Lighting Your Way to Better Webcam Shots

Lighting Your Way to Better Webcam Shots

Tired of bringing knives to gun fights? Learn how to light your stuff the right way.


These days, almost every Mac owner is using an iSight or some other kind of webcam. Apple’s building them into Macs, fer chrissakes, and people who bought Macs that don’t include the iSight can choose from a wide selection of cameras for their monitors or desks. Most webcams are designed to analyze the lighting and make adjustments for the best picture. But what if the lighting in your room is not suited for your camera? Your friends will mock you and avoid your counsel, shunning you as they verily should. Or, you know, you’ll just look peaked. But by controlling sources of light in the room, you can improve the way you look when you use the webcam, and additional lights can give you the look of studio lighting without actually converting your computer room to a studio.


What you need (Level: Easy)
1. Webcam
2. Desire (and maybe permission) to make some changes to the room where you use your computer most

3. Some lighting fixtures or equipment (for steps2, 3, and 4); we use a sub-$25 wall spot from IKEA and a clamp-on light from Target


1. Learn How Your Camera Reacts to Light


It doesn't get much better than this. Wait a minute, yes it does.


Launch iChat and select Video > Video Preview. How do you look? Is the image too dark or too light? If the light source is too close to you, your camera may either close its iris, which makes most of the picture darker, or it may keep the iris open, which keeps the picture bright and lets part of your face wash out. Change the positions of the lights or camera. Watch how your camera adjusts itself, if at all.


In my “before” shot, the left side of my face is a bit washed out, and everything has a sickly yellow cast. My blue shirt looks black. Behind me is a window, which causes no problems at night but overpowers my lights during the days. Such a strong light source behind me causes my camera to close its iris to compensate, darkening my face to the point it becomes unrecognizable. For the best image, I should either hang a curtain, or only chat at night. Or I could add more powerful lights to be used during the day.


The ugly yellow cast appears because my webcam can’t find a white balance for my light source. Indoors, the most common sources of light are fluorescent (including the lights in this room), and incandescent, usually from bulbs that use tungsten filaments. Both have different color temperatures. It seems that my camera doesn’t like fluorescent light. But even if you have a camera that can adjust its white balance, it’s smart not to mix lights of different temperatures, because that can cause strange color problems in some parts of the frame. In rooms with windows, the light leaking in usually has a different color temperature than the interior lights.


2. Add a Spotlight


Me, as James Bond. A very, very washed out James Bond.


Television studio lighting usually begins with a key light, usually a directional spotlight placed on the talent to provide enough light to begin shooting. The key light tends to cast stark shadows on the face, but you can fill those in during the next step. You won’t get a key light from most lamps, which are designed to provide softer light. Visit a hardware store and look for a spotlight that would look good on your wall.


However, the main problem with trying to achieve studio lighting effects with most residential lighting equipment is the lack of control you’ll have over the lights. Unless your spotlight is on a dimmer, all you can do to weaken it is move it farther away or switch to a bulb that uses less energy.


The shadows created by placing the light above me and to the left are interesting, but I’m still washed out because my webcam’s automatic iris would prefer to keep the scene brighter. I can’t move this spotlight far enough away, because there’s a wall in the way. I also don’t have the spotlight on a dimmer, and don’t have any less-bright bulbs handy, so there’s nothing I can do to restore the detail to my face. Overall, it’s still an improvement from the original scene because I matched the light to the white balance setting of the camera.




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