Let’s Throw a Little Light on the Subject

Bobby Owsinski • Audio TechFebruary 2021 • February 6, 2021

We’ve gone over how to make your audio shine on your Zoom presentations, now let’s talk about the visual side for a bit. Although most people on a Zoom/Skype/Teams/etc. call don’t have to worry so much about how they look, it’s different for a teacher. You need your students to see you clearly so you can visually emphasize what needs to be emphasized. That’s why we’ll take a look at lighting about this month.

You might be wondering, “What’s an audio guy doing talking about lighting?” For one thing, it’s always been important to what I do online. With hundreds of presentations under my belt over the last seven years or so, it’s something that I’ve had to pay attention to. Living in Los Angeles with friends who work in film and television helped me learn what to do along the way.

What The Pros Do

The best way to start with getting your lighting together is to look at what a typical professional lighting director does. A technique called three-point lighting (see the graphic) is the standard setup used to light almost any subject in any kind of visual media, from video to film to still photography and even computer-generated imagery, and it’s been that way almost since the beginning of movies and television.

Three-point lighting consists of three lights – a key light (the brightest), a fill light (not as bright), and a back light (about half as bright as the key light).

* The key light is set up at about the 2 o’clock position in front of you, and above you at about a 45-degree angle. The reason why you want it high and at an angle is so you don’t look older than you are, which is what happens if it’s set on the same plane as your eyes and shadows creep in.

* The fill light is placed at about the 10 o’clock position in front of you and at a shallower angle than the key light. The fill light eliminates any shadows that might appear as a result of the key light.

* The back light (also called the rim, hair, or shoulder light) is placed above and behind you and lights you from the rear, giving you a rim of light that separates you from the background and enhances the perception of depth in the shot. This is a nice effect, but unless you have the right light stands, it’s a pain to set up and it’s not necessary to making you look good on an online presentation.

Two lights can work perfectly well for what we need here: one light for the key light, and another for the fill. Again, the key light is brighter than the fill light and placed higher on a 45-degree angle or so to your right side, and the fill is placed to your left and just above your head. Nothing here has to be exact – just in the ball park. One light higher on your right and the other lower on your left and you’re good to go.

What Kind Of Lights?

Ideally, you want really soft lights that don’t throw a shadow, but any light will do. If it’s not soft enough, drape a thin white piece of cloth, bed sheet or even a light towel over it (make sure it’s a modern LED element and not an old incandescent lamp so the material doesn’t burn). Or, you can ask your theater department for a small piece soft white or clear blue filter gel.

If you don’t have anything that will work, go to the hardware store and get a couple of those clip-on work lights, some warm white 3500k LED bulbs (one about 75 watts equivalent and the other at 50 watts should do it) and then clip them wherever you can. The clip-on lights actually work great. I know a network television camera man who does this for his wife’s video blog.

If you already have lights that will work but your fill light is too bright, just move it back a little. That said, you always want your lighting to be a little brighter than what seems to be the right amount. If your skin begins to shine, you can fix that easily with just a little pancake makeup.

Lighting can make all the difference in a good teaching presentation. Your facial cues and hand gestures may be important to the information you’re trying to get across. Having everything well-lit makes sure that happens.

Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the best-selling authors in the music industry with 24 books that are now staples in audio recording, music, and music business programs in schools around the world. Visit Bobby’s website at bobbyowsinski.com.

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