An obvious, but somewhat overlooked, difference between using artificial lights vs. harvesting sunlight is that we can’t control the sun. Taking the time to plan the position of our cameras, select the proper lenses, and figure out how to block our talent becomes essential decisions if we are using the sun as our keylight. Timing is critical as the weather is not always on our side and we might need to match the quality and direction of the light available with what we’re working with. The constantly changing position of our light source becomes a strategic dance. If we don’t follow its steps fast enough we might create unwanted shadows with the crew or gear.
Most photography textbooks will recommend keeping the sun behind you or on your side, but sometimes placing the light behind your subjects or objects can generate some interesting effects besides the expected silhouettes.
For a short interview, we can easily use a silk to soften a hard noon light and a portable disc reflector to bounce it and add fill light. This is a great way to work quickly with a small crew and just couple of tools. A silver reflector, one of the most traditional tools, typically increases the specular highlights and yields a more contrasted image. Lately I’ve been using my gold reflector more as it produces more fill, often enhances skin tones, and provides a bit of “punch” to the subject.
Nets are also fantastic options to decrease the exposure on faces without affecting the overall frame. The opposite effect can be achieved with small LED lights, like Cineo Matchstix, placed in front of the talent, in front of a laptop, or on a dashboard to help bring detail to the subject’s face without compromising the background.
I approach these tools as my “brush tool” just as I would in Photoshop or Lightroom, which is equivalent to “masking” in post. The difference is that by doing this on camera in real time I know exactly what the end result will be, there’s no second guessing. I’ve always preferred to spend more time behind the camera than at my computer.
For longer pieces—let’s say a dialog scene between two people—that require several takes, we most likely will run into lighting continuity issues, especially if we are mixing different takes or angles in post. In this case we can still harvest the sun as our main light source, but I’d probably add a 1×1 LED on a battery, like the Astra™ 1×1 Bi-Color, to achieve a more consistent look. I ran into this situation recently while shooting a series of tutorials. Even though we blocked the windows as much as we could and used an LED light (I was talking to the camera for hours!), a second LED as a backlight, and a third LED to create additional depth, there was about a stop of exposure change from the first take at 9 a.m. to the last one at about 5 p.m. Since we were not intercutting between takes, we knew it wouldn’t be very noticeable in the end, but we will still need to match the exposures in post regardless.
In filmmaking, it is often far from ideal to shoot against the harsh noon light, but if you’re on a tight budget I’ve got good news. It is possible to harvest lots of light at noon for my favorite price: Free! I like to use this “bad time” to shoot pick up shots, the kind we often have to “steal” with a skeleton crew working as a SWAT team. The essential pieces of gear here are ND filters—the more, the better. Not only do they help control exposure, we can also bring it low enough to use fast lenses and wide apertures, which greatly decreases our depth of field and takes care of other logistical challenges: model and property releases. So we kill two birds with one stone or, rather, fix two issues with one tool.
One of the most frustrating things about working with sunlight is that once you decide on an angle or fix the exposure somewhere, something else has already changed. My approach is to arrive prepared with a very clear understanding of what is essential to the shot (and the story) and what can be sacrificed that can be done as fast as possible. Of course, on an ideal set you will always want to control every bit of light possible but we don’t always have the luxury (or the funding) to do this, especially if you’re an independent filmmaker. Learning to work with what you’ve got becomes an essential part of the filmmaking game. So, if you ask me “Is working with natural light doable?” my answer is: Absolutely!
Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.