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‘Insecure’s Photography Director Ava Berkofsky Talks Lighting Black Faces

Even though we’re only halfway through the second season, HBO has already done the right thing and greenlighted the Issa Rae hit Insecure for a third season. Back in 2016, before its premiere, Rae spoke about the show saying that it would, “examine the complexities of ‘blackness’ and the reality that you can’t escape being black. We’re just trying to convey that people of color are relatable. This is not a hood story. This is about regular people living life.”

One particular thing that’s been noticed is that the black leads (AKA ALL OF THE LEADS) tend to always light up on the screen, including the dark-skinned ones, something that we aren’t always used to seeing. The answer? Having someone who knows how to light them. 


It’s pretty well known that if you’re trying to capture anything with a camera whether it be a full-length film or just that perfect selfie, bad lighting can destroy footage while good lighting can take everything to another level. Ava Berkofsky is Insecure’s current Director of Photography and is no stranger to the downfalls of bad lighting and explained exactly how she avoids it for the show:

“When I was in film school, no one ever talked about lighting nonwhite people. There are all these general rules about lighting people of color, like throw green light or amber light at them. It’s weird. These rules are a start, but they’re far from a complete picture. The conventional way of doing things was that if you put the skin tones around 70 IRE. (Institue of Radio Engineers, a unit used to measure composite video signals) If you’ve got black skin, dialing it up to 50 or 70 is just going to make the rest of the image look weird.”

Berkofsky has also called out shows like Boardwalk Empire in the past for not having proper lighting when there are black and white actors in a scene. According to her, how to give TV shows the theatrical feel we get from movies literally all boils down to the specific levels of light in each scene:

“In sitcoms, everything is the same level of brightness. That’s what I’m trying to avoid. The trick is keeping [light] off the walls. If you keep it off the walls, you can expose for the faces and it still has a cinematic look…Rather than pound someone’s face with light, I have the light reflect off them. I always use a white or canvas-like muslin, so instead of adding more light, the skin can reflect it.”

Ava Berkofsky even gave a tip for how to take that ultimate club selfie by suggesting standing near a soft light and then turning “three quarters to the light, so that it’s not filling in everything the same way. Kind of like a Rembrandt painting.” Her full interview can be read here.

Have you been watching Insecure? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Insecure season 2 is currently airing on HBO on Sunday nights at 11 PM.


1 Comment »

  1. As a photographer in training I definitely see and understand what Ava is talking about. It really makes a difference that dark skin is seen in pleasing light. Bravo to her for acknowledging that not all skin tones require the same lighting, and finding an amazing technique to address dark skin in film. I won’t be surprised when other directiors of photography adopt Ava’s signature style!

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