As independent filmmakers we are always on the look out for ways to minimize cost and still produce material that looks great. Buying or renting lights is expensive, and not every project will have the budget for it. Even less so on short films.
Using natural light or available light can be an excellent way of filming on a budget
You may be tempted to think that this will be a much easier approach than using lights for your production, but the reality is that using natural light can be just as difficult. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how to best utilize the light and locations you have available to you.
Here are 3 tips on how to use natural light for your production;
- Place the action according to the light
When using artificial lights you have the luxury of lighting a set according to how it is already set up at the location or how you want to decorate it initially.
When using natural light you will have to arrange the action and even decorate the room according to the available light.
In Terrence Malick’s classic; The Tree of Life, you will often find that the day interior scenes have been shot near windows. The light from the windows acts as the primary source of light and the scenes play out close to them.
You can play around with the look of the scene by experimenting with the actors’ proximity to the main source of light as well as the placement of the camera.
If you place the camera shooting parallel to the window you can get an interesting and natural side lit look reminiscent of Rembrandt’s paintings. In his paintings he would illuminate his subjects from the side casting controlled shadows that add a natural sense of dimensionality.
If you were to place the camera facing the window you can use it as a backlight.
When shooting exterior scenes, you need to consider whether you will place the action in direct sunlight or in a shaded area.
If you were to place the action in a shaded area many of the same principles I described above apply as well. Filming in the shade will give your scene a softer look but watch out for small spots of blown out sunlight.
When filming in direct sunlight, try to avoid placing the actors facing the sun directly. This will increase the chance of their faces being blown out, creating a more washed out look as well as causing them to squint (unless this is the look you are going for, most of us aren’t).
Experiment with placing the actors so that the sun acts as a backlight and is hidden behind their heads, the light will be more even on their faces and the rim of light around their heads will help them separate from the background.
2. Bounce, diffuse and flag it.
So much can be done with a bit of creativity and a good understanding of shaping light using bounce boards and diffusion.
One of the main issues we have to deal with when using natural light is the power of the sun and the shadows it so easily creates. Poorly planned exterior scenes can easily end up looking too contrasty with unpleasant shadows.
When shooting in direct sunlight, it is really helpful to use a bounce board or something similar to create fill to avoid unwanted shadows. If you desire to create a softer look, but still need the action to be in direct sunlight, you can use a large piece of diffusion.
If you are filming an interior scene and need to diffuse the light coming in through the windows you can even use curtains as a form of diffusion or a flag. In many of the above mentioned scenes from Tree of Life, thin curtains are used to diffuse the light to create a softer look.
In other scenes the curtains are thicker and function more like flags that let much less light in.
For one short film I worked on as a DP I even applied diffusion covering whole sections of windows making it look like the glass was muted. This gave the scene a pleasant soft look.
3. Select the right time of day and the right conditions
The cycle of the sun provides many different conditions throughout the day. Great cinematographers know how to film at the right time of the day to aid the story of the film.
Sunrise or sunset, also known as golden hour, provide wonderful soft and colorful light that has an almost magical quality. Due to the diffused sunlight you can even catch flares without blowing out your highlights, midtones or shadows if you want to use the sun for backlight.
Midday provides much harsher light. As an example, this could be used to your advantage if you want a grittier and more rough look.
Blue hour is the time right before sunrise and right after sunset. It is great if you want to film a brief night scene. It is light enough to film without artificial lights yet has a night like quality.
Filming on an overcast day can be much easier to manage as the light changes less throughout the day. The clouds diffuse the light and give a much softer and more neutral light.
Filming using only natural light requires a lot of planning. You have less time and the conditions of the light change throughout the day. The available light influences the way the scene is done more so than if you were to use artificial lights.
If done right filming only using natural light can be a rewarding experience. It is an opportunity to create beautiful imagery. For further inspiration I encourage you to explore some of these movies; The Tree of life, Days of Heaven, The Revenant, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward of Robert Ford, Children of Men, Amadeus, Pride and Prejudice.