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How to Direct an On-Camera Interview

If you’ve directed an on-camera interview before, you know that it’s not as easy as it looks. It takes preparation, foresight and, perhaps most importantly, good emotional intelligence skills to get subjects to open up on camera.

In a previous post, we discussed some useful tips for conducting successful interviews, from knowing what questions to ask to getting your subject to loosen up. Here, we will cover some technical pointers to help you become not only an expert interviewer, but a skilled director as well.

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1. Find a place free of noise

First of all, you want to find a place that is free of interruptions and as little ambient noise as possible. There’s nothing worse than having background noise ruin your audio track.

2. Choose the right background

When selecting a spot, ask yourself, “Does this background add or take away from the video?” If there’s too little space between the interviewee and the wall behind him/her, this can create a sense of imprisonment. On the other hand, if there’s a lot of motion in the background, this can also distract viewers.

One solution to this is to use what’s called a shallow depth of field. With this technique, only what is a few feet in front of you will be in focus (the subject), while the rest of the background will appear blurred.

This will help viewers get a sense of the place where the interview is taking place but not distract them to the point that they lose sight of the main focus of the interview.

3. Decide where to place the subject and equipment

Next, you want to consider the environment before deciding where to place the camera, lights and microphone.

One way to do this is to think of a clock face: If the subject is positioned at the center of this imaginary clock face and the main camera is placed at 6 o’clock, then the interviewer should be positioned at 5 o’clock, while the remaining camera equipment should be placed between 6 and 11 o’clock. The positions from 7 to 8 o’clock can be used for any extra camera equipment.

If you’re doing the work of both an interviewer and director, the ideal setup requires using an external monitor so you can do both things from the position of the interviewer, away from the camera.

Remember to instruct the subject to direct his/her eyes 10 to 15 degrees to one side of the main camera so that he/she is not looking directly into the lens. (And make sure he/she is not using a wheeled or rotating chair. There’s nothing more distracting to the viewer than a fidgety subject who starts moving in his/her chair.)

If you’re going to include cutaways of the interviewer, it doesn’t really matter where he/she sits since you can record these questions in front a nicer backdrop at any time after the interview.

4. Set up lighting

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The next step to a perfect on-camera video is setting up a three-point lighting system to create the look and feel you’re going for.

There are three main lights that are necessary for a high-quality on-camera interview.

The first is the key light, which is the main light for the central scene of the interview; it is used as a reference for other lights in terms of intensity and temperature.

For example, if the key light is set to 5600K, then the other lights all need to be at about the same temperature or at a lower intensity.

While you generally want to go for a soft light because it is more flattering, you should be aware that it is not always the most appropriate kind of light for an on-camera interview; it all depends on the message you want to send and the tone of your video.

But let’s say you want to go for a soft light. In this case, the softness of the light depends on the size of the light source: the larger the source, the softer the light. You can also use modifiers such as a soft box or simply place the light closer to the subject.

The next thing you want to figure out is the angle at which you should position your key light. If you place it directly over the top of the camera, then you’ll find that your subject’s face looks flat and that very little shape is created.

If, however, you move your light source away from the camera to the left, you can create more shape; so, the farther away from the axis of the camera you move your lighting source, the more dramatic your video will look.

In terms of the vertical height of the key light, avoid lighting from below as this can create a very unnatural look. But as you move the source higher, say to 45 degrees above the subject, the light will fall nicely across the interviewee’s face.

The second component of your lighting system, the fill light, is used to balance the key light out and is placed opposite the key light. If it is used at the same intensity as the key light, then you have no shape, but as you dim the fill light, you’ll find that the shadows on the opposite side of the key light become more pronounced. As with the key light placement, it all depends on what you want to say and the tone of your video.


The third light is the hair light, which provides separation between the subject and the background; without it, the interviewee would blend in with the background. Try to place it as far behind the subject as possible but don’t let it appear in the shot.

The more intense this light is, the more separation it will provide between the subject and the background–and the more produced it will look. On the other hand, the less intense this light is, the more natural and subtle it will look.

This three-point lighting system will make your interviewee pop on camera and give your video a high-quality look. If, however, you don’t have professional lighting equipment, you can also position the interviewee in the glow of a large window but out of direct sunshine and use a bounce to reflect the natural sunlight.

5. Set up audio

Using an external dedicated recorder with a wireless clip-on microphone is ideal for capturing the audio coming from your subject, but if you don’t have one, you can also use a shotgun microphone on a fishpole boom. In other words, anything is better than using your camera’s onboard mic. Also, always record your audio on a separate track, which can later be synced with the video when it comes time to edit.

6. Compose your shots

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As mentioned previously, you should determine the subject’s eyeline before shooting and make sure he/she isn’t looking directly into the lens. Make sure he/she looks upright but comfortable and alert at the same time.

Next, you can decide whether you want a wide, medium or close-up shot. While closer shots add intensity and a sense of intimacy, wider shots have a more relaxed feel; they create more distance but also provide more contextual information in terms of where the interview is taking place.

Most standard interviews use medium shots that provide some headroom above the interviewee and go down to about the level of the shirt pocket, as well as close-up shots of hand movements and gestures.

A good rule of thumb is to follow the rule of thirds, which applies not only to photography but video as well. Just think of a frame divided into a 3×3 grid. The subject should appear at one of the intersections. In this way, the interviewee’s face should fall along the right or left vertical line but never perfectly in the center of the shot.

7. Use b-roll

One way to edit your video so that it doesn’t have any jumps is to use b-roll. The best way to do this is to interview people in their environments, which not only makes them more comfortable, it also provides many more opportunities for getting b-roll.

And lastly, one more handy expert tip: Set aside enough time for the interview as you do for getting b-roll. This will help you rest assured that you will have more than enough material to put together a seamless video when it comes time to edit.

What about your on-camera interviews? If you have any expert directing tips or techniques you don’t see here, we would love to hear from you. Just drop us a line in the comments section below.

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