We discuss how to shoot in natural light and why it’s one of the most appealing aesthetic choices when it comes to the look of your film.
It isn’t for nothing that natural light is somewhat of a holy grail when it comes to shooting. Industry titans and budding artists alike swear by it, and its apparent ubiquitous nature is what makes it such a tempting aesthetic choice. If you, like many filmmakers, are wondering why is natural lighting used in films, the answer is quite simple, really. It can be adjusted or even played with, and yield some beautiful looking shots — be it silhouettes, glamor shots, or soft and radiant looking landscapes. Of course, this makes it the ideal choice for aspiring filmmakers who are not likely to invest a lot of money in expensive equipment right at the start of their careers. It will allow them to get a strong hold on their own filmmaking vision, free of all excesses.
Besides, shooting in natural light is a great way to gauge your technical skill, and be thoroughly acquainted with the basics of your craft before you move on to bigger, more elaborate and technically complex film sets.
Even acclaimed filmmakers like Terence Malik and Janusz Kamiński extolled the virtues of films shot with natural light. For example, the former’s era-defining film The Tree of Life (2011) is one of the foremost studies of the effect of natural lighting in film. However, it is not as spontaneous a process as we’d like to believe. Like most creative endeavors, it requires planning, strategy and a clear vision.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some natural lighting photography tips and tricks to ensure that filmmakers can get the most out of natural light cinematography, even when they are shooting without complex equipment.
Prioritizing Light and Environment
1. Like any other process that a cinematographer will encounter while shooting a film, shooting in natural light without a huge crew or equipment also requires careful planning. One does not simply pick up a camera and document the first thing that comes into view. So, in order to truly make the most of the creative freedom that this minimalist approach to filmmaking will grant you, it is extremely important to make a visualization (storyboarding or mood boards will help) of what aesthetic and tone you want in your project, and treat that as a roadmap to the entire process. Letting this guide your technical and aesthetic decisions will streamline the workflow and make everything considerably more coherent.
2. Light, especially natural light, is notoriously fickle. Dawn shots will have a radically different texture than the footage that is captured at golden hour. Similarly, noon light will have a harshness to it that twilight shots will lack. So, it is crucial that one plans the shoot accordingly. Visual continuity is extremely important here, and not taking these changes into account will cause the footage to look out of place, sloppy and amateur-ish.
3. If the film is being shot on location, it’s important for the cinematographer to become familiar with the area and have a hands-on experience of light, angles, and distance. It will also allow you to create a highly emotive mise en scène that complements the narrative while looking visually attractive. Keeping this in mind will also allow the filmmaker to observe how the light behaves throughout the day and tweak the shooting process accordingly.
4. In fact, a lot of the finer details of shooting in natural light without any crew or additional equipment rest upon a simple understanding: One has to modify the shoot according to natural light and not the other way around. To that end, it is important to be flexible and open-minded about the process, and be on the lookout for good lighting and precise angles. Speed is very much of essence in this situation.
5. The most difficult phase is to determine where the greatest contrast exists, and it’s probably the most crucial. It’s like having a secret weapon once you’ve mastered it. Optimally, this will require you to quickly determine where to shoot based on the natural contrast and surroundings. Otherwise, if you don’t know what you’re searching for, you’ll lose time trying things and getting the best light of the day. As we mentioned before, it is crucial to be quick and shoot a lot of footage in a very alert manner, so as to capture the light when it is at its best. The light in this scenario is less controlled than studio or professional lighting tools, but that does not negate your creative influence.
Create the Ambience You’re Looking For
6. Good art direction can be the difference between mediocrity and a project that is truly stunning. It is not enough to simply have good lighting and a decent set. You must be willing to introduce new elements and manipulate the environment in a manner that you can make the most out of. As a result, finding someone who can collaborate with your sites to produce more with less is just as critical. In some circumstances, it may be as simple as relocating some furnishings to direct the light from the windows onto the subjects.
On larger shoots, it may even be that you need to construct new windows or rooms in your site to match the sun’s position. In reality, this goes hand-in-hand with selecting the ideal spots since if you pick a great spot, the art department may not have to work as hard to ensure you get enough light. Au contraire, they might just be able to save the day if you’re stuck with a location that isn’t working.
7. The evening hours from around sunset until after dark are known as “blue hour.” The sky is still colorful, but the sun isn’t visible during this short period of time after the sun has set (or before it rises). Of course, there’s also magic hour/golden hour, which is defined as the hour preceding or immediately following sunset. Both these times of day are the best time to shoot in natural light because that position of the sun in the sky and the subsequent light dissemination can lend a lovely, quintessentially cinematic radiance to your footage that just can’t be replicated.
8. Blue hour is a good time to shoot a short nighttime scene without the use of any lights. There is enough ambient light in the sky to help your actors stand out while also maintaining the impression of night. During blue hour, automobile headlights, residences with lights on, and other man-made sources in the background will be completely visible, allowing you to create a believable, yet cinematic atmosphere. Shooting with anamorphic lenses during these times will also be especially helpful, as it will capture a lovely flare and the soft bokeh created by these light sources.
9. The magical hour is ideal for shoots that would otherwise take place during the day. These don’t have to be limited to indie sunset shots, or moody skyscapes. Any scene that requires setting in the daytime will do. It will only make the shoot, as well as the correction processes in post-production easier by providing a very soft, warm natural light that will make your scene glow and feel very immersive. Even if it’s a fairly regular scene of actors doing banal things, magic hour will lend a luminosity to the footage that will help elevate the look and feel of the entire project. Such visuals will instantly communicate the skill, dedication and visual eye that it took to capture them.
10. You won’t ever have complete access to all of the time in the world if you work with available light. Your lighting source is always moving about, and it vanishes swiftly during Blue Hour or Magic Hour. The only way you’ll be able to obtain what you need at this hour is if your performers are completely prepared. Thus, rehearsal is key here. If your actors and crew aren’t well coordinated, it will cause you to lose time and potentially miss out on unique lighting arrangements. This isn’t ever ideal anyway, and in certain situations, it may indicate that you won’t complete your scene because you’ll have to spend another entire day filming reshoots. So, make sure your performers are well-prepared and go over things at rehearsal. You’ll most likely not have this opportunity on set.
Color and Light – A Cooperative Approach to Natural Shooting
11. When it comes to color palettes and lighting, the two should always go together. The color temperature of natural lighting throughout the day, as well as how it will affect not just the performers but also the scene’s overall tone, is extremely important to cinematographers. If the surroundings are not suitable for a film’s color palette, or vice versa, it might distract viewers from an immersive experience.
12. Say, you’re narrating a story that has gritty, dark undertones. In this case, shooting in bright, warm light may be counter-productive to the narrative of the project. Accordingly, the color palette that you might use for the actors, set and the quality of natural lighting indoors might end up being jarringly in contrast to the light source. Because you will be shooting with minimal equipment, it won’t do to make massive changes to either the color or the light on the go. The ideal thing to do is to prepare well beforehand. Take the surroundings into consideration and figure out what works best. That is not to say that certain kinds of stories cannot be narrated in a setting that uses natural light.
With the right kind of staging, blocking and camera angles, anything is possible. Only, the filmmaker should ideally utilize light and color in a way that they complement each other, instead of one standing out.
13. Adding to the previous point, we recommend that digital correction in post-production be kept to a minimum. Of course, it is a great way to fix continuity errors in visual tone and texture, if used in moderation. But using digital means to correct either light or color in the post-production process would also defeat the entire purpose of shooting in natural light in the first place. It could cause the footage to lose its unique look and feel, relegating it to a dreary, dull nightmare of post-production correction instead. The much more sensible and aesthetically rewarding thing is to work with the light, not against it. Plan a scheduled workflow for different types of scenes. Rehearse beforehand and shoot in a composed and alert manner. All of this will radically minimize the need for digital correction after filming has wrapped up.
Shooting exclusively in natural light may be a highly liberating approach to think about film production. When done correctly, you may obtain outcomes that in some cases could surpass what you’d achieve with traditional lighting. However, if you plan carefully, use the proper tools, and conduct research when it comes to locations and daylight, you will only obtain these results. This will only yield success if you execute your plan while prioritizing light availability and compromising accordingly. The utter importance of treating light as the most significant factor cannot be overstated. As you’ll be shooting with no equipment, and ideally, must make the most of the resources available to you.
This less-is-more, no-muss-no-fuss mode of working may sound appealing. But it also requires a ton of prep work to pull off successfully. It may well be worth your time and artistic vision to gain experience and find your footing as far as technical expertise and workflow is concerned, before committing to this mode of shooting.
It’s also critical to consider why you’d want to use natural light. The fact that it’s more convenient to work with shouldn’t be the only reason. It’s been said that, while filming, the time and resources natural light saves you might often be recouped in post production. Thus, unity of plot and direction is very important here. As always, an aesthetic style or visual texture is only as good as the story it is in service of. If your narrative necessitates a natural, organic appearance, available light may be one of the most appealing aesthetic choices.
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.