The practice of shooting with natural or available light in film productions can be fantastic if it fits your story and way of working on set and in pre-production. However, it is important to realize before starting production and using only available light that this does not make things easier. It will simply shift the workload to different areas of production. For example, it may seem liberating not to have to rent lights, set them up, and move them around for each shot. However, many filmmakers do not realize that shooting with available light is often more difficult than shooting with conventional lighting. While you save time and money without having to set up and borrow lighting equipment, you need to spend extra time planning and researching before shooting, otherwise your film will suffer.
There are many famous films that only use natural light and in some cases have been some of the best examples of cinematography in history. For example, Tree of Life was shot with natural light only, and Terrence Malick is actually a filmmaker who lives from shooting without conventional lighting configurations. With this in mind, filmmakers like him have taken great care to prepare and take the necessary measures to ensure that they achieve a better result than if they used light.
Below are my tips for maintaining a high production value when working with natural light.
# 1 – Choose the right camera
We have heard over and over again that it is not the camera that takes the picture, but the DP. And although this is of course true, it is the responsibility of the data protection officer to choose the right camera for the job. When shooting with available light, you need to make sure you choose a tool that adapts to your needs. Unfortunately there is no uniform answer for this. It really depends on the size of your project and especially how many day and night shots you have. For example, if your entire movie is running outdoors during the day, you need a camera with a lot of dynamic range, so you don't have to rely on additional fill lighting to ensure that the details stay in the shaded areas. A budget-conscious choice for this could be a camera like the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. However, if you mainly take night shots with available light, this is not the camera for you. A camera like the C300 or even a 5D MKIII may be better in this case as it has far better sensitivity to poor lighting conditions. The last thing you want is to hold on with material that just doesn't work. Even if you're shooting raw on a Blackmagic or Red Scarlet, the images are grainy. Raw doesn't always mean better.
# 2 – Choose the best lenses for the job
Choosing the right lenses is as important as choosing the right camera. If you mainly shoot outdoors during the day – with low contrast, wide prime numbers are your friend. They cover your landscape photos. If you move them close enough for dialogue scenes, you will still get a shallow DOF, as your backgrounds are usually much further away than indoors. For nighttime outdoor or indoor spaces, get a nice selection of fast lenses, preferably with at least one wide one. The ideal lens kit for shooting with available light could be Zeiss Superspeeds, or alternatively, for a more budget-focused production, the Rokinon Cine lenses would be an excellent choice. Or if you're Stanley Kubrick and just want to take pictures with available light (like Barry Lyndon), you can use a NASA-made 50mm F0.7 lens!
# 3 – Use reflectors and flags
This is obvious, but there will be many scenarios where you need to fill in light, create a negative fill, or add a splash of light to the background. If you have no light, you can only use reflectors and flags. These can be inexpensive foam sheets that you buy in your local art store, or professional quality mirror and diskettes in a movie store. Choose what you need based on your project's budget and constraints. However, make sure that these tools are available to you. If you're out on a bright sunny day and your talent is completely washed out in sunlight, consider using a flag to create a negative fill that contrasts the actor's face. Or vice versa, if your actor is illuminated from the side and your camera does not take details in the shadow, it is crucial that this jump takes place. The use of flags and reflectors is one of the most important things that indie "natural light" productions don't seem to pay enough attention to, and you can always see them a mile away.
# 4 – Make the sun your backlight
For the outdoor area during the day, it is crucial to have the sun behind your actors or motifs. Watch a large-format feature film that is shot in the available light, and you will find that this is the case with almost every outdoor shot for a reason. One of the ugliest looks you can get when shooting with natural light is that your actors' faces are blown out with strong sunlight, creating nasty shadows and flattering pictures. By positioning your actors so that the sun is behind them and hitting the back of their heads, you are essentially doing two things. First of all, protect your face from absorbing all the sunlight, which not only makes them look bad, but squint. And secondly, with the sun behind them, there is of course a backlight that separates them from the background and forms a beautiful border around their heads, with a beautiful, even lighting on the face.
# 5 – Shoot during blue hour and magic hour
The blue hour is the short window of time after sunset (or before sunrise) in which the sky is still colorful, but the sun is not visible. And Magic Hour is of course the hour before sunset or just after sunrise. Both times of the day are ideal for taking pictures because the natural quality of light outside at this time of day simply cannot be surpassed. The trick is to use these two times of the day for different purposes. For example. Blue Hour is ideal when you need to shoot a short night scene but have no lights. There is enough ambient light in the sky to give your actors a definition, while at the same time the environment remains fairly dark and creates the feeling of the night. Car headlights, houses with lights on, and other artificial sources in the background are fully visible during the blue hour, so you can sell that it's night. The magic hour is great for scenes that you would normally shoot during the day (they don't have to be sunset shots). It will simply make your life easier by delivering a very soft and forgiving, warm natural light that will make your scene glow and feel a bit magical.
# 6- sample, sample, sample
If you want to work with available light, you need to be aware that you don't have all the time in the world to take a particular shot. Your light source is constantly moving and disappears very quickly in the case of blue hour or magic hour. The only way to get what you need at this time of day is to have your actors rehearsed perfectly. I was in situations where we have 15 minutes until we lose all light from the sun and the actors are unprepared. They drop lines one by one and I have to take parts of the scene line by line to make sure we have everything in the can. This is never ideal and, in some cases, can mean you don't have to finish your scene and spend another whole day re-recording. So make sure your actors are exceptionally well prepared. Take the extra time during the rehearsal as you will surely not have it on the set.
# 7 – Choose the right locations
This may sound obvious, but indie filmmakers keep making the mistake of getting lazy when shooting with natural light. If you don't have light, you can't just take pictures everywhere and relax in other production areas. You need to spend a lot of time picking places that work with available light. For example, if you're shooting an interior of a bedroom scene in the middle of the day, you need to make sure there is enough light in the room. Is there a window in the room? A skylight? Is there a tree outside that blocks the light after a certain amount of time? All of these little questions are important to ensure that the locations you choose work. It is also important that you perform camera tests at these locations. You may have a parking garage where you want to take pictures. However, the type of lighting they use can cause your camera to blink, or it is simply too flat. Choose places that are good for shooting without light.
# 8 – Have a strong art department
For a film on a really low budget, this may only be a single person, but make sure that someone can fill that position. Building on what we've discussed in # 7, it's just as important to have someone who can work with your locations to get the most out of them. In some cases it can be as easy to move some furniture around to make sure the light from the windows hits the motifs. For larger productions, it can get more complex when you actually need to create new windows or rooms at your location to work with the angle of sunlight. This really goes hand in hand with choosing the right places as if you were choosing a perfect place. The art department may not have to work so tirelessly to make sure you still get the light you need, or vice versa, if you are stuck in a place that just doesn't work, it may save the day.
# 9 – Use internships
Much of this post focused on outdoor areas or lighting indoor spaces with daylight, but what about indoor spaces at night? Internships (lights that are visible in the photo) are your friend here. You may want to use something as simple as a lamp strategically positioned next to your actor to give him a key light. In another scenario, a character may be sitting in the driveway while another person is watching TV. In this case, you can probably use the car headlights to shoot light through the window. Or it is as simple as using a dimmer switch when taking pictures in a house. This can do a lot because you may just want to dim the backlight and leave more lights on in the main area to fill your subject. The use of dimmers really helps to control the lighting effortlessly.
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# 10 – Preparation is the key
Probably the most important item on this list. You definitely need to plan more preparation time to plan your shoot with natural light. If you want to take pictures in a parking lot, you have to go there beforehand and see how the light hits this parking lot every hour. You need to know if a building is casting a shadow and if so if this is good or bad for your needs. You need to know your sunrise and sunset times by heart and be ready to work quickly under the tight time windows that you have open. I mentioned above how important it is to rehearse your cast, which also falls into this category. However, it is just as important that your crew is prepared and ready for action. When shooting with available light, especially during magic hour, you literally have minutes to take the shot you need. So make sure you are prepared, on time, or set up early and that the crew is ready and the actors know their lines. From there it is up to you to realize the magic.
Taking pictures with natural light can be a very liberating way to approach the craft of filmmaking. If you do this well, you can get results that, in some scenarios, far exceed what you could have done with traditional lighting. However, you will only get these results if you plan properly, choose the right tools, and do your research on locations and daylight. It is also important that there is a reason for choosing natural light, aside from the fact that you may think that it is easier to work with (which is not the case). If your story requires a very organic, natural look, using available light can be one of the best decisions you will make regarding the aesthetics of your production. However, if you're shooting an action movie that may not benefit from this technique as well, don't use it simply because you can. Make the right choice for your project and if you want to use available light, take the necessary measures to make it look nice.
For me personally, one of the biggest advantages of taking pictures with natural light is being able to move your camera freely around the scene (without having to put lights to hide it). For those of you who like to use steadicams or handhelds, this is really liberating as you can be really spontaneous and follow the action of the scene. More information on stabilization can be found in mine current article about MōVI.
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!