November 14, 2013

Here Are a Few Simple Tips to Make Your Exterior Lighting Shine

Stillmotion Lighting OutsideIt's one of the clear-cut signs of amateur filmmaking: daytime exteriors that look terrible. This usually manifests itself in the form of harsh, blown out areas on the face of your talent, or as overly flat images in which there's no separation of foreground from background. Avoiding these exterior lighting maladies doesn't require an immaculate understanding of light, however. It just takes a basic understanding of a few simple concepts that are easy to put into practice. Read on to find out what these concepts are and how to start incorporating them into your work.

Our first tip comes courtesy of Alexander Fox, who runs an excellent filmmaking and photography website called Crew of One. His tip is an absurdly simple one. Most inexperienced filmmakers (and sometimes even guys who have been at it for a while) make the mistake of trying to balance the light in their exterior shots by using additional light sources. This can certainly be done, but it takes a hell of a lot of light. We're talking like 18K HMI's and massive lights of that sort. The solution, however, is simple:

Instead of Adding Light, Subtract It

Subtractive lighting is not only far easier to understand than additive lighting, but in exterior situations, it almost always provides superior results with less effort. In this example from Alexander Fox, the first photo was taken using just the sunlight, and the results are terrible. In the second image, however, Fox used a simple umbrella to block the hard light being cast onto his subject from the sun, and let the ambient reflected light of the environment naturally illuminate the subject. The results speak for themselves:

The results that you can achieve simply by blocking out the sun are pretty amazing for the simplicity of it, but that technique makes it difficult to really shape your subjects using the available light. In that case you'll want to take a slightly more advanced approach:

Use Modifiers to Shape Light

If you want your light to be directional so as to create contrast on your subject's face, you'll want to diffuse the light coming from the sun instead of blocking it out completely. Any kind of diffusion can be effective in this regard. Silks and muslins thrown up on 12x12 frames are the most commonly used pieces of gear in the industry, but certain household materials, such as bed sheets, can be used for the same effect.

Here's a really helpful video from a blog post on outdoor lighting from our peeps over at stillmotion that shows how you can use various light modifiers to shape and control light in daytime exterior situations:

Ultimately, using modifiers is the best way to harness the power of natural light. Through cutting, bouncing, and diffusing the light from the sun, you can create beautiful naturalistic lighting without the need for any additional light sources.

Another method, one that you could use effectively in both cloudy and sunny situations, is using negative fill (usually a large piece of black fabric) in order to help you add contrast to one side of your subject's face. The closer you place the negative fill, the more reflected light it will block, and the more contrast it will add.

What do you guys think of these methods for getting better lighting in daytime exterior situations? Are there any other techniques that you like to use to shape light outdoors? Let us know in the comments!

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42 Comments

Best article for a while. More like this please.

November 14, 2013 at 5:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Conan

Agree. :D

November 14, 2013 at 10:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tiedtke

I'd like to see more articles on technique in all aspects of film making and less product reviews and the like. This article is simple and informative. Kindly post more like it.

November 15, 2013 at 3:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Jeremie

Yes! More on lighting techchniques would be great!

November 19, 2013 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Hannes

Yes, I agree. More articles like this would be great.

November 22, 2013 at 11:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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David

Definitely, especially on lighting!

November 22, 2013 at 11:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Andy

Yeah! I really enjoyed this article!

November 14, 2013 at 5:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Alex

Those are nice tips. But cutting the light on your subject is NOT going to cut the light on the background, which will be blown out. If you expose for teh BG, then your foreground is now several stops underexposed. Sometimes, there's no other choice but to ask the gaffers to pull out those 6k and 12k HMIs, even indoors.
Hell, scratch that. You ALWAYS pull out the lights, because you cannot trust the sun, which btw is always moving. No way to get the same consistent shot, over and over, thorugh the day, other than with HMIs.

November 14, 2013 at 6:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Henry

Cutting the direct sunlight won't necessarily completely underexpose your subject unless you're in an environment where there isn't much reflected light bouncing around (like an open field or something like that).
In that case you could either block or just diffuse the sun, then use some well-placed reflection to both shape the light on your subject's face and to make sure that your subject is exposed properly.

There really shouldn't be too many times where additional lights are 100% necessary, although it does happen occasionally.

November 14, 2013 at 7:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4195

Agreed, you cannot trust the sun even on a good day. However for some filmmakers just starting out, 12k HMI's simply aren't an option mostly due to price. Going down to a local craft store, however, and buying a few sheets of foam board to shape and direct natural light is. Though I don't want to use natural light, sometimes it is my only option.

November 25, 2013 at 8:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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C.P.

and this is why we have a 5-1 reflector ALL THE Time. mine is 6ft wide when it opens up. I use the diffuser core the most (90% of the time) followed by the white bounce.

I used it at the end of this video to balance the talent and the BG
https://vimeo.com/49955865

November 14, 2013 at 6:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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This is why I love this site!

November 14, 2013 at 6:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Erin

You've been knocking it out of the park lately with these posts, Robert. Great stuff. Keep it up.

November 14, 2013 at 8:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Thanks DerIk! I really appreciate the love that I've been getting from you guys, and I have no intention of slowing down with the posts any time soon. Thanks again!

November 14, 2013 at 9:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4195

Agreed sir!

November 15, 2013 at 3:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Jeremie

If shooting indoors against a window you can bounce the sunlight onto your subjects and with a little playing around get a nice balanced image.if there's an overexposed section of window messing up your shot you can stop it down using ND gels.

November 14, 2013 at 8:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom

Really enjoyed this guys, more tips like this please, these are great!

November 14, 2013 at 8:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Xiong

One could also find a shady area and then bounce a fill. Or find a slow lens and shoot at a high F-stop (of course, the latter will also effect the aesthetics) and add a very dark (3-4 stop) ND filter. One could even stack several filters on top of each other. Or one can shoot through a semi-transparent substance like pantyhose - though, that may appear as a grid depending upon the focus - or something as innocuous as the baking paper or a window tint film.

November 14, 2013 at 10:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

I love the gear updates and all but, this is why I came here in the first place. Thank you Robert! Killllling it dudeee!!!!

November 14, 2013 at 10:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Good lighting tips. Definitely going to remember this from now on. Thank you! :)

November 15, 2013 at 12:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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From shooting outside in the last summer, I know that modifiers are used most of the time at least when it comes to German TV movies. Very rarely do they have big a** HMIs with them. as with all lighting, it gets tricky in wider shots. Some advise on shooting in a forrest would be nice, because there, especially with a sunny sky, light conditions can change dramatically inbetween setups.

November 15, 2013 at 2:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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MattN.

Before actually going out on a shoot, try this in a studio with a light dimmer. Place a piece of glass - clear plastic like fiberglass/plexiglass might work too - and then add a layer of window tint film onto it. Use a C-stand to hold it in front of your camera. Use the dimmer to control the light intensity and the exposure off the various pieces of glass/tint combos. (without doing the glass/plastic work yourself - take a trip to a glass/window replacement specialist ... for a shop with pro tools, this should be a piece of cake ... besides, you don't want any bubbles on your tinted film either). My hunch is that a 1x1 foot sq. glass (multiplied by the number of pieces you might need for your assignment) with the various levels of tint should do the trick. The rest can be controlled via ISO, lenses, ND filters, etc. And LET US KNOW IF THIS WORKS!

November 15, 2013 at 9:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Great advice on subtractive lighting. I really need help with lighting interiors for real-estate shoots. I have 8 1 K lights and it's never enough. Any suggestions. Oh and I shoot in the tropics exclusively.

November 15, 2013 at 4:27AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Lighting interiors, especially large ones, can be quite tricky without large sources of light, and for real estate work, that's completely unnecessary. My advice to you would be to invest in a camera with a Wide Dynamic Range, or something that records raw (or preferably both), that way you get as much range of light as you can, and you don't to worry about ugly blowouts in the windows.

November 15, 2013 at 12:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ryan

Pick up a roll of ND, here in the uk 0.6-0.9-1.2 are all the same price, around £70 + vat and are around a meter wide by 7.5 meters long, from the company I use CTO is the same cost too (balance the sun to the practicals). Even with a BMCC I still control the room first and with at least one Assitant and a step ladder it doesn't take long to ND the most problematic windows. I guess you might come into a situation where this isn't practical (maybe on the 2nd floor?) if that's the case you could bring along window netting to act a as diffusion to dress some of the windows or build large reflectors out of solid white shower curtains and PVC pipe and bounce as much of the sun back into your shot, maybe supplement that with your lights too

November 17, 2013 at 8:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony Brown

Also, pick up open face lights instead of fresnels for lighting the set/real estate, they pack a higher punch than a fresnel at the same wattage as there is no glass reducing the output. If you can balance the windows with CTO you will get a cut in light coming into the room while simultaneously maximising the power of the lights you own (as your not robbing them of light output via a CTB gel)

November 17, 2013 at 8:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anthony Brown

Agreed with the fellow above--you've been putting out some really great articles Robert!

November 16, 2013 at 2:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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David Stewart

Good article and video. I was on a shoot once where the DP had two 8' x 8' frames. It was a very bright, sunny day. He used diffusion in one over head to cut the sun, then a put a net in the other and put it directly behind the talent. It was far back enough that, with the ND over his lens, it was out-of-focus (and you couldn't see it at all) but it did cut down the hot background enough so he could expose for the talent and still have a nice looking background. This was an interview and it looked great. I've also worked on productions where only Matthews Standard Reflectors were used outside to light talent in shadow areas or bounce sunlight into an area we had to shoot in but the sun was not shining in that direction. Those are very expensive but solid and can even be used on somewhat windy days with lots of sandbags and strong C-stands!

November 21, 2013 at 4:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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This is a very popular post, and it's quite refreshing...

...but since there are no camera brands to argue about, can we at least start bickering about Rosco vs Lee, 216/250 diffusion vs tough spun...or Matthews vs Avenger stands?

My brand is so much better than your brand...I could light that better with my iPhone's light.

November 27, 2013 at 4:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Daniel Mimura

Duuudeeeeee, this just blew my mind. Thanks and keep'em coming. Very clear and to-the-point!

May 2, 2014 at 7:45AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Andre

Hey Anthony,

If you ever need anyone to stand on a step ladder for you on Thursdays, evenings or weekends, feel free to hit me up! Otherwise thanks for the tips.

June 21, 2014 at 4:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I agree 100% more lighting techniques and audio techniques! I know how to use my camera and the specs of the next "better" camera that makes mine "obsolete" .

June 21, 2014 at 4:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Caleb

Which one do you have? Can you post a link?

June 21, 2014 at 10:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Reggie

Super simple and informative. More like these please!

June 22, 2014 at 6:55AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Chris

If you have sun and you are shooting outside, bring mirrors, black solids and frames.

With that and orientating the characters wherever you want the sun hitting them you will be able to create a beautiful light, just like the ones below.

I don't know if I wrote the right link or not or if it is allowed, if it is not, please remove them.

Thanks.

June 22, 2014 at 11:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I can't picture what you are doing here - how is this different to ND filters (but lower optical quality)?

June 25, 2014 at 3:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Eric

I'm finding it hard to picture what you are suggesting here - how is this different to ND filters (but lower optical quality)?

Unless you are suggesting they are only in front of the bright areas in which case it might sort of work if they were far enough out of focus, and none of the action crossed those boundaries and the camera was static, but even then I suspect that the edges of the glass/plexiglass would be visible.

June 25, 2014 at 3:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Eric

Awsome article. More like this and less about gear, because doesn't make your gear as good as light does! Very nice.

Thank you.

August 28, 2014 at 1:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jay

I do what I can, but honestly, if your attention is on the light, my story has failed. Better light won't fix it.

August 28, 2014 at 1:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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If you have to do a quick setup without much equipment on a sunny day, arrange it so that the sun is over your subject's shoulder, and use use a white board or reflector near the camera to reflect soft light onto the subject's face. The bounced light will provide a nice quality for the talent and direct sun will provide a rimlight. The exposures will work well.

August 28, 2014 at 2:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ps and because the subject isn't staring into the sun they won't have to screw their eyes up.

August 28, 2014 at 2:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Planning, a clinometer and compass, suncalc and Chivo's greatest lesson... shooting towards the sun, are also very helpful.

August 28, 2014 at 2:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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One thing I do that yields good results is to have the Sun behind the subject using it as a rim light and you can use foam core to one side or the other to add modeling to the face. Another benefit shooting with the Sun behind them is that the Sun highlights the background as well giving nice little spots of light and shadows on background objects keeping it from being flat. I usually like to shoot at a higher shutter speed and lower f stop to have more of a shallow depth of field throwing the background out of focus and separating the subject from the background even more.

October 12, 2015 at 12:38PM

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