5 Tips for filming in natural light

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse , 2010. Cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe

The use of artificial lighting is, in may ways, the quintessential part of cinematography. It’s through lighting that the mood and look of the film is created but it’s also where the majority of carbon footprint often comes from.  If you have to shoot without lighting setup there is no reason to panic. You might be surprised by the quality that can be achieved. There are many examples of films beautifully shot without the use of set lighting. Some where filmed this way out of necessity others due to artistic choice.  Most recent example is The Revenant. Incredible cinematic experience worthy of an oscar. Alejandro González Iñárritu consciously decided to film with natural light only. He designed the production in a way that best utilised the beauty of locations and time of day. Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the most talented cinematographers of his generation, used light diffusers, blockers and reflectors to capture the scenes of The Revenant and it’s not the first time Lubezki’s cinematography earned him an oscar without any help from artificial lighting. In 2007 he received the award for Children of Men.
Alfonso Cuarón wanted his world to be as realistic as possible hence no electrical lighting used on location. One could argue that it was through the lack of lighting that the mood of the film, dark and ominous, has been achieved. The dystopian future look, with desaturated tones, worked beautifully when combined with handheld camera movement. So it is definitely possible to achieve great results with natural light. It takes a lot of work and careful planning but it is possible.  Many avant-garde movements, like cinema verite or dogma 95, embraced the idea of natural shooting to purposely distance themselves from the artifice of Hollywood. European cinema might be a great example where limitations of the budgets where the reason for using smaller setups. Finally there is sustainable filming and low carbon practices. Through a conscientious decision to limit the lighting on set, using LED lights or choosing well lit locations, you can severely reduce your CO2 emissions.

Here are our 5 tips for shooting with natural light:

1 Invest in fast lenses, neutral density filters and polarising filters.

Shooting in natural light gets rather difficult when there’s either too much or too little of it. Make sure your equipment can handle low light and high light conditions. Use polarising filters to remove any glaire and unwanted reflections and ND filters when the light is too bright. When shooting in low light it’s best to keep your ISO within the manufacturers specified native ISO. It helps with noise levels. Some cameras work best with specific ISO and it’s best to test your camera for noise levels before you shoot. For more advice on low light shooting look here.

2 Light blockers, flags and reflectors.

Using sunlight for filming can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint but it’s not easy to take control over your scene lighting without flags, reflectors and diffusers. These can be portable and light or chunky and heavy, so if your main priority is C02 reduction think of how it will affect your transport arrangements. If you plan to DIY your blockers or use mirrors as reflectors make sure they are sturdy and keep a member of staff in charge of safety.

3 Use a sun tracker

Never miss the magic hour and take control over your production with a variety of sun tracking apps. It’s easier to always have the sun as back light when you know exactly where it’ll be positioned at a certain time of day.

4 Make continuity your priority

The sun is fickle and can change in minutes. Make sure you keep an eye on your levels to avoid jarring light changes from shot to shot. Make sure you’re looking for continuity of lighting between your close up and mid, for example. Think how it’ll look in edit and try giving your audience a chance to understand the conditions. Use wide shots clearly showing the moving shadows or establishing shots with moving clouds etc…It will make your editors job much easier.

5 Reduce contrast

Get rid of any contrast boosting settings on your camera. Shoot as flat as possible to preserve the information in the shadows and brights.  Use all available meters, histogram and zebra stripes to judge the brightness of your scene. Make sure you shoot with nice, flat levels.

 

 

 

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