Shooting Interviews With Available Light

There was a time when no TV or film camera operator would work on location without a full crew to support him or her. Fifteen years ago even TV news crews would consist of at least three people: the camera operator, the sound recordist and the lighting electrician. More complex shoots involved more people.

That, however, was in the days before accountants took over the management of TV companies. Nowadays a journalist is lucky just to have a sole cameraperson with them on location, and more often they may be sent out with just a camera and microphone themselves.

The need to save money not only reduced the number of people involved, it also took its toll on the time allocated for each project. Instead of having lavish budgets which allowed people plenty of time to travel and even stay in a hotel overnight from time to time, the need to complete more work in less time became more and more pressing. It is not uncommon to have to do in one day what used to take three.

Not only, therefore, does the camera operator have to do the work of three people, she has to do it in very short time and to tight deadlines.

This leaves the camera person looking for ways in which to speed up the whole location operation and the first, and easiest, step to take is to ditch the lighting kit.

At this point I can hear the roars of disapproval from lighting directors all over the world challenging my suggestion, and I would be the first to say that a well lit scene is a delight to behold. In the ideal world a properly lit scene for film and TV would be the goal of every camera person and given the time and money it should be the norm, rather than the exception. However, here we must leave those with the more luxurious circumstances to their own devices.

There is a basic principle that every videographer and digital camera user should know inside out from the very beginning of their career. Digital image gathering (and film, for that matter) has its limitations. I cannot emphasize how important this is, so please read carefully.

The main limitation which I shall describe here is the one which restricts the dynamic range of any given scene to within five f stops. Don't worry, I am going to simplify that and explain it for those who may not be familiar with photographic terms.

When we, human beings, look at a scene, (imagine, for a moment, through a frame measuring 16 inches along the top and nine inches down the side), everything we see has a particular brightness. Imagine, if you will, a scene consisting of someone sitting in front of a window with a daylight snow scene outside. We are looking at her from within the room and there are no lights on. The snow is obviously bright but we can see the snowballs and ski tracks quite easily. When we look at the person's face we can also see that perfectly well, even though it is darker than the scene outside the window. You might even think it would make a nice photograph or setting for a TV interview.

However, you'd be wrong. Even though we, humans, can see all the details in the scene, the camera can't - at least not without help. If we adjust the camera to show the snow in all its detail, the person's face is just too dark to see. If we adjust the camera so that the face is OK then the snow will just appear 'burned out' - too bright to see any detail. The problem is that the range of brightness, or contrast, in the scene - the dynamic range - is more than the camera can handle. A point-and-shoot stills camera will come to our aid and automatically switch on its flash to illuminate the person's face and if it's powerful enough that will suffice.

If we had considered this scene for a video camera shoot, however, we would need to use a very powerful lamp to balance the light on the face to the light reflecting off the snow, but as we discussed earlier we don't have the time to set that up.

This is where we arrive at a critical moment in the cameraperson's thought process when approaching this problem.

The crisis is that of opposing considerations. Consideration one is that we like the scene in the window and would like to use it in our shoot. Consideration two is that the camera cannot handle the contrast of the scene. How should we resolve this?

This is a difficult decision for some to make. But, however painful it might be, consideration two, the contrast, has to take precedence over consideration one. The end product has to be up to broadcastable standards. The camera operator has to declare the scene unshootable and a rethink must be undertaken.

So what are the options?

1) Take the shoot outside.
2) Rearrange the shooting angle inside.

Taking the shoot outside allows a much greater amount of light to illuminate our subject, much more in balance with the snow. If there are some trees or other features available include those - they will help to reduce the background brightness and in any case break up what would otherwise be a plain and boring background.

Rearranging the shooting angle inside may result in a less pleasing picture, but using the light from the window to illuminate the subject's face rather than obscure it means you will get a broadcastable result, which for newsgathering at any rate is of prime importance. If you're lucky you might be able to sit the subject sideways and feature some of the outside scene. Sidelight on the face can be very interesting. If you've time to pop up a reflector to lift the darker side of the face, so much the better.

Even if you can't get the snow scene in the interview, you can always shoot set-up shots or general views (GVs) outside which you can use to introduce the subject and set the scene - it needn't go to waste.

The most important consideration with interviews is that the subject can be clearly seen and heard. When deciding on a scene for an interview it makes sense to consider the technicalities first and, as far as the picture goes, the first consideration is 'can the camera handle it?' Get into the habit of scanning around the four sides of your viewfinder or monitor frame as well as the centre. Consider all the possibilities and make the right decision. Never think 'I'm sure they can fix it in the edit' - that's the unprofessional way of thinking. Don't be afraid to move things around - to switch on, or off, that lamp in the background.

It is possible to create some very pleasing results with available light. Modern cameras are much better at handling low light situations than used to be the case, so you can afford to be a little bold and imaginative. Use some of the time you've saved by not setting up lights to have a look around to find something suitable. But stick to the rules and be assertive, not just with others but with yourself also. Never be afraid to say no or stop - don't press the record button until you're confident you won't be chastised later.


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