Montreal faculty member Adam van Sertima – a self-described “Dad, philosopher, art historian and Games Studies specialist” who teaches film courses – sat down with Liz Allen-Pennebaker of the Core Division and CLT to share his filmmaking expertise with all of us at Champlain who want to up our videoconferencing and video recording game. Lightly edited by Caroline Toy.
Select and Position Your Light Sources
- Use natural sunlight by facing into a window
- Alternatively, place two table lamps behind your screen/camera and slightly to the sides
- Avoid light sources behind you at all costs
- Make sure the tone or temperature of your light sources matches
Liz: I have a dark third-floor office and whenever I look at the “preview” screen on video calls I feel like I’m about to croak, “Greetings, young padawans. I have been waiting for you” and then zap my students with the Force out of my fingertips. How can I look younger than 101 years old on camera without buying all sorts of fancy lighting equipment that I wouldn’t know how to use anyway?
Adam: You can do some pretty good lighting with basic stuff that you have around the house and can buy at any store, and then you tweak the lighting until you get the quality of lighting that you want.
The simplest way is to face into a window. It doesn’t cost anything. You don’t have to buy equipment. The quality of daylight is really flattering for everybody. If the light’s too bright, you can hang a sheer curtain. Then you get very pretty light.
Adam’s Tip: Use natural light if it is available. Turn to face a window, and use a curtain to diffuse the light if it is too harsh. This is my improvised laptop stand. The angle of the image creates the impression the laptop is lower than it actually is (learn more about laptop and camera positioning).
The worst thing you can do is have a window directly behind you because you just become a silhouette. People can’t make you out.
If you’re not near a window, or you need to use video at night, you can do some pretty good lighting with basic stuff that you have around the house or that you can buy at any store. Put a couple of table lamps behind your screen, one on either side. The classic film production technique is to have one light slightly off center to one side and the other slightly off center to the other.
For my home setup, I just have two inexpensive IKEA wall lights with two conventional LED fixtures in them. They’re not very powerful lights – just conventional LEDs, about the equivalent of a 70-watt standard light bulb.
I put the lights up on the wall across from me. I’ve got my lights quite high and they just blast across me. You want them up high because if they’re too low, they’ll blind you. You’ll be seeing stars. You want to have a lampshade, too, to help with that.
If I had a conventional desk instead of a couch-and-coffee-table setup, I would get standard household lamp fixtures with a semi-translucent lampshade to make the light fairly diffuse and put them on either side of the desk. They would look normal and would provide really good lighting even when I wasn’t videoconferencing.
Choosing Your Lighting Temperature for Lamps
Liz: I went out and bought this thing called a “LoomCube” that is designed to provide better lighting for home videoconferencing. It’s pretty straightforward to use and definitely seems to help with the wrinkles a bit, but one option mystifies me: “lighting temperature”. What does that mean and how should I adjust it? Am I looking for a particular lighting temperature to complement my skin tone?
Adam: Turns out, it’s simply physics. At high noon, the color temperature of sunlight is actually blue. It’s not yellow as you perceive it, it’s actually blue. And it can go from about 4500 Kelvins up to 10,000 Kelvins on a bright winter day. But for lighting purposes, daylight is assumed to be a 4500K standard tungsten light. The kind of yellowish light you get from most household fixtures is 3000K.
It doesn’t really matter which lighting temperature you use, but it’s better not to combine different lighting temperatures. Pick either blue – daylight – or yellow – home light bulbs – because it confuses the camera if you use two different temperatures. Computer cameras are just not good enough – they cannot differentiate.
So generally, if you’ve got the 3000K lights in your house and you’re using those for your setup, use 3000K on your videoconference light. If you’re using daylight from a window and you want your videoconference light to add a bit more light, you maybe want to put it to 4500 Kelvin.
My best advice would be: pick one source of light. One color. When in doubt, go with warm [yellow] tungsten bulbs because tungsten light is more common in households. Usually that’s the preferred light. But don’t go with “daylight” fluorescent bulbs – white/bluish residential bulbs usually don’t look as nice. They are harsh. They don’t have a true color temperature – they’re tweaked to fake it. That’s why they’re hard on the eyes, whereas the new LCD lights are actually really stable, which means they’ll work. The lower temperature ones are more orange, they’re warmer. Typically that’s what you want at home because it feels a little less industrial.
Diffusing Your Light
In real terms, softer lighting is often daylight. Light that’s fairly even and fairly flat tends to be forgiving. Light that’s diffused is good. If light hits you hard, it casts harsh shadows. If you’ve seen pictures of the moon up close, that light is coming directly from the sun. And you look at all the shadows and they’re sharp and they’re harsh. But if you go into a wooded area on earth and light is going through the leaves, it’s bouncing around. It’s much softer and much easier and much more pleasant-looking.
You would get a similar effect if you have daylight filtered through a curtain: diffuse.
Or, if you have a very powerful artificial light, you can simply aim it at the wall or the ceiling, and it will bounce all over the room and it will illuminate the room in a more pleasant way.
A good trick is to use a sheet of paper or white foam-core board to reflect light. It will diffuse light and even it out. If you’ve got sunlight and it’s really strong, you can use a bit of paper or foam core to bounce it in and fill your face and it will fill the light in your face. It’ll be softer looking. I’ve even played around with bouncing light just off a sheet of paper on a desk just to get some light coming up to give more fill. It reflected very well.
So you can take a light and set it up just behind your computer and aim it against the wall behind your computer. If the wall is white, great, or you can put up white paper or white foam core. And then you let the light bounce off you from the reflection.
Of course, every time you bounce light, the light does become weaker as well as more diffuse. So you’re compromising. It’s not as bright, but it’s softer overall. If you’re using sunlight, it works very well because you’ve got a massive amount of light and it doesn’t matter if you lose a little brightness. If you’re using artificial lights at home, you can mess around with them. And, you know, it doesn’t have to be permanent. You can play around with the lighting until you get something soft and even that lights your face.
You can go look online and you can spend thousands of dollars on professional lighting. But you can also go to Home Depot or any hardware store and they’ll have a selection of inexpensive wall lights and bulbs. I think I spent the princely sum of seven dollars Canadian for each of the little floodlights I’ve got in here.
Liz tried this! Watch her demonstration and read more below.
“After talking with Adam, I went downstairs to my living room and “borrowed” a couple of table lamps that don’t get used much, ordered some simple white shades for $9.99 each and some 100-watt replacement “daylight” LED bulbs for curbside pickup at Lowe’s, and placed the lamps on my desk on either side of and a little behind my computer screen. I also upgraded the ambient light in my office by swapping the bulbs in the overhead light fixture and a wall sconce for more of the 100-watt-replacement bulbs, and by bringing my winter “happy light” into the room and aiming it at the ceiling. That was it! For under $35, I was able to make my video lighting setup a lot more effective and flattering. I couldn’t magically make my wrinkles disappear no matter how much I adjusted the lights (and believe me I tried!), but I did manage to make myself look healthy and cheerful, and a lot less like a Dark Lord of the Sith, so I rate my DIY lighting experiments a great financial and emotional success.
“Then, a few days later, I got all fancy with it. So that I didn’t have to blast myself with videoconference lighting when I wasn’t actually videoconferencing, or turn five or six different lighting sources on and off all the time, I went out and got myself one of those remote control light switches, then plugged the base unit into an outlet, plugged a power strip into the base unit, and plugged all my videoconference lighting into the power strip. Now, whenever I need to jump onto a Zoom call, I just hit the remote switch to light up my room. And at the end of the call, one click and it all goes off.”