Optimizing Natural Light

I Rely on Natural Light

As a solo documentarian I enter filming opportunities trying to understand the stories in front of me by communicating with people nearby meanwhile internally straining to figure out appropriate shot coverage. These challenging, on-location necessities are enough to occupy most of my docu-mentality so my efforts at cinematic expression are often relegated to putting subjects in impromptu locations and filming under available light with my fixed (zoom) lens camera. I sought help creating better video under natural light conditions and found a CineSummit course entitled, “Don’t Fear The Sun: Create stunning exterior shots with basic gear” by Phillip Briggs. He discussed using low-tech tools with high-tech prediction strategies to work with natural light by maximizing sun cycle opportunities as a crepuscular filmmaker. Briggs gained his natural light manipulating skills working in independent film where, “we had so many locations requiring many moves and a scarcity of time to film that a lot of (shots) are just natural light and knowing where to stick the camera and have maybe a small bounce next to the lens just to fill in or give highlights to the talent”. Briggs’ on-line course seemed relevant for documentary filmmaking as applied to lighting sit-down interviews or repetitive actions on location. I was also introduced to working with challenging light conditions, making the most of the golden hours, and pre-planning when my optimal natural light might occur.

Natural Light Control

Filming midday scenes when set-up time is available is known to benefit from using or creating shade or diffuse overhead light for your subjects to help produce softer images during times of high contrast daylight. Briggs often began natural light shots by creating his own shade (or overhead diffusion) with scrims on stands or improvised ‘rags on frames’ such as a white or opal colored sheets suspended from a rod or line. Behind the-scenes photos revealed how he paired overhead diffusion with reflectors placed in nearby direct sunlight to create reflected key lights back onto the shaded actors. For even greater light control each actor received a personalized reflector with bounce sizes and distance from the subject used to alter brightness (larger = brighter) and zoom/spread (closer = more focused) for these key lights. Although this system requires bounces and shades be moved with the sun, the set-up offers light-weight light control and a method to counteract very harsh natural light conditions.

Natural Backlight with Reflected Key Lights

Briggs also showed some of his rapidly produced commercial work where he used high angle sun as a backlight without diffusion or shade but using large reflectors near the camera to bounce sufficient highlights back into frame to help balance exposure on the subject. For example, he had actors move to eclipse the sun (creating a nice halo) and into reflected light from a large white bounces covered in muslin diffusion to highlight an actor’s face. When Briggs films in a run and gun style he advocates using 6×6 or 12×12 reflectors to gather sufficient light and aims to capture that reflected light in the subject’s eyes as eye lights. Light texture control here depends on the reflectance of the bounces used ranging from “Ultra-bounce” to create a ‘punchy’ light, down to fold-up reflectors diffused with silk or muslin to create a softer reflected key light.

Planning For Optimal Natural Light

Briggs’ presentation introduced the use of software applications to plan for our daily arcs of shared sun and moonshine at your specific location(s) on your specific day(s) of filming. Applications such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Sun Surveyor, PhotoPills, and others graphically display sun and positions across every day for any location you select and help plan for the golden hours. Some of these applications also help determine if the sun will be visible over specific landmarks or behind the shadow of a mountain by calculating the sun’s angle relative to your elevation and the relative angle/elevation of your landmark. Good natural light assistant applications include a compass, use of your smart phone to simulate shots, calendars of optimal conditions and a myriad of logistics information to better work with natural light. To try this kind of software without buying you can visit The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) website for free desktop software to experiment with before you decide if you want to purchase the same software as a Smartphone app for about $5.

Efficient Golden Hour Filming

Briggs’ advice regarding how to use the naturally softer, ‘Golden Hour’ of twilight is to film wide and medium framed shots during moments of lovely light but film close-ups during less golden moments. This strategy produces sequences wherein the establishing and wider action shots hopefully have less need for color correction while higher contrast close-ups filmed earlier than pure dusk or later than pure dawn are easier to color correct to match your magic hour medium and wide shots.