Zoom Theatre – Do It Yourself Video Performance Lighting

In this article, On Stage Lighting looks at ways performers can take their Zoom lighting game to the next level for what is currently being called “Zoom Theatre”. Also works with Skype, Hangouts, Facetime and others.

During the current situation with many countries in some form of lockdown, theatre makers and other performers are finding new ways to distribute their work. One method has popped up that uses video meeting software to put together either live performances or recorded media works. Without getting into a discussion about ‘what is theatre’, let’s just get down to business regarding this and look at some common practices in trying to create lighting for Zoom theatre. This is gonna be aimed at performers and directors with limited experience of lighting design for stage or screen and keeps things simple for the DIY’er working from home.

As a professional Lighting Designer turned educator, I have also spent the last 10 years or so teaching using the internet and this includes using platforms such as Zoom for live teaching. A lot of my work is not here on the main On Stage Lighting pages but behind the scenes at Learn@OnStageLighting.  This includes teaching and mentoring other teachers around the world who seek to increase their competence in digital delivery of their specialist subjects of production for performance.

All this has give me plenty of experience using video conferencing platforms for communication to go along with my time lighting performances. I’m also working with a number of projects right now that fit into the Zoom theatre genre’.

The examples were created using no special equipment and try to represent the simplest concepts in lighting for Zoom. You can make things as complex as you like!

*Note: The images below are created using a plain grey background image using the Zoom background function. It’s not a perfect tool, but for the purposes of the demo here I prefer the pixel-ly cutout matte look to the visual distraction of real backgrounds.

Camera Angle

Although not strictly lighting, it’s worth mentioning at the start: A laptop with a fixed webcam, used in its natural position on a desk, does not usually create a great camera shot unless your Zoom theatre piece is specifically about webcamming or strange misshapen giant characters looming over the viewer.

Any seasoned Zoomer knows that you need to elevate your laptop (and therefore, camera) to at least eye level and sometimes even higher. It’s common practice to put the computer on a box or something that achieves this.

Regarding lighting, the first image above is lit by directly facing a window, the second using a window further to the side plus a reflection. But we’ll get to that.

Consistent Lighting

One thing we should consider is consistency of lighting. This is particularly so if using Zoom to capture recordings that are to be cut together as part of a bigger piece. In this case, it is going to be very distracting for the final piece if the lighting continuity is very different between lines. It may also be appropriate to consider lighting consistency between performers but this is harder to achieve. The main ways to get consistent lighting are:

Same time, same place every day (for recorded work)
Using tightly controlled artificial lighting and blocking out all natural light.
Considering the weather when choosing a lighting solution.

Hard or Soft Light

When talking of ‘hard’ light, we are usually referring to a light that has a small point source of light. This could be a clear glass lamp or direct sunlight on a clear day. Hard light sources create strong and hard-edged shadows and can be quite dramatic. Soft light such as light bounced from a white wall or daylight on a cloudy day generally has a more even and less angular look. You can’t easily make a soft light source harder but there are things you can do to soften a hard light on your Zoom calls, including:

Draping a thin white bed sheet over the window if the sunlight is very direct.
Bounce your light source off a wall or other matt white object.
Don’t sit in direct hard light but use another part of the room.

Natural Light

Natural light such as the sun or sky has the benefit of being a relatively bright light source in the day time. This can provide lots of good light for your Zoom performance and is often already soft/diffuse enough to provide good lighting. The biggest headache I usually have running webinars and Zoom calls is doing them after sunset and natural light is always my preferred option. Daylight has a slightly blue-ish colour to it that we are used to seeing in life and the webcam can cope with quite well. The downside to natural light is that it can be quite changeable in colour and direction – imagine an orange low setting sun on a cloudless day compared to a grey, overcast sky on a rainy day. This means having to adapt to the lighting conditions each day while being aware of the consistency and continuity mentioned above.

A simple test is to try facing a window for your Zoom performance so that the light comes at you from just over or to one side of your laptop.

Artificial Light

If you are doing Zoom theatre then chances are you are already used to doing live indoor theatre. The most common lighting situation in modern indoor theatre is the use of artificial light that is controllable. This usually means taking away anything that isn’t controllable which is why theatres generally have no windows. The benefits of this light is that you have complete control over it day after day. The downside is that you need a lot of it to get to the same relative brightness that the sun and sky give out for free. In a normal theatre, the lighting system is positioned to give us exactly the light we want.

Running Zoom at home not only do we not have much in the way of brightness or positional control, but the lights you have are not all that bright nor as flexible regarding where you put them. In fact, the most common lighting in the home such as a central hanging light in the middle of the room or wall lights all around the edges are pretty much the least desirable setup for a Zoom performance.

Try setting your artificial light somewhere in front of you at eye level or above but not too high. A ceiling light is unlikely to be helpful, you would be better off sitting in front of an open fridge. But that has it’s problems, you are probably gonna need a desk lamp. Try bouncing it off the wall instead of shining it directly at you. It won’t be as bright but might be more pleasant for you and on your camera.

Artificial light is more likely to have a warmer, more orange colour to it.

Mixing Light Sources

This can work but in Zoom meetings and performances alike, the mixing of artificial and daylight sources can be troublesome without some additional work and things you are unlikely to have at home. In the above images, the two light sources are opposed at either side of the subject to really demonstrate the difference. If you look closely you’ll see that the left side is warm orange light and the right side has a colder hue.

This could be a creative choice but on a lot of Zoom calls, along with poor angle choices, mixing daylight and artificial light doesn’t look great. The solution is often either to use reflection to create more natural light sources OR to shut out natural light and use only artificial lighting.

Harsh Angles

On the subject of angles, we can also be creative with how to light the subject but it should be a creative choice as part of the Zoom performance, characterisation or scenographic. The images above show a single light source to the extreme side and another directly overhead. Where the light is can be deciphered by the highlights and the shadows.

For more general Zoom lighting, we probably want to avoid such harsh angles to allow the facial performance to come off the screen. This means using angles that are in the more natural field of vision of the subject e.g light from around the camera. If you want to test a lighting setup before even looking at your screen, you could just take up your performance position and see how hard it is to look directly at the light source. If you need to move your head or eyes a lot, then chances are this light source is providing a harsh angle look.

Wearing Glasses

As a glasses wearer of fairly long standing, these reflecting safety goggles are the cursed tattle-tale that we are checking Facebook during the team meeting. Glasses reflect two things really well: the light source in front of you and the screen. This is not only distracting for the viewer but also hides important eye stuff as part of a Zoom performance.

The solution to glasses reflection is to offset the glass in relation to what it is reflecting. In the first image, the main light source is a window directly in front which results in the whole window being reflected back. In the image without reflection, the light source has been moved slightly to one side. Obviously, the window fixed and what had to move was the subject and the laptop.

Eye Light

When it comes to reflecting things, glasses may be an annoyance but for those without glasses the reflection can give some additional light to the eyes. This ‘eye light’ can add depth and can be the main light source in front of you or your screen. In these images, the main light sources are off to the side to show the effect and you can see an eye reflection in the first picture. This could be the main light source but in this shot it is actually the laptop screen and is easily achieved by turning the brightness on the laptop right up and filling the screen with a white background by opening the Google homepage. If using this technique, it means making your Zoom screen a much smaller part of the screen to allow the brightest reflection.

The opposite is true when wearing glasses. We don’t want a bright screen reflecting in the glass. In this case, the Incognito mode in Chrome was used to darken the screen but any dark background image will do.

Speaking into light

So far we’ve looked at a lot of camera shots that were in the standard Zoom meeting configuration, first person style. It may be that your Zoom theatre performance is designed to have performers not looking directly into the camera but some other arrangement and this may guide your choice of lighting angle. This is likely to be a case of a choice of positioning for your Zoom call as a lot of the control we have over natural light situations actually comes from moving ourselves rather than the light source. One key part of a lighting designer’s toolkit, even in live performance, is the difference between a performance speaking into an oncoming light source vs. looking away from it. In the image above, the key light (the brightest source) is either lighting the face or not with the former being the most effective for clarity of performance.

Reflecting light at home

There are a few ways to get additional light and lighting angles at home, including using white walls, light colour pillows etc. One of the most effective that I’ve found, particularly with a soft daylight window source, is to use a mirror. You can prop up a mirror securely on the opposite side to the key light and adjust the angle while looking at the Zoom screen. For a rough guide, just look into the mirror from your performance position and if you can see the light source in it then you are in the right ballpark. If you can’t see the source directly, move it and adjust the angle until you can.

The image below shows the use of a mirror in an artificial light setup with a single home lamp, mirror and one with an added overhead domestic light.

Using a kicker

Now we are getting into the realm of slighting more esoteric lighting for Zoom and in this case, the lighting for screen practice of a kicker. This is a light that is positioned behind and often to the side of the performer to create a rim of light along the edge of their body or hair. Its purpose is said to ‘kick’ the subject off the background and is particularly on screen to develop a more 3-dimensional quality to the imagery. It also works quite well with Zoom digital backgrounds although the matting in Zoom does tend to put a small rim of background pixels around the subject anyway. In cases of either a real or a digital background, a kicker can really add something if you can find a way to create it. In general, the kicker needs to be quite a bright source compared to other elements in the shot which can be difficult to achieve if you have used all your brightest sources up for general lighting.

In the image above, the first picture shows a bright artificial kicker from a low side angle set behind the subject to create the rim. The main shot is lit using daylight which does rather give us a mixed source problem. The second kicker is created using colour correction on that artificial source which is basically a very light blue colour filter. Most people won’t have lying around but it is included here to show the difference, and also the effect on kicker brightness.

It would be hard to create a kicker with sufficient brightness using a mirror but by all means have a go.

Try It Yourself

We’ve looked through a load of different considerations for creating lighting for your Zoom performance at home, from simple things like getting enough light on the face to more complex reflections and kickers. Hopefully, that will give you some pointers to get you going.  You can let me know your results and get in touch by emailing learn at onstagelighting dot co dot uk.

3 thoughts on “Zoom Theatre – Do It Yourself Video Performance Lighting”

  1. We are doing Adams Family and I am looking for ways to give a more darker (but still visible) atmosphere. Also thinking of the scene at the long table- I am wanting to have the lights off in the room so we don’t see their background (I don’t want to attempt a zoom background with 73 students) but I want to light maybe from the table-… What lighting suggestions would you have for this particular production?

  2. Hiya Jessica,
    You could try using a single point source light such as a small table lamp placed below the face(s) and making sure that the character is between the light and the background. This may either throw interesting shadows or at least block the light from the background and such distractions and just light the face. It doesn’t matter where the light goes behind the camera, obviously. The low angle is what we’d call an ‘unnatural’ light, great for atmosphere and spooky looks with a face. You could even do the cliched torch/flashlight under the chin. Candles would be good but obviously have safety considerations that may be best avoided. If you wanted to get fancy, you could try getting all your Zoom screens to align with a ‘single’ light source by getting each actor to put their lamp in a specific spot related to where they end up on screen.

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