#6- Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
If you plan on working with available light you need to be aware that you will not have all the time in the world to get any given shot. Your light source is constantly moving around and in the case of Blue Hour or Magic Hour, dissapearing very quickly. The only way you are going to be able to get what you need to get during this time of day is to have your actors perfectly rehearsed. I’ve been in situations where we have 15 minutes until we lose all light from the sun and the actors aren’t prepared. They drop lines take after take and I’m left scrambling to shoot parts of the scene line by line to ensure that we get everything in the can. This is never ideal and in some cases it may mean that you don’t complete your scene and you need to spend another full day doing re-shoots. So make sure your actors are exceptionally well prepared. Take the extra time during rehearsal because you certainly won’t have it on set.
#7 – Choose the right locations
This also may sound obvious, but time and time again indie film makers will make the mistake of getting lazy when shooting with natural light. Not having lights doesn’t mean you can just shoot anywhere and slack off in other areas of production. You need to spend a good amount of time picking locations that will 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 that room has enough light coming in. Is there a window in the room? A skylight? Is there a tree outside that will block the light after a certain time? All of these little questions are critical to ensure that the locations you are choosing will work. It is also importnat that you do camera tests at these locations. You may have a parking garage that you want to shoot in. But the type of lighting they are using may cause strobing with your camera, or maybe it is just too flat. Choose locations that will lend themselves well to shooting without lights.
#8 – Have a strong art department
On a really low budget film, this may just be a single person, but make sure someone can fill this position. Building off of what we discussed in #7, it is equally important to have someone who can work with your locations to get the most out of them. In some cases, it may be as simple as moving some furniture around to ensure that the spill of light from the windows hits the subjects. On larger productions, it may get more complex where you actually need to create new windows or rooms within your location to work with the angle of the sunlight. This really does go hand in hand with choosing the right locations as if you choose a perfect location, the art department may not need to work as tirelessly to ensure you still get the light that you need, or conversely if you’re stuck with a location that just isn’t working, they may be able to save the day.
#9 – Use practicals
Much of this post has focused on exteriors, or lighting interiors with daylight, but what about interiors at night? Practicals (lights that are visible in the shot) are your friend here. You may want to use something as simple as a lamp, positioned stategically next to your actor to give them a key light. Or in another scenario, you may have a character sitting in the driveway while another is inside watching TV – in this case you can likely use the car headlights to shoot light through the window. Or it may be as simple as using a dimmer switch when shooting inside a house. This can do a lot as you may want to dim just the background lighting and leave more lights on in the main area as fill for your subject. Using dimmers really helps to control lighting with ease.
#10 – Preparation is key
Arguably the most important point on this list. You absolutely need to set aside more prep time to plan for your natural light shoot. If you’re going to shoot in a parking lot, you need to go there before hand and see how the light hits that parking lot at every hour. You need to know if there is a building casting a shadow, and if so whether that is good or bad for your needs. You need to know your sunrise and sunset times off by heart and be prepared to work quickly under those tight windows of time you have open. I mentioned above the importance of rehearsing your cast, which falls into this category as well. But what is just as crucial is having your crew prepared and ready to go. When shooting with available light, especially during Magic Hour, you literally have minutes to get the shot you need. So make sure you are prepared, set up on time or early, and ensure the crew is ready to go and the actors know their lines. From there, it’s up to you to make the magic happen.
Shooting with natural light can be a very liberating way to approach the craft of film making. When done well, you can get results that in some scenarios may far exceed what you could have done with traditional lighting. With that said though, you will only get these results if you plan properly, choose the right tools and do your research when it comes to locations and day light. It’s also important that if you choose to use natural light there is a reason to do so, other than the fact that you may think it is easier to work with (which is not the case). If your story calls for a very organic, natural look than using available light can be one of the best choices you’ll make as far as the aesthetics of your production. However if you’re shooting an action film that may not benefit as well from this technique than don’t simply use it because you can. Make the right choice for your project and if it is to use available light, than take the necessary steps to make it look beautiful.