Look, THEN leap

First, figure out what you want things to look like.  Let me say that again.  First, figure out what you want things to look like.

Diagram and explanation of 3-point lighting setupThe formidable Ken Palmer has assembled a photo gallery of good and bad examples of performer lighting.   Look at it.  Also, look around the net for videos and stills that you like.  Think about how they framed the shot, and what you’d like to look like on screen.   My old comrade David Martin Jacques has written a piece on it; there’s another really good discussion — with photo examples — here. It’s oriented toward still photography, but he makes some good points.

Once you’ve got an idea of what you’re after, this guide will help you make it happen.

We’re going to use a system called three-point lighting — it’s standard in TV, film, and theater. It’s well-established enough that you can read about it in Wikipedia.  This is not how you’d do it on stage, but it should work reasonably well for streamcasts from a small studio space.

What you need

  • 3 clamp light fixtures, like these from Home Depot
  • Either
  • 3 daylight 100w equivalent LED lightbulbs, like these from Home Depot (go ahead, splurge on the 4-pack). For reasons that are complicated to explain, it’s essential that the color of the light from all three bulbs be exactly the same, and buying three identical bulbs will guarantee that.
  • Some extension cords
  • 6 or more clothespins
  • A way to get the lights up in the air. Microphone stands will work.  You can also buy actual light stands like these, or improvise something.  If you use mic stands you’ll probably want spring clamps to help hold things — clamp-light clamps aren’t that great.
  • Some spring clamps, either to butch up the wimpy clamps on your clamp lights, or serve as cable guides for extension cords, and so on.
  • A friend, or a dummy, or a friend who is a dummy. 

Setting up

  • Cut three squares from your diffusion media (ok, your shower curtain) about 3” bigger than the diameter of your clamp lights
  • Put the bulbs in the clamp lights
  • Use two clothespins to clip a square of diffusion media to the front of each clamp light. 
  • Put friend or dummy in whatever position you’re going to perform from
  • Place your video camera where you want it.  Part of the reason to have friend, or dummy, is so that you can see what the shot will look like;  you should definitely be looking at the image from the camera on a screen or monitor as you set this up.  Play around.  Get it exactly the way you want it.
  • Imagine (or use blue tape to mark) a line from the performer to the camera.  Imagine two more lines radiating out from the friend/dummy at a 45 degree angle to the performer-camera line.  Place your first two light stands on those lines about 6 feet from the performer.  Now you have something that looks a lot like the diagram above (almost, we’ll locate the third light in a minute)
    • The light on the left — the key light — should be set at a height a foot or two above friend/dummy’s face as they sit or stand in the performing position.
    • The light on the right — the fill light — should be at more or less the same height as friend/dummy’s face.  Its job is to fill in shadows created by the key light. To avoid having the image look washed out, back the fill light away from friend/dummy along the 45 degree line until it is only *just* filling in the shadows. 
  • Locating the back light is an opportunity for creativity.  Also, usually, cursing. You want the light to be above friend/dummy’s head so it’s shining down on them, and you want it not to be in the shot, and you want it to be behind them.  These are sometimes called “hair lights” because they create a glow around the hair of the performer.  Fiddle around with this one until you’ve got it so that the light is pulling the performer out of the background, so to speak. 
  • Play around with all this until you like what you see.

Suppose I have two cameras?

Well, you could show the performer from two different angles.  That, however, is tricky, and in a confined space like a studio it can be a real pain in the butt.   You have to have a workable setup that provides three-point lighting from both angles, you have to keep the lights from glaring into the camera, and you may or may not want to keep the lights and stands out of shot when the other angle is being used. Though that’s not a necessity, of course, if you’re into realism.  Or art. Or something.


Let me remind you that a major component of all electronic music events is what we might call gear-ogling, where the audience gets to see what you are actually making all those funny noises with and what your fingers are doing when you make them.   My life was changed for the better when I saw Al Baldwin and Chris Wikman using overhead cameras on boom mic stands at the first NEEM I ever attended.  You could do that too!

The first trick is figuring out how to suspend the camera.  Microphone boom stands work — you’ll need a mic-stand-thread-to-camera-thread adapter, though (you can also get more expensive ones with ball joints — they’re worth it).  My current rig has the camera clamped to a 2-foot bar clamp that is in turn clamped to the ceiling track in my studio.   This is an occasion for ingenuity.

So is lighting the stuff you’re going to show with that camera.  The problem is all those goddamn blinking lights.  On the one hand, they’re distracting, and you’d like to wash them out so that people can see something else.  On the other hand, to wash them out, you’d need a fixture suitable for lighting about half of Shea Stadium. So, like everything else in this explanation, the key is to just fool around until you get something you like on the screen.

Good luck!  

PS: Here’s a setup that breaks all those rules; it mostly works, except when Wayne decides he’s going to stand somewhere else: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0H8GVVesws.

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.