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Working with available light: 4 ways to get dazzling shots

Story & Heart
May 4, 2016 by Story & Heart PRO

The phrase “chasing the light” is well known amongst filmmakers for a reason: it’s essential for making great films. Of course, getting the best of your available light depends on a confluence of circumstances, like luck, location, time, and simply understanding how light works. But when the stars of illumination align and these factors fall into sync, the *literal* brilliance of your shots will add both beauty and dynamism to the scene.

Below are four simple ways to use available natural light to your advantage when shooting in the wild.

1. Get that body moving

For those among us who are mortals, it’s easy to feel like we have little control over the source and intensity of light (like, from the sun). But there is one factor that you can control: where you stand.

Where you stand will alter the direction of light, and the direction of light leads to shape —or shadows — on whatever you’re filming. The more we shoot in the direction of the light, the more our frame is lit and the less our scene is hidden or in shadows. So, shooting “with the light,” like when using an on-camera light or standing with the sun at our backs, will minimize most of the shapes or depth in our shot. On the other hand, rotating off-axis so that the light is at our side, achieves a more drama-filled image.

But how to determine the best way to light your scene? For answers, always return to your story. Take news programs: they’re often flatly lit, suggesting that everything is out in the open. Since these are shows that holds truth and transparency above all else (depending on your primary news source), this makes sense.

Alternately, if we shoot off-axis from the light, our scene falls into shadow. This is when shots start to look more dramatic. Think of film noir, where chiaroscuro fills every camera movement with suspension and portent.

2. Balanced layers means purposeful shots

Our cameras can only handle a certain range of light in a scene. This is known as a camera’s dynamic range, which is measured in stops. When shooting with available sun rays, we need to consider how much light is present in each of the different layers of our shot. Different layers here refers to the subject, foreground, background, etc.

#protip: you can capture great shots with available light using just your mobile, too.

Let’s imagine we’re filming a subject outdoors and that the background of our shot is the sky. Now we have a choice: we could go for a raw, less-produced feeling, exposing the subject and leaving the sky for the birds. Or we could opt for something mysterious, and silhouette our subject while exposing the sky.

When shooting across different layers, consider the ratio of light across them. This is why shooting into the sun can be such a headache: you’ll find your subject and the background backlit with very little light actually on your subject — yet the sky will burn brightly, often exceeding the range of light your camera can handle.

But what if we rotate, or tilt up or down? Then we put the sun at our side, evening the lighting on our subject, as well as on our background. In order to do your story justice, they key is to make these decisions with purpose.

3. Softer ≠ better

When we refer to how harsh or soft light is, we’re referring to the quality of the light. A really soft light will have a slow gradation from bright to dark, whereas a harsh light has the opposite.

Two things will impact the quality of light: the size of the source and the proximity of our source to our subject. This comes into play even when your available light is just the sun. Trust us: the sun doesn’t change in size that much over the course of a year. It also doesn’t get that much closer or further to us. #science

But while the the sun doesn’t change much, the apparent size certainly does. Clouds do not magically make the sun a drastically larger light source, but functionally, they bring the light source closer, thus providing a much softer light. This has the exact same effect of using a diffusion panel in front of one of your light sources.

There is something that affects light magically, though. Ever heard of the appropriately named magic hour, the time just after sunrise or just before sunset? Filmmakers love shooting at these times because the light is softer, sourced from a pleasing direction, and offers warm yet bright colors. This allows us to capture more balance overall, so you’ve basically got a big, beautiful, natural softbox — care of our planet’s atmosphere (thanks, Earth!).

While we often equate soft light with good light, we always need to consider story first (noticing a pattern here?). There are plenty of examples in which you might want your story to feel more aggressive or scary. In these cases, a harsher light is more relevant, and you can look to make your source smaller and further away (for example, a cloudless day at high noon).

4. Go on — cheat!

Just because you can’t modify natural light doesn’t mean you and the sun can’t be co-collaborators. If you’re working with the light as is, and you don’t have the gear or the crew to make the light better, take the time to look at what objects might naturally do the work for you.

At the right time of day, large buildings with light walls can offer incredible bounce if you’re standing nearby. Conversely, they can provide shade if you’re looking for less overall shape to your image on a sunny day. Or, if you need to find soft light that’s still strong enough to establish depth and shape, head towards the edge of a shaded area. In full sun, the light has a tendency to be too harsh, and in full shade, light can have no shape. Find that edge, and you’ll find your balance.

Of course, making the most of natural light depends upon finding the right location and perfect time of day — but even more so, it’s about taking the time to look for what naturally helps your story.

What are your best tips for shooting with natural light? Let us know in the comments below. We (and our community!) would love to learn what’s worked for you, or hear about the times you found that perfect shot — when the light was juuuuust right.

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