Have you ever struggled with the question of whether your video subject should be looking on- or off-camera?
You probably have. It’s one of the biggest decisions you have to make when you plan a shot of a single subject.
Why does it matter? Because your presentation is just as important as your content. The question you need to ask yourself is: how can my message be most effectively communicated?
Specifically, you need to ask:
- What is my goal with this shot?
- Are we using an interview format? Will the subject be speaking directly or indirectly to the viewers?
- Who are our viewers, exactly?
- How urgent is our message?
- What do we want the viewer to take away from this video?
It’s common to instruct your video subject to look away from the camera when you’re shooting a documentary or interview. It’s best when the interviewer and interviewee are both on-camera, having a conversation together.
Looking off-camera feels more dynamic, interactive and “real.” It will make your video seem natural and unscripted.
It’s also the best way to make a subject look at home in their environment, which is good if you want to highlight the video’s setting—for instance, if you’re shooting in an artist’s studio, their place of work, or out in nature.
Additionally, looking directly into the camera can be intimidating for subjects. Looking away from the lens can make them feel more relaxed and engaged, which in turn will make your video more compelling.
Lastly, looking off-camera tends to suggest objectivity and detachment, which will make your content more convincing.
Looking into the Camera
Having your subject look directly into the lens will instantly make your video feel more intense. Remember, looking at the camera is equivalent to looking directly into the viewer’s eyes.
This can be very effective in small doses as a way to communicate urgency. Even if you choose to have your subject look off-camera for most of the shoot, you can instruct them to look at the lens periodically to connect with the audience, especially when emphasizing a particular point.
This is also a good strategy in interviews when the interviewer themselves is off-camera. Looking at the lens forms a stronger and more direct connection with the viewer. You can see this at work when you watch the news—when you (the viewer) are presented with a “talking heads” scenario, notice where the reporters are looking and how open and expressive they seem.
As mentioned, looking directly at the camera for long periods can be intimidating. It will usually be more challenging for the subject than looking at an interviewer. Consequently, the success of this strategy is dependent on your subject’s skills.
Instructing your subject to look off-camera can put them at ease, and will make your video content feel natural. Conversely, looking into the lens will create an instant connection with your viewers. However, it can cause your content to feel stilted or staged. Ultimately, the right strategy depends on the needs of your video and the skill and comfort level of your subject.