March 17, 2020

Lighting tips to make video recording yourself a little less painful

Pamela Reynoso


With the development of the COVID-19 virus and it’s speed of transmission, much of the world now finds themselves in quarantine. As a result, all manner of jobs are being shifted into the virtual sphere- if you can accomplish the task via video, you are now expected to make that adjustment, and if you could have it done by yesterday, that would be great!

Many people are quite stressed and overwhelmed with the enormity of trying to digitize their jobs and their entire lives in short order, so I thought I’d provide a quick primer on lighting for video to give a helpful resource without the need to purchase specialized equipment. Lighting for video may not be something people have yet had a chance to think about, but I’m sure many will very soon.

Before you concern yourself with lighting,  take a moment think about how you might raise your computer/camera (or lower your chair) to avoid up-the-nose shots! Your audience will thank you! I’ve stacked books to put a laptop on and then just used a mouse for ease. My desktop monitor has the camera sitting on top of it, but I also have the ability to raise the monitor higher than I normally would. I did that and I lowered my chair for a more pleasant angle in regards to my face. I’m only 5′ tall so this means I also removed the throw pillow I typically sit on for a little extra height while working. :) 


For this post, I simply used my real-life situation. My computer is set up in a room with five windows. You might be temped to think “Great! Lots of light, it will be perfect.” Except it isn’t because the majority of the light is behind me as I sit at my desktop. 

This is my desk, with my little helper. There is the window you see next to it and two windows on the wall to my right. Above the desk is a single light bulb in a white paper globe which does a wonderful job of softening the light. (You can see it in an upcoming photo.)

This is the very large window that sits directly behind me as I sit at my computer. 

Cameras will always expose for the brightest light they see.

This means they will try and preserve detail in that bright light by dropping the exposure. If the brightest light is behind  you, adjusting to that light will be the camera’s priority, not adjusting to see you. This will make you very dark.

The following are screenshots I took of an open Zoom window with the different lighting scenarios I could achieve at my desk. I did not pull out any of my professional gear to modify the light as I wanted it to be more of a real-world scenario for those who don’t have access to such equipment. I could have pulled out stands to hang some fabric on to block the view behind me, but you will see that with a little adjustment of the lighting, you can make the background diminish which is helpful if you have limited options with which to work.

The photo immediately below shows how the camera behaves with the slats of the blinds behind me rotated about half-open. My overhead light is on, however it makes little difference because the light behind me is so bright. I am very underexposed and quite hard to see.

In this next photo, I closed the blinds and had no artificial light on. You can see it’s much improved over the last screenshot, but I don’t love the heavy shadowing on the left side of my face. 

(The blinds will remain closed for each example photo going forward.)

In this next photo the window blinds next to me remained rotated about half open as in the screenshot above; however I placed my small desk lamp so it faced the wall in front of me to the left and reflected off of two pieces of printer paper I had taped to the wall. (Refer top photo in this post.) You’ll notice the light is much warmer than the daylight, but part of that has to do with the wood paneling the light is also reflecting of off. Whatever surface color light bounces off of will contribute some color cast. In this case, I don’t mind the warmer light because I’m more concerned with just being seen. I could have controlled the warmth more by simply taping up more white paper.

In the photo below, I changed my position to face away from the window in order to cut the reflections on my glasses. I’m blind as a bat without my glasses, so going without them is not an option for me. I need to wear them, but I also want the people on the other end of the video to see my eyes to some degree, if possible and lens reflections can be distracting in video conversations. This slight adjustment helps. Since I still have the desk lamp reflecting its light, I have decent light on the side of my face away from the window. 

In the next photo, I kept the desk lamp reflecting it’s light, but also turned on the light I have hanging in the corner above my desk. You can see that this has helped separate me more from the background, meaning I am more properly exposed and even easier to see. Both my hair and my eyes are easier to see, which I prefer.

In this photo everything remained as in the preceding photo, I simply dropped my chin a small amount to reduce the reflections in my glasses a little more. Now, I know in conversation it can be hard to remember to keep one’s chin slightly dropped, but seeing how it helps might help one remember to do so even sporadically throughout the conversation or video and help preserve a little bit more of that eye-to-eye contact that is so important in good communication. 

One might decide that if more light is needed on the other side of the face, they can just put a lamp on that side, aiming it towards the (placing it a little higher so they aren’t blinded by the light), like this:


Here is a caution: Don’t do it! 

The photos above show why I ‘bounced’ the light (had it reflect off of another surface) rather than having the light shine directly on my face. The highlights circled in blue are called specular highlights and they are present where the light is so strong that it obliterates any detail. It’s not at all flattering, and you will notice that it increased the reflections in my glasses (and the shadows of my glasses), which I was trying to mitigate. My skin tends towards the drier side, so you can imagine how much stronger the highlights would be on a face that is more oily, and how many more of them there would be. If you have oily skin it’s a good idea to wash, wipe, or powder it before you record video if reducing specular highlights is important to you.

Going back to the light that hangs above my desk- I think it’s one of the best types of light because it provides a nice soft light that is indirect/diffused by it’s white paper shade. This desire for softer indirect light is why I bounced the desk lamp into the corner onto the white paper. White paper or fabric will absorb less light and bounce more light back out than a darker surface would. 

If you have no choice but to face a too bright window you can control the strength of the light by adjusting blinds, hanging a white sheet or sheer white fabric over the window, or moving back away from the window to a suitable distance. 

Lastly, if you are in a room with only a ceiling light placed high and behind you, that is among the worst possible lighting. My room does not have a ceiling light, so I had my youngest daughter hold the desk lamp a little above and behind me. Though it’s not as strong as a ceiling light would be on the shoulders and back of the head, it does provide an approximation of how ones face really isn’t lit well at all. In fact, you can see that the video suffers greatly in quality overall by the screenshot. Notice also the much worse reflections in my glasses.

P.S. Should anyone ask, the photo above my desk is one of my favorites and was created by Photographer Patricia Davidson.


Pamela Reynoso

Pamela is a big city loving fine art photographer who enjoys various genres of photography, especially macro work. She lives in Cleveland, TN with her high school sweetheart and husband, Rondall, and their five children. She can usually be bribed with homemade peanut butter cookies.

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