Gear and Tips for Lighting a Table Scene or Roundtable Discussion

In this video from Aputure, Director of Photography Julia Swain is invited to share her techniques for lighting a dinner table scene, which are common to film productions, but also have applications in the corporate and documentary video world. After the video, check out some of my own personal examples from lighting a similar setup, but instead for a corporate roundtable with an all black background.

China balls are a great, inexpensive way to light a scene or room with soft, even light. They sometimes don't offer a ton of output, but using high wattage bulbs or bouncing additional lights are both ways to increase the brightness of your scene.

While Julia's technique offered a great way to light a dinner table scene, I wanted to share some images from a shoot I was recently hired on to do, where we wanted to capture a roundtable discussion (unscripted) between four people, speaking on issues relevant to their industry. We shot several of these over the course of three months, and for our first time out, used a Jem ball. It became obvious right away that we needed to control the spill on to our background, so we used duvetyne to flag the light, just as Julia suggests in the video.

The results were OK but the rigging on the light looked rather amateur, and not wanting to present ourselves this way in front of our corporate client, we decided to go all in on the next job and buy a Chimera Pancake, with a fully adjustable a skirt. And it's fantastic. (As you'll notice, we also opted to hang black duvetyne around the scene.)

The light is very soft and even, and with the white tablecloth, we get a natural bounce back into the faces of our speakers. The skirt keeps the light from spilling on our background, and we were able to easily achieve an all black background. We ultimately decided to omit putting backlight on each person. As nice as that would have been, we decided against it due to the time needed to add a very controlled backlight — a harsh rim would not have been pleasant. We were happy enough with the look from the single light, and were OK with letting the edges of the speakers bleed into the darkness.

We shot our scene with four cameras: a wide master shot, two closeups on one side without operators, and a single on the other side with an operator to get the two opposing speakers.

Have you ever shot a roundtable or dinner table scene? How did you do it and what would you do differently if you were to do it again?

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Mike Wilkinson is an award-winning video director with his company Wilkinson Visual, currently based out of Lexington, Kentucky. Mike has been working in production for over 10 years as a shooter, editor, and producer. His passion lies in outdoor adventures, documentary filmmaking, photography, and locally-sourced food and beer.

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