting gags were easily hidden within the frame thanks to the out-of-focus background, and an otherwise dull office break area came to life in a manner that was complimentary to people sitting on a couch and talking about themselves for 45 minutes at a stretch.

It’s always a challenge to make such things look interesting. While the subject matter may be riveting, it’s best to hedge one’s bets in case it isn’t. Backstopping the narrative with a pretty picture never hurts. And pretty pictures on their own help sell the narrative, as a well-wrapped package always enhances whatever is inside of it.

These convex mirrors are now a part of my regular kit. I look forward to placing them in backgrounds whenever I see the opportunity to create an out-of-focus sparkle. You should buy some for yourself sooner than later as they currently cost only $2 each. Once they catch on I’m sure they’ll be available at your nearest expendable supply store for $25 or more.

Art Adams
Director of Photography

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Art Adams - Director of Photography

Cinematographer Art Adams shoots spots, visual effects, web/interactive/mobile and high-end marketing projects. His website is at http://www.artadamsdp.com.

Art has been published in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer and Camera Operator Magazine He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild, a past member of the Society of Camera Operators (SOC), and an industry consultant and educator. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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26 Comments on "Polishing the Talking Head Interview"

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Michael Taylor
Michael Taylor
Well, it’s hard to beat the Rembrandt Triangle… but yeah, big soft sources work really well — and I really like your inspiration on the background sparkles. Smart. PBS ran a series on the history of television a few years back, and whoever shot the show came up with a terrific lighting setup for the talking head sequences — he-or-she utilized a harsh skid light on one or both sides of the face, emphasizing the angularity of each person. The key was softer, of course, and I don’t recall much fill at all. I’d never seen anything like it. This… Read more »
Art Adams
It sounds like what you’re describing is a hard scratch with a bounce-back fill. If so, I love that look. I almost never get to use it. 🙂 It feels like we were much more comfortable blowing out scratches and windows and whatever on film, but on video there’s a hesitation: “But we’re clipping!” That never mattered in film, but it’s hard wired into the video psyche—maybe because video clipping looked so awful for such a long time, or because we can see the loss of detail on a waveform, or because we can recover so much in a grade… Read more »
Steve Hullfish
Steve Hullfish

I’d be interested in seeing an article describing the above set-up. I’m big on seeing the *shape* of the face – the modeling… I’m always requesting a little “greaser” or back edge/side light to give some shape to the jawline.

Art Adams
I’m very big on facial lighting, and I used to sculpt them very carefully when I could. These days my work is more naturalistic and simpler, but there are times when I like to carve people out of the background. I’ve written a few articles on this, but it seems that the links to graphics and videos on the older articles were broken during one of our backend transitions. I hope they’re all fixed soon. What’s described above is basically a hard three quarter backlight with a bounce card in front lighting the face. It works best with the bounce… Read more »
Brian D. Hallett
Brian D. Hallett

Loved reading this Art. Great tips.

Art Adams

Thanks, Brian! Much appreciated.

Great tips Art, excellent writing as always. Question, I’ve run across a very few people with very deep eyes, making their nose bridge very strong and causing a little cave of shadow near their eye on one side or the other, whichever side the key isn’t favoring. This only happens when the subject is looking straight into camera, as a slight look right or left and the “eye shadow” disappears. We lit one subject with a 12×12′ backlight at 10 feet away, which should have been adequately soft, but we still had a heck of a time with that nose… Read more »
Art Adams

Low soft fill works well. Also, filling from the key side but from as close to the lens as possible also helps. That shadow typically occurs when the fill doesn’t reach into that one little cranny that the key doesn’t reach into either. Key-side fill will often do the job without creating a contrasting shadow, and light from below the lens will always get into the eyes.


right on, thanks for the tips! appreciated

Steve Hullfish
Steve Hullfish

Awesome. Loved this… the little convex mirrors thing is a great idea.

Art Adams
I’ve been trying to find ways to use those for a long time, either as ways to light large spaces, or as interesting bounce sources… it finally occurred to me that if I just put them in the shot they’d work the opposite of directional mirror hits and give me constant glows, without having to worry about aiming them precisely. There are probably other ways to use them. Maybe put a large one in the back of a set and hit it with a Source 4 for a broad, hard backlight… hmmm, this may be worth trying. Maybe put it… Read more »
Oren Arieli
Oren Arieli

I always look forward to your interview lighting articles, Art. Each one is a wealth of information and a challenge to try something new. Thanks for sharing.

Art Adams

Thank you, sir. 🙂

Sergio Montiel
Art, priceless article as per usual man! Your work is super inspiring to look at always when I’m pulling references and your explanations of not just the technique but also the thinking behind it is such an invaluable resource. I got a challenge here. I wanna pull this setup off for a fashion spec down in Latin America but M18s or even M8s (they don’t have my preferred HMI Joker 16) are crazy expensive in Paraguay. I got a couple of Source Four PARs but I’ve never attempted to use them for booklights before, I usually use these for the… Read more »
Art Adams
The trick with book lights is you typically need a lot of light, as you’re bouncing them and then pushing them through thick diffusion to get a perfectly even light source. There are a couple of ways to get this look otherwise: (1) Don’t bounce the lights, but push them through thick diffusion like Lee 129 or 1000H tracing paper. That’s basically the same look. (2) Bounce the lights, but try to angle the bounce such that the lights illuminate the surface as evenly as possible. Often it’s easier to put the lights at such an angle that the card… Read more »
Patrick Smith
Patrick Smith

Hey Art, another fine article (and timely, as I have just returned from lighting a talking head interview this morning…).

Mostly though, it was quite an unexpected surprise to see Courtney’s face in the article – she worked as my 2nd AC on a number of jobs! If you should see her again any time soon, “Patrick says ‘hey’!”


Art Adams

Will do! We’ve talked about her years as a camera assistant. She’s got some great stories. I will definitely let her know. She’s an awesome producer, great fun to work with and very, very good.

Jim Nihart
Jim Nihart

Really nice article on a good technique for lighting across a wide variety of subjects. I do a ton of corporate and non-profit interviews and use this sort of thing a lot. The book light is indeed difficult to accomplish unless you can bring along a ton of light.
It would be great to see a short clip of the final technique in action. The shiny bits are a fun idea to introduce some interest in the background.

Art Adams
I’ll have to see if I can get a copy. It’s a talking-head project and I don’t generally pursue those, and this one might be for internal use only, but I’ll keep track of it and see where it lands. A book light isn’t necessary to do this. Thick diffusion like Lee 129 or 1000H tracing paper work fine as well. Grid cloth does okay, although it’s not quite as dense as those two and lets a little specular light through. The trick is then getting it to wrap under the chin. This technique works well because, as long as… Read more »
Scott Auerbach
Scott Auerbach
Hey Art As always, excellent points. A tool I’ve developed for the high-speed, small-crew, light-footprint corporate jobs I do often is this: 4×8′ black/white claycoat panels attached to 1″ PVC plumbing pipe as a core. They roll up into incredibly small, light packages that can be deployed quickly, and you simply slide one onto a grip arm, unroll as much as you want, then clamp it off. The white surface of claycoat is ultra-matte, and I find it to be as soft as a book light, while taking up less space and requiring 2-3 stops less firepower. As needed, the… Read more »
Art Adams

I like this idea! Where do you buy the claycoat material? Any special source, or just the usual places? I’m a big claycoat fan.

The light side/dark side trick is a good one as well. In my low budget corporate days I used to carry four black/white pieces of 4×4 foam core folded into 2x4s. They were easy to transport and I could use them as bounce sources or flags.

I’m wary of using one instrument to do so many things, but impressed that you can pull it off. That’s pretty cool.

Scott Auerbach
Scott Auerbach
Oh, I’ll admit, I can rarely get away with just one, and I usually edge separately, just because it’s easier to control (and to set the proper height relationship to the side of the face). But sometimes, when faced with certain space limitations in front of the camera (or to the side of talent) and adequate space behind, I can make one do it all. But it’s always as a compromise. I used folded foamcore for years, but they’re bulky, especially on corporate jobs where I may be rolling through several locations in one day. I got the claycoat through… Read more »
Jim Cullen
Jim Cullen

Thanks Art

Art Adams

You’re most welcome. 🙂

Eric Peltier
Eric Peltier

Great article Art,
Always love your creativity and tricks to turn the boring looking into beautiful.
Hope to work with you again soon.

Art Adams

ERIC! The pleasure would be mine! We do good stuff together. Let’s make it happen!

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