KENS-5 morning anchor Sarah Forgany going live from her living room.
Lets’ start by stating the obvious: TV reporters are not trained lighting designers. When the pandemic hit, stations were forced to figure out new ways of socially distanced, on-air reporting, and initially asked reporters to pick a well-lit room in their house and place a lamp behind the camera to illuminate their face.
The results have been a mixed bag; some well-lit spaces that show off the reporter in their best light and some with dark shadows and muddy environments that lead to less-than-flattering on-air storytelling. But as a group, with a bit of experimentation, reporters are getting better at it with the help of their station’s engineering staff. The one-man-band reporter is learning lighting throughout testing. If viewers complain on social media, fixtures and backdrops are adjusted and/or more lights added.
“Getting reporters proper lighting and teleprompting solutions has been a challenge, but we’ve figured it out along the way,” said William McLain, WAFF-TV assistant news director at the Huntsville, Ala. NBC affiliate WAFF-TV. “But at the same time we’ll come out of this with some new tools and tricks that we didn’t use before. We’re learning how to cope with this on a day by day basis.”
WAFF Reporters went on air from their houses in early March and are using personal mobile phones and LiveU cellular transmitters in their homes along with an IFB/intercom app on their mobile phones called Unity—all supplied by the station. Lighting has been all over the map, with some reporters getting small Kino Flo fill lights and Litepanels LED fixtures from the station’s inventory while others are using inexpensive “ring lights” they bought themselves
Lots Of Options
The wide variety of reports are using an equaling mix-and-match array of lighting solutions that run the gamut from studio quality to off-the-shelf YouTuber lights. It’s the wild west and there’s no one size or type of fixture that fits all. Each situation is different and should be treated as such.
Sarah Forgany, a morning anchor for KENS, the CBS affiliate in San Antonio, Texas, turned her living room into a mini studio. In a social media post she said the station provided all the equipment to set up on her own TV set in her house. The results have been good and viewers have responded positively.
Practical Lighting Tips
For more tips on lighting, the website NewscastStudio ran a column by a lighting designer and Director of Photography at production company Angry Badger Productions, which has decades of experience in network and affiliate news, creating scenic and lighting designs for broadcast environments. The company cited things like color temperature, illumination level, connectivity and framing and composition as key lighting elements to be aware of.
- All light sources must match as closely as possible. They should be the same type of light bulb. Use interior or exterior light, but usually not both. Check and adjust settings. Match ambient color temp if possible. If you have lights for video, consider turning off ambient (architectural) lights.
- White balance the camera for the light hitting you/talent. iPhones and webcams auto white balance, which is effective when your color temp matches. If available, you can use manual white balance or closeup sample a white card at the talent location.”
- Talent should be the brightest part of scene. Avoid strong backlight and highly reflective or illuminated backgrounds, or your face will appear too dark by comparison. Use drapes to darken the room if necessary. Do not use windows as backgrounds unless you can control light level, avoid reflections and make sure background does not distract from you/talent.
- Day time: Use windows with indirect sunlight as key lights (front light). Set camera between window and talent. If direct sunlight, use a translucent shade, bed sheet, wax paper, etc. to cover the window to soften any harsh light.
- Nighttime: You may use a view through a window as a background. Make sure you white balance correctly. Be alert for reflections in glass. Avoid shooting straight at glass to minimize light reflections. Check for unintended reflections of activities off set.
- To get more light from a fixture, move closer. Halving the distance quadruples the light level. Keep lights close to lens line.
- Lights should be placed above center line vertically. Not below – no horror movie lighting!
- Avoid reflections in eyeglasses. “Non-glare glasses” usually refers to the back of the eyeglasses, not the front surface of eyeglass lenses. Raise lights to cast reflections down. Tilt glasses down and if they slip back, use tape around back end of temples.”
Many major market stations are recommending some form of a three-point lighting set up, using a key light in front to the right of the talent, a fill light for the left side and a back light to give the scene (even in a basement) more depth. Veteran lighting technicians will tell you this strategy provides the best results.
Those having to go it on their own can follow the most common social media influencer strategy: get a good ring light and situate yourself in a fairly dark room. Ambient light from windows tends to wash out a scene or face.
“If you know what you’re doing, lighting isn’t hard, but most reporters have never had to learn the basics of lighting design,” said Rush Beesley, president and founder of RUSHWORKS, a systems integrator and equipment sales company in Flower Mound, Texas. “The things to be aware of are color temperature and ambient light.”
Ambient Light Is The Enemy
Ambient light is the illumination that exists in the room and this level must be assessed before setting up a production space. The light could be coming from incandescent and fluorescent lights or the sun itself. Some reporters on TV are using rooms that have windows and that’s a problem because the room’s color temperature is going to fluctuate two or three thousand degrees Kelvin from morning to mid-day to night. All of that is going to affect how a reporter looks on camera.
“Always try to avoid rooms with windows and, when you are using a ring light, make sure it is the dominant light source,” said Beesley. “Anything else that might leak into the shot is going to mix your color temperature. Stay away from outdoor lighting or close the blinds. You can’t rely on overhead lights, table lamps or windows to provide good, balanced lighting on your face.”
The AIXP ring light can provide the light required for live broadcast TV and streaming. The ring light includes 120 tiny LED bulbs.
Keeping It Affordable
He recommends a single USB-powered AIXP 10-inch Ring Light Kit ($35 on Amazon.com) that includes different modes, like “Warm” and “Daylight” to allow the user to adjust the light to what the camera is seeing. The light surrounds the camera and provides a soft, diffused light that makes anyone look their best.
Kathy Katz, Managing Partner, Brightline, a Bridgeville, Penn.-based maker of studio and videoconferencing lighting products for broadcast and other industries, said at-home reporters have been relying too much on ambient lighting.
“I don’t know why overhead fluorescent lighting has been deemed “good enough” for these remote productions,” she said. “If your lighting is good, it enhances the viewing experience. Don’t take it for granted. To some degree, we all read lips and observe the nuances of delivery. If you want engaging content, it’s paramount that your on-air talent is well lit. You can truly hear better when you can see better.”
Brightline offers its cMe2 light for reporters working from home, including setups with virtual backgrounds. It delivers lifelike color reproduction with on-board dimming for easy adjustments. The cMe2 also includes a credenza stand so you can share it between rooms for multiple setups or use the optional wall mount bracket for more permanent installations. Brightline is also redesigning its i-Series desktop fixture, which will be available for at-home videoconferencing applications later this year.
The Goal Is To Look Professional
“Your goal should be to maintain the professional look you have in the studio,” said Katz. “Try to use lighting on both sides of your face to avoid harsh shadows. Avoid setups in front of a window, because the backlight will make it more difficult to see you, and don’t even attempt to use virtual backgrounds unless you have a solid lighting setup.”
Echoing RUSHWORKS’ Beesley, she added that users should maintain a consistent light temperature and avoid mixing tungsten (3200K) and daylight (5600K) sources.
“Today’s video cameras are very good at determining white balance, but you don’t want to confuse the camera with multiple light temperatures.”
So, a good dose of trial-and-error seems to be the consensus playbook of most TV stations reporting from home. That, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money. TV studio lighting has always been a skilled craft learned over several years. Today, those skills are being replaced with “good enough” lighting at home in order to get by and report the news as safely as possible in this challenging time.
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