No matter what platform you are teaching on, you most likely have run into issues at one time or another with trying to find the right lighting for teaching dance, yoga, or other movement online. Any number of these common complaints sound familiar?
We don't need to know all the technical mumbo jumbo of how autofocus works to solve our problem, just the basics. When webcams and digital cameras are trying to determine how to focus, they are seeking where light is bouncing off of surfaces, and is specifically seeking contrast. As dancers and movement artists, we are moving targets, so we're already harder to pin down than a seated subject. Multiple light sources to fill out the room and give it depth and interest is great, but when it comes to focusing on us and getting a good clear video output of us as instructors, we need to give our camera a little help. The best way to try to get some light coming from the same direction our camera is looking at us, and make it a consistent light--a wash light that will hit your form, and create some contrast with your background, so it knows you are the thing you want it to focus on.
A softbox light is the standard in photography and videography, and can be had for fairly reasonable prices. But even "fairly reasonable" can be out of budget when you're getting started with a home studio set-up, or will seem extraneous if you only plan to teach online temporarily and don't want to invest too much. Luckily, there are other ways to get a soft wash light for cheaper.
Clamp shop lights are my top go-to for on-demand lighting for photo shoots and video. They are super versatile, in and out of the studio:
If your ceiling is low enough and white, get some nice bright, warm white LED bulbs (75-100 watt equivalent LEDs). Put them in the clamp shop lights, clamp them to whatever you got hanging around--the back of a chair, the end of a curtain rod, anyplace 3-6+ feet off the floor is good--and bounce light off your ceiling. Aim for slightly in front of where you are standing/dancing primarily, so the light bounces off the ceiling onto where you are standing. You can experiment with placement, and overlap multiple lights to get the coverage you need. Cheap, easy to move around as needed.
If your ceiling isn't low enough or isn't white, you have to get a little craftier. Get yourself some white foam board, or paint a piece or two of cardboard bright white. Then this is the tricky bit: you will need something to mount it to, like a tripod, a tall coat rack, or hang from the ceiling from strings and hooks. Mount the poster board high up, and pointing down at about a 45 degree angle toward where you will be dancing. Then point your lights at the board(s) so it bounces off the board and onto you, creating indirect light. There are many videos on YouTube illustrating this simple but effective technique in harnessing the power of light with just a piece of white foam board! Look for "light bouncing photography" to see how easy it is. Like I said, the only tricky bit is the mounting part, since we don't all have obliging assistants to stand there and aim light at us for entire classes.
Final cheap option idea: big paper Chinese lanterns. On Amazon, you can get a pack of five 20" white paper lanterns (aka Chinese lanterns) for about $25, and a two pack of hanging light cords for around $12. Again, buy some warm white LEDs to put in them. They will appear very hot (bright) on camera, so hang them out of your shot as much as possible, but the light they cast is very gentle and even. It's the "poor man's softbox".
Bonus tip: Here is another use I made of paper lanterns I already had around my studio. For even broader diffusion, you can use scrim fabric, which is basically just white polyester fabric. Shown here, I had a UV protective curtain I draped over an IKEA rolling clothing rack and secured with small clips. I hung three 12" Chinese lanterns, each with 75 watt LED bulbs, behind it (there's only two in the pic, you're not crazy--I added one later). I plugged the three lanterns into one little power strip. It makes a very bright, yet diffused and even wall of light that I can roll anywhere I need in the room to balance light levels as needed. You can see here I also have a clamp light bouncing off the ceiling as well. The wall of light makes a great front light for me when I am talking to students on the camera on my laptop, and it makes a fill/wash light for the room generally when I am on the webcam mounted on top of the TV.
Here is a diagram of my lighting, camera, laptop, and television set up. Having a mirror makes it extra difficult, as the mirror is like have a second set of eyes on the other side of the room, reflecting a wide view. So trying to keep light sources, cameras, a laptop and a television out of view while offering a good view for my students is a struggle. But we did it.
(Edited 2/2021: We have since removed the rolling rack/scrim lights and added semi-pro softbox lighting behind the camera, and the uplight by the computer is now a ring light for a little more direct-but-soft lighting of the instructor while on the laptop camera. Other than that, the setup has worked great for us to get good light and color with minimal shadows.)
And here is the result of these lights. Out of shot is one 20" Chinese lantern over my head and slightly in front of me, and a clamp light bouncing off the ceiling to the right of me. There is another of those clamp lights behind the purple mandala folding screen in the back left corner, to give depth to the wall there, but it is wholly unnecessary really as it pertains to getting good video quality. Yes, there is some natural light in this image, but this more or less is what the light looks like even when the sun goes down with the lights I have set up in our small studio--all clamp lights and Chinese lanterns!
Is this more than most dance instructors need for their home studio streaming set up? Perhaps! But I'm going for as professional a lighting set-up as I could get on a budget. In addition to streaming, I am also recording the classes for my personal library. Also, the only overhead lights I have in this room are industrial fluorescents. So I had to start from scratch entirely on the lighting. The fact I was able to do it in such an affordable and flexible manner is something I am really pleased about.
Shay is the owner, director, and headmistress of Deep Roots Dance, Studio Deep Roots, and Deep Roots Live! Sharing the exciting and surreal journey into teaching online during the time of COVID-19, and the joys of staying connected to community when it seems the world is literally trying to keep us apart.