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