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Lighting a Scene Against a Window? A Butterfly Frame Can Help Overexposure Issues

Lighting Interview Against WindowWhen I first started learning about lighting various scenes, almost every book I read advised not to shoot your subject in front of a window (unless you want to create a silhouette, of course.) That’s good advice for beginners or people who don’t have access to sufficient equipment, but — what if you want to use a window as a backdrop? A tutorial by NextWaveDV shows us how to get an even exposure by using a butterfly frame as a soft key light. Hit the jump for the video.

There are a couple of reasons why windows can be problematic in a scene. For one, sunlight gives off different color temperatures depending on what time of day it is, which may not mix well with the other kinds of lights you’re using.

Another issue, and one they talk about in the tutorial is overexposure. Shooting your subject against a window puts them in silhouette. If that’s not what you’re looking for, you’re going to want to adjust your camera settings to get a proper exposure on your subject. Doing this, however, drastically overexposes the background.

To counteract this, NextWaveDV suggests pumping enough juice into a butterfly frame to provide enough light to get an even exposure on both your subject and window together. Check out the tutorial below:

For those of us who don’t have access to the lights and equipment these guys use in the tutorial, are we doomed to avoid windows all together? Maybe not. If I know anything about indie filmmakers it’s that they’re inventive and can jimmy rig just about anything. I’ve used white sheets and the high beams on my car more times than I’d like to admit, but — you do what you gotta do. However, I’ve never tried the DIY version of this technique. Have you?

What lighting techniques, DIY or otherwise, have you’ve used to light a scene against a window? Let us know in the comments.

Link: Film Scene: Shooting a Video Interview Against a Window — NextWaveDV


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Description image 81 COMMENTS

  • try using ND gels on the windows. They also don t need any power. Just gaffer tape !

  • This seems cool.

    Personally think I would’ve exposed for the window and then lit the subject separately. I’ve actually done that recently and all I had to use was two LED panels, a reflector, and some NDs. Different ways to do things, so many options.

    I like what they did here, I just try my best to use minimal equipment when I can.

  • Well the idea is there but I don’t think they succeeded in the execution..

    • Totally agree. I wanted to see how long it would take for someone to call them out on it. I thought it looked..uh. not good.

  • This is a what not to do post right?
    I don’t get this post…

    • What do you not get, Jer?

      • He doesn’t get how to click play on the video.

        • Devap you smart ass I watched the video.

          I didn’t get why this was a useful post. The end results for everything they setup didn’t appear worth the trouble or the time.

          The posts you usually make I find something of value – this one felt like I was being taught how to do something the wrong way.

        • A lot of people don’t realize you can use windows as a background, it’s treated like taboo.
          And that’s all this video *attempted* to show (the concept is valid although the example lacking). It’s pretty obvious when you watch…hence why your comment looks like you read the title, skipped the video, and then complained. Don’t focus on the end result, the value is when you think about how you can do it. Imagine shooting a scene in a city with a backdrop of cars rolling down a street. Or in an airport with a plane taking off

          • well, most people here agree that there are way better, faster and easier ways to do it, so yeah, I don’t get this ‘tutorial’ either.

      • I agree. This post is not good practice. This is not something that I would using as a teaching or learning demonstration for DIY filmmakers or anyone for that matter.

        Putting a 2K on a 100ft run of cheap home depot extension cord :(
        Cables crossing and sloppy all over the place.. (dangerous/unprofessional)

        The mixing of color temperatures does not look good in this application.
        Half of his face is tungsten lit and the other side is day lit.
        Not sure I would use such a profound hair-light on a bald man.
        There is no “Eye-light” so he looks like a zombie with black eyes.
        The “background” is still overexposed, the only exposure you worked for is inside that walkway?
        Nothing looks good about that ? The brick wall ? through the doors ? The vent on the wall ?

        The shot is not dynamic as he stated.

        I guess all the post following this video is a good way to break down what “not to do”

  • Or you can put a white sheet up in front of window – BAM, instant soft box.

    • Hah. That plus some reflectors and ND gel might have bounced enough light to get the same effect for about 10x less money and 10x less setup time.

  • this was a pretty odd tutorial, they used a whole bunch of expensive equipment and time to achieve a boring, generic look. they may aswell have shot it next to a fern.

    Options, expose for the window, light up the interior. or as others have said, diffuse the window (and light up the interior, just less, or don’t shoot in front of the window as it added not much to shoot.

  • If the budget allows for it, I’ll use a big ole HMI to match the sun’s intensity. If not, then I’ll use ND on the window and move the key real close to the subject.

  • Are you serious? Just give me two Kino Flo’s and a 650 Arri, and I will show you a much better production, by myself. No crew needed.

    In fact, just find another location to do the interview… the backdrop does nothing for the visual.

  • I think this is a tutorial on how to look a pro on a 1,500 dollar job. Only thing missing is a huge cage and matte box.

  • you guys need to relax

  • I’m sorry, i’m with the majority here. That’s um, one way to do it. A difficult, fussy, costly way, but sure, one way.
    There are far simpler ways.

  • A 8×8 or 12×12 double work well (outside of window). I’ve also used Roscoe Roscoscrim (2 stops) on the inside of the window.

    I’ve yet to use a K5600 1600 HMI (plugs into a 15 amp circuit) If it is as good as their Joker 400, it will be a great light. I’ve used a K5600 Joker 400 HMI with a MOLA Euro 33.5 inch w/sock for fill indoors (with no ND on the windows) BTW it produces a good looking round highlight

  • I don’t want to run down the work that they have done here, but I have to agree that the execution didn’t seem very effective. For anyone intimidated by all the gear they had in this video, all you need to know is the inverse square rule. Their key light was way far away from the talent. Their shot wasn’t that wide. They probably could have gotten the foreground and background about a stop closer to each other with less equipment by simply bringing it in closer to the talent. If you find yourself in a similar situation with less equipment, just frame a little tighter and squeeze some inexpensive softboxes in nice and close to your subject. You can do that even if you are a one man crew.

  • par 64′s and a mole 2k ? thats insane for that setup. moving the frame up 5-8 ft would easily of brought that up considerably even just as a simple bounce source. a 575 behind it and you probably would be done. I’ve done that plenty of times. or a 4X4 reflector board would of also of worked very nicely thru the silk using no power and perfect color temp match. once you CTB’s that tungsten to 5600K thats a 1 2/3 stop light loss turning that 2K into… 500W. I also didn’t like the door frames being behind the talent the way it was. it said nothing about the location and could of been anywhere.

  • Jerome (also..but not the other jerome) on 07.27.13 @ 7:53PM

    I’ve never seen a tutorial by these people that I actually found useful or that I didn’t think looked terrible. I just shot an interview against a window last week using only an Arri 650 and a 300. Just slapped an ND1.2 in front of the lens to bring the outside exposure down to where we needed it. then walked the lights up till they gave us the exposure we needed on the subject. And I had both units running through full ctb and opal…still got the inside and outside exposed properly.

    • Exactly. I’m sure these guys mean well, however, they clearly had no clue what they were doing on this job. The background and exposure is horrendous, and the subject is clearly not lit properly.

  • …or how to justify the budget to a client.
    Lightmeter? Just trying to look like a pro. It doesn t even have a battery inside!

  • Umm, I’ll just stick to ND rolls and tape. But I would do this if the budget was big enough to hire peopl AND I wanted to attact lots of local public attention to my company. This kind of make-work foolishness always draws a crowd.

    The background was horribly blown out. Would have looked far far more pro by slapping some ND film on just the windows behind the subject.

    But hey, I’ll bet the account loved being in Hollywood for a little while and were convinced of two things: Thats how the pros there must do it. And that blown out backgrounds must therefore be an inescapable consequence of shooting against windows. And I agree with another poster re product placement.

    In South Florida I love shooting against glass to get palm fronds gently swaying outside CEO offices and lobbies. But we like to actually see the outside — unlike in this example.

    Slap on some ND film directly behind subject’, use some Diva lights and a lav mic and get a better result people! I could do that with no assistance and have it all over and done with a small fraction of the time. Cut me a break before I die laughing!

  • Wouldn’t it have been more useful to demonstrate the method of getting ND gel to fit perfectly and cling to glass, no tape required, no visible seams?

  • To add some clarity…
    We were shooting during the winter but the video wasn’t seasonal so I wanted the window to be blown out, but I didn’t want it to bloom over and affect the subject. I lit the scene to bring the window’s exposure just low enough to accomplish this. Since the shot was very wide to allow for the dolly move, I needed to have a large source. I’ve lit smaller scenes with less lighting but this scene required a larger setup. Par64s are a great option for those on a budget.

    • Peter Kelly on 07.29.13 @ 2:38AM

      to be completely honest I thought it looked awful

    • Understood but actually, you could see snow outside. If possible, may shooting with a brick wall on one side and just a few windows on the other side would have looked better and made the background more seasonally evergreen.

  • Brandon Osterman on 07.28.13 @ 12:14PM

    I realize this site is called nofilmschool, but especially when it comes to the technical aspects of lighting, shooting and sound I feel that a little more film school training would serve a lot of aspiring filmmakers on this site. If my professors saw me throw that much time and gear at a relatively small setup they would have lost their sh!#. You just don’t have time to mess with all of that stuff when you’re trying to get through 10-20 setups in a shoot day.

    Some of the most beautiful shots happen when a DP just keeps it simple and uses what they’re presented with in a challenging location to shape their lighting plan. Even with this look in mind, like many others here have said, a couple rolls of ND & CTB with a much smaller source would have yielded the same (or nicer) results much more easily.

    Make it easier on yourself and your crew and you move faster and get more in the can at the end of the day. This gives others down the pipeline more choices and is a much better way to ensure you get more work.

  • well…some guys just love to make tutorials.

  • Jeff Shearin on 07.28.13 @ 4:26PM

    Sometimes the comment section is a better tutorial than a video. With that said, the most glaring problem with the shot was the trash can and recycle bin in the background. That is an absolute no-no in my world.

    • Jeff, I totally agree….if you look closely there was a guy squeegee-ing (sp) the window. then they leave the trash can? If there was beautiful scenery outside the window…I’d get it, but it was snowy, gross and ugly.

  • I thought this tutorial was a joke but I am a HUGE fan of being creative with a light source. Some of the viewers might grow a lot from learning to do different things like using that butterfly box to alter the size of your key.

    …but this is still so weird. Why did they key on the same side as the camera for this shot?

  • I thought this was a joke as well, or some kind of parody skit. I was shocked to see the video end as if its a real tutorial. I think NFS should save the amateur hour tutorials for the “big headed” YouTube crowd.

  • I have to say that this was one of those posts where I learned more from the commentaries than the post itself. Nonetheless, I value the post because of that. I didn’t even know about ND gels for windows. I looked it up and found this:

    VRenee I like your posts.

  • I agree, this kinda of post doesn’t have a place on NFS, this is not teaching good practice, how to be resourceful or pleasant art.

  • Yikes. Don’t call it a butterfly frame. Kind of like asking for clothes pins.

  • This is so rediculously wrong. The shot didn’t even look good after all that.

  • Ps. When you’re in a skyscraper or dealing with huge glass panels, NDs won’t always work. Sometimes lighting to expose for the exterior is the way to go. This video isn’t wrong it’s just poorly executed. Splitting wattage on circuits is another good practice

    • Have to agree. This is why I commented saying expose for the window and light the interior/subject separately. ND gels are great but if it is a large window it’s going to take some time. Also it can be annoying making sure the gel is evenly and smoothly applied.

  • Hmm. I think I need to write a post about how to maximize diffusion and output.

  • This guy is such a joke…

    • Bill kinzie on 08.2.13 @ 2:50PM

      Pardon the pun but this way too over blown-not helpful to the majority of people trying to make a go over this business. But I love no film school.

  • The background is still way blown out. I want my 5 minutes back. You can do all of this or put a reflector on a c-stand. Your choice.

  • If I REALLY wanted or needed to shoot against windows or glass doors, like they did, I’d gel the glass with ND. That takes time but in the end the outside would look a lot better.

  • After all that time to explain that using a hot enough key to balance a window can keep it from blowing out, I sort of expected it to be, you know, not blown out…

  • I would have used HMIs for this. I understand working under budget constraints, but even with adding a genny and an M18 or two, it probably would have been easier to setup, look better and at a reasonable cost.

    • That’s what I think. Either get the right tools for a certain shot, or don’t do the shot!
      When there’s no budget for powerful HMIs, then just don’t shoot against a window!

      People often want me to shoot stuff like this and then I explain to them how this shot would work in a Hollywood movie and what would be required to do it. Then I tell them that my equipment right now is two LED battery lights and a 80cm reflector and that we need to look for shots that we can do with what I have right now (which is what is in the budget)

  • I, for one thought this was and is a good idea, take that idea and scope it down to your shoot, it’s up to you to learn and use what you know in your setting and application, which you may find that this fits your concept… take what you need, or improve with what you know, this is how we learn, so share ideas. No one has the right answer for all your needs. we are all trying to improve our craft

  • Was it just me or was the tracking camera not bubbled…?

  • When I saw the setup I was really sceptical, I could have told him from the beginning that four 1Ks would not be enough.

    Then I saw the result and was like yeah, that is exactly what I expected: it doesn’t look that good! The windows are still blown out, the color temp of the key light is too orange for my taste, and you can hardly see any hair light or kicker.

    So, lots and lots of work for a shot that looks “meh” …

  • David Alvarado on 08.4.13 @ 2:28PM

    Yeah, this is a total waste of time and equipment. And the end product sucks… who would thing this is a good example of anything?

  • Matheus Oliveira on 08.8.13 @ 2:14PM

    A blackmagic cinema camera with this light setup would be a great option.

  • The simplest, cheapest, and most effective way to shoot a scene against a window would be to find a screen-like or translucent material to place over the windows. and knock down some of the light coming from outside. That way you don’t have to use your entire light kit just for one light source. They also make something called window grip which is amazing, but slightly costly. Below is a link to the window grip home page. Home Depot or Lowe’s might also have like a static cling window tint solution you could use.

  • I’m way late on commenting on this but rolls of ND on the glass behind him would have been cheaper and more efficient. Ok, it’s a lot of glass but the shot never really seems far above his head. ND9 or ND6 and the lighting suddenly becomes much, much smaller and controllable. End result would have been better too.