Shoot it better: Simple lighting and composition for web videos.

Whether you shoot a thirty second web video or a feature presentation, your audience is continuously judging and categorizing what they see. For a video to be effective, the audience needs to project themselves into the world you are presenting, so they can become genuinely motivated by your message. A well crafted video will temporarily suspend their own beliefs, and allow them to see the human interest and truth in your message.

You don’t need to be a cinematographer in order to create videos that support simple verbal messages you are trying to communicate. You just need to avoid sending the wrong signals. Many of my clients need to quickly generate web videos for their audience. They want to communicate a positive message. There are a few simple things you can do to make your videos congruent with your message. 


You would do well to pick up one fluorescent CFL soft box with a 7 foot stand. One that looks like this on the inside (it might have more or less bulbs).

Why a softbox? It’s like having a portable window on a stick. The light wraps around you and becomes flattering. The larger the softbox, the better the quality of light. The more light it puts out, the less you will be reliant on your camera’s low light capabilities (many cameras suck in this regard, and will get grainy and noisy really quick). So you get better image quality, and more flattering light with a single, large powerful softbox. You can also get halogen/tungsten lights if you like to sweat on camera and burn yourself. 

So what to do with the softbox? Take the light stand by the hand,  hold it out in front of you at arms length at 45 degree angle, and put it down. Thats your starting point. It might be fine right there. You may have to move it a bit further away, or a bit closer.  

This is what the light looks like when place roughly at 45 degree's in front of you at a little over arms length:

45 degrees, arms length away.

The more you move it to the side (90 degrees towards your ear and side of your face), the more dramatic the light gets. This is what that look like:

90 degrees, side lit.

looking dramatic at 90 degrees.

The more the light is facing you straight on, the less dramatic it gets. You need a boom arm to really do this right. But with a large softbox, you can face it straight on, just outside of frame and get a similar look.

light facing subject, and will be out of frame when you zoom in or pick the right focal length.

when the light faces the subject, you have more even lighting on the face, with the least dramatic look.

Note that any of these lighting choices could be fine, depending on what you want to project. Also, you want the light higher than you think. If it’s going to cast a shadow anywhere, the shadow should be under your chin. Typically with these large softboxes (bigger than 20x28), it's more of a problem if the light is too low. The neck is too bright, and there is an ominous glow coming from beneath the eyes. You know, like sticking a flashlight underneath your face making scary faces. Not-a-good-look.


you can see the reflection of the light in the eyes at about 10 o'clock.

Take a look at the portrait above. Disney figured out a long time ago that sympathetic characters have large, well lit eyes (e.g. Wall-e, Gizmo, Gollum). Dark, smaller eyes are typically reserved for evil characters, or those that aren't to be trusted. If you create videos and your eyes are the darkest thing in the picture, your verbal message will have to be that much more compelling to overcome the overlying visual message you're projecting.  So you need to make sure you have specular highlights (reflections of the softbox in the eye). With a single large softbox, at 45 degrees, those eye should pop.




Try to put your head in a clean spot in the frame. Meaning, try and not have your head intersect with plants, poles, edges of picture frames etc. It’s not always possible, but usually there are small tweaks you can do to make things better. Let's look at this really really busy scene.

babies always want all the attention...

Your eyes are probably bouncing back and forth between the subject, and little Maddie (baby on the book cover) just above her. The subject also has a shelf beam running through her head. So lets move her over in the frame a bit.

It's still a busy shot, but its improved. When you look at the subject, your eyes are not constantly darting above. Even though we now have her with horns coming out of her head. Photography/videography is sometimes about finding the right compromise.

We can clear some books out of the way. But the lines on the shelves now draw your eye away from our subject. So... 

You can re-frame so the lines draw you to the subject and throw the background out of focus (if you are shooting manual with the right focal length). Finally, if you don't like any of the compromises that you had to make, switch location. For me that meant moving 4 steps and putting the subject against a window.

Same shot as above, just zoomed in to avoid the messy living room.

Why does all this stuff about "head in a clean spot" matter? Photographers have a term called “Visual Mass”. The more an object in a frame draws your eye, the more visual mass it has. You want your face to have the most visual mass.  Getting the head in a clean spot will help. Having your face well lit will help. Having things that lead the viewer to your subject in the frame will help. When you have stray lines, bright objects or a random assortment of stuff intersecting with your head, our eyes move all about, following these pathways away from the main subject. If I'm looking elsewhere in the frame, you don't have my undivided attention.



the white tracing = the golden ratio

Position yourself within the golden ratio. Don’t stick yourself directly in the middle of the frame unless you have a particular reason for doing so.  These are rules that are made to be broken, but more often than not compelling compositions are found within this pattern. Why? It’s pleasing to the eye.  If your image is pleasing to the eye, you have more of my attention. There is a flow to the image that leads the eye towards the subject. The golden ratio is a universal constant that has been around since 400ish BC. It’s an aesthetic that pops up in art, music, architecture, nature etc.



iphone attached to a light stand with a superclamp (found in any photography store).

You should probably know that the camera can be working against you if it’s set to auto mode (also called program mode or “P” mode).  Cameras on auto, by default,  try to expose everything to 18 % grey. So white things (like the sclera of your eyeball) can sometimes end up a little bit darker. Which isn't what you want, but the camera wants it. Sometimes nice lighting get’s interpreted all weird by the camera and your background comes out all wrong. You fix all of this by learning manual mode or exposure compensation on a better camera...but that is a whole other journey. For the most part, you can tweak most cameras enough to make things workable. Take some time, experiment and see what works.