Webcam or DV, Lighting is Important

by Derrick Story

Webcams and other video capture devices are gaining popularity for both business and personal use. When Apple released the iSight and iChat AV in June, Mac users were finally able to enjoy conferencing capabilities on par with the Windows world. Unfortunately, this also means that we have even more badly-lit A/V chats streaming across the Internet than ever before.

I have an iSight, and I like using it. But as I'm using it with friends and coworkers, I'm noticing that a quick brush-up course on lighting is in order. Video is video. And whether the images are being captured by a $50 webcam or a sophisticated DV camcorder, a little attention to lighting goes a long way.

Natural Light Still Rules

When you have the option, use natural light. Many conference rooms have windows, and if you're lucky enough to have such a situation, then position the meeting attendees so they are facing the window and place the webcam with its back to the illumination. Same thing goes if you are taping the meeting with a DV camcorder.

Beautiful Window Lighting

In this illustration from my Digital Video Pocket Guide, I show how attractive window illumination can be. In many situations however, there might not be enough light from the window to fully illuminate your subject. Then, the window becomes a supplemental light source -- but a darn good one.

What ever you do, don't place the window behind the subjects creating a backlit situation. Backlighting is the most difficult lighting to tame in video, and you want to avoid it at all costs.

Add Light as Needed

As I mentioned earlier, window illumination might not be strong enough for your video work, or you might not have access to natural lighting at all. In those cases, you need to find another strong light source to direct at the subjects to either supplement the natural light or replace it all together.

At home or in the conference room you can use free standing "torch lamps." or other decorative lighting to add much needed lux to the room. I think it's best to use two sources (a lamp on each side of the table) for more balanced lighting and to eliminate strong shadows, which tend to be unflattering for your subjects.

Also, turn up the overhead room lights to create some ambiance. But don't rely on overhead lighting alone. It's very unflattering for people when it's the only light source, making their eyes go dark and accentuating their noses and rough spots in their complexion. (Not exactly the way to win over a new client!)

Remember, indoor overhead lighting, such as fluorescents, is a supplement only, never the sole light source for video.

Look Good

The point of video conferencing or taped meetings is to improve communication, not to scare the viewer. A little attention to lighting -- whether in your home office, conference room, or on the road -- will make your A/V communication a positive experience for your viewers.

And finally, no matter what type of video you're interested in capturing, my Digital Video Pocket Guide will help you get great stuff. Remember, good data in, good data out.


2003-08-20 15:57:31
Adjusting the iSight
I use the iSight with ophonex ( which allows me to conference with my parents who are using Windows and Netmeeting. Out of the box the iSight transmitted VERY dark even in bright but indirect sunlight. I found a tip somewhere that pointed out that you can adjust the iSight using Quicktime Broadcaster ( I manually adjusted the color temperature and balance and what a difference. So even good lighting can be improved. Hope this helps someone else.
2003-08-20 16:12:03
RE: Adjusting the iSight
Outstanding tip.

Yes, all those adjustments are built right into QuickTime, you just have to find an application to tap them. I think Broadcaster is an extremely useful app with the iSight. If you haven't already, take a look at my tutorial, Making Movies with the Apple iSight.

Thanks for chiming in!