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by Noam Kroll
October 7, 2013 10:22 AM
5 Comments
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How to Shoot with Natural Light: 10 Tips

A still from Noam Kroll's "Brother Sister."

Filmmaker Noam Kroll is working on his second feature, and he's blogging tips for fellow filmmakers on his blog.  Last week, we shared with you Kroll's five essential crew members for a skeleton crew, and this week, we're sharing with you his ten tips for shooting with available light.  Below, he covers how to make sure you're getting the most out of what nature has to offer.  Check out more from Kroll on his blog and his production company and post-production house Creative Rebellion here.

The practice of shooting with only natural or available light on cinematic productions can be fantastic if it suits your story and method of working on set and in pre-production. It’s important to recognize before going into production using only available light though, that it will not make things easier. It will simply shift the workload to different areas of the production. For example, it may seem freeing to not have to rent lights, set them up and move them for every shot. However, many film makers don’t realize that shooting with available light is often more challenging than shooting with a traditional lighting set up. While you save time and money not needing to set up and rent lighting gear, you need to spend extra time planning and researching before your shoot, otherwise your film will suffer.

There are many famous films that have made use of only natural light and in some cases have been some of the best examples of cinematography in history. Tree of Life for example, was shot using only natural light, and in fact Terrence Malick is one film maker that thrives on shooting without traditional lighting set ups. With that said, film makers like him have made sure to carefully prepare and take the necessary measures to ensure they are going to get a better result than they would have if they were to use lights.

Below are my tips on how to maintain a high level of production value while working with natural light.

#1 – Choose the right camera

We’ve all heard time and time again that it isn’t the camera that makes the image, it’s the DP. And while this is of course true, it is the responsibility of the DP to choose the right camera for the job and in the case of shooting with available light, you need to make sure you choose a tool that can adapt to your needs. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all answer for this. It really depends on the scope of your project, and specifically how many day shots vs. night shots you have. For example, if your entire film takes place outdoors during the day time, you are going to want a camera with a lot of dynamic range, so you don’t need to rely on any additional fill lighting to ensure you retain detail in the shadow areas. A budget conscious choice for this might be a camera like the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. However, if you are shooting mainly night shots with available light, this isn’t the camera for you. A camera like the C300 or even a 5D MKIII might be better in that case as it will have a far better sensitivity to low light. The last thing you want is to be stuck with material that just doesn’t work. Even if you’re shooting in raw on a Blackmagic or Red Scarlet, the images will be grainy. Raw doesn’t always mean better.

Noam Kroll

#2 – Pick the best lenses for the job

Choosing the right lenses is as important as the right camera. If you’re shooting mainly daytime exteriors – low contrast, wide primes will be your friend. They’ll cover your landscape shots and if you move them in close enough for dialogue scenes you can still get a shallow DOF, as outside your backgrounds are typically much further away than when shooting interiors. For nighttime exteriors or interiors, get a nice range of fast lenses, preferably with at least one wide. The ideal lens kit for shooting with available light might be something like Zeiss Superspeeds, or alternatively for a more budget oriented production, the Rokinon Cine Lenses would be an excellent choice. Or if you’re Stanley Kubrick and want to shoot with only available light (as he did on Barry Lyndon), you can use a 50mm NASA created F0.7 lens!

#3 – Use Reflectors and Flags

This is an obvious one, but there are going to be many scenarios where you need to fill in light, create negative fill, or add a splash of light in the background. If you don’t have lights, your only option are reflectors and flags. These can be inexpensive foam core boards that you buy at your local art supply store, or professional quality mirror boards and floppy’s from a film supply store. Choose what you need based on the budget and constraints of your project, but be sure to have these tools available to you. If you’re outside on a bright sunny day and your talent is completely washed out in sunlight, you’re going to want to use a flag to create some negative fill to give contrast to the actor’s face. Or conversely if your actor is side-lit and your camera isn’t picking up detail in the shadows, having that bounce will be crucial. Using flags and reflectors is one of the number one things that indie “natural light” productions don’t seem to pay enough attention to, and you can always spot it a mile away.

#4 – Make the Sun your backlight

For daytime exteriors, having the sun behind your actors or subjects is crucial. Watch any large scale feature film that is shot in available light and you’ll notice this is done in nearly every exterior day shot, and for good reason. One of the ugliest looks you can get when shooting with natural light is to have your actors faces blown out with harsh sunlight beating down on them, creating nasty shadows and unflattering images all around. By positioning your actors in a way that places the sun to be behind them to hit the back of their heads, you are essentially doing two things. First off, you’re protecting their face from taking in all of the sunlight which will not only make them look bad, but also cause them to squint. And secondly, with the sun behind them, they will naturally have a backlight that will separate them from the background and create a nice rim around their heads, with nice even lighting on their face.

#5 – Shoot during Blue Hour and Magic Hour

Blue hour is the short window of time after the sun goes down (or before it comes up) where the sky is still colorful, but the sun isn’t visible. And Magic Hour of course, is the hour leading up to sunset or just after sunrise. Both of these times of day are ideal for shooting as the natural quality of light outside at that time of day just can’t be beat. The trick is to  utilize these two times of day for different purposes. For example. Blue Hour is ideal when you need to shoot a short night time scene, but don’t have any lights. There is enough ambient light in the sky to provide definition on your actors while at the same time leaving the environment quite dark, giving the feeling of night time. Car headlights, houses with lights on and other artificial sources in the background will be completely visible during blue hour, helping you to sell that it is night time. Magic hour is really great for scenes that you would normally shoot in the day time (they don’t need to be sunset shots). It will simply make your life easier by providing a very soft and forgiving, warm natural light that will make your scene glow and feel somewhat, well, magical.

5 Comments

  • meneka Das | October 9, 2013 12:35 PMReply

    Thanks Noam, I am just discussing camera's & light with my DOP for my shoot in India coming up next year and your blog is so very informative and helpful. Also it's so simple explained which makes it v easy to follow so thanks! meneka

  • Buddy | October 7, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    Choosing the right camera: so film isn't even an option anymore? Depressing and short-sighted. I've shot on 16mm with a super low budget, including interiors with only natural light,with great results. The more film makers don't consider film an option, the more inevitable its disappearance becomes. Also, I've shot at night with candlelight with both a 5D and a Blackmagic with equally satisfying results.

  • dfd | January 16, 2014 1:57 AM

    Have you seen how outrageous film stock and telecine costs are? The cameras are fairly cheap to rent, but damn I got quoted for a music video and I was just like yeah I'll stick with digital...

    And when you have cameras like the red dragon that have dynamic range and color science that GO BEYOND film, there really isnt a logic to it anymore, unless you have shitloads of money to throw at your production

  • dfd | January 16, 2014 1:57 AM

    Have you seen how outrageous film stock and telecine costs are? The cameras are fairly cheap to rent, but damn I got quoted for a music video and I was just like yeah I'll stick with digital...

    And when you have cameras like the red dragon that have dynamic range and color science that GO BEYOND film, there really isnt a logic to it anymore, unless you have shitloads of money to throw at your production

  • dfd | January 16, 2014 1:57 AM

    Have you seen how outrageous film stock and telecine costs are? The cameras are fairly cheap to rent, but damn I got quoted for a music video and I was just like yeah I'll stick with digital...

    And when you have cameras like the red dragon that have dynamic range and color science that GO BEYOND film, there really isnt a logic to it anymore, unless you have shitloads of money to throw at your production