You are here

How to Position Yourself for the Best Outdoor Natural Light

Shot of a well-lit large ship entering dock with two people who are backlit watching.

How to position yourself for best ambient natural lighting doesn't take a lot of experience but some forethought into what you hope to achieve in your shot.

To  be a truly great videographer, one must bring a willingness to do whatever it takes to get a great shot and leave behind that which may encumber your ability to create great video. Sometimes spontaneity is the best formula and the best way to capture great video spontaneously is to travel lightly and be prepared to shoot whenever, wherever and however. This approach to videography, along with a willingness to quickly adapt to adverse conditions or boring ambient light, will serve you well and allow you to bring home not only great videos and memories but to enjoy the challenges along the way. 

Adapting to Existing Light

One of the most challenging aspects of videography is adapting to existing light. We don’t use the word “adapt” lightly because if you learn to adapt quickly to adverse lighting conditions you will be rewarded time and again. If you always rely on your lighting kit or even just a hot-shoe video light, you can miss opportunities for that great shot if your creativity is encumbered by the equipment. You not only compromise the spontaneity but your ability to move quickly and to anticipate great opportunities.  If, however, you adapt the existing light you will be able to react quickly and capture the perfect moments. This is the secret of great wildlife, sports and journalistic photographers. They anticipate the situation, position themselves in the right place and react to what unfolds in front of their camera.

This approach to videography is the first step to becoming a great videographer. At first it doesn't come naturally and can be quite frustrating, but with training and discipline you can overcome any challenge that comes your way. To become a great videographer, to capture that great shot, you must learn to see light as your paint brush and understand how light paints everything around you. A good habit to develop is to always look around your surroundings and understand how things are painted by natural light. When you're out on the town, a picnic or hike without your camera, spend some time examining the natural light and how light paints each scene and imagine how you would capture those scenes with your camera. Consider each scene: how you would frame a silhouette of your lunch partner in that trendy restaurant with the open-air window? How would you capture a backlit scene of your kids playing in the park during sunset? How would you capture dramatic video of the family laughing around the campfire. An on-camera hot shoe light might alter and ruin the natural light in these situations, but carefully choosing where your camera is placed will let you keep the lovely existing light.

It doesn't matter if you're indoors under the artificial lights of a church, school or auditorium; or outdoors in natural light under the mid-day sun. What does matter is how you see the light and how that light can help you make great video

Live with the Dark

Take for instance an outdoor night scene where the contrast ranges are usually extreme and all too often provide opportunities for severe frustration. Why not make the situation work to your advantage instead? 

A boy and his dad in silhouette with a bright and colorful background properly exposed.
In Figure A, the camera is set to give correct exposure on the background highlights. There is obviously not enough light to expose the subject correctly so we take advantage of that to create a dramatic silhouette that correctly falls dark. Or how about using challenging lighting situations to enhance your story with a silhouette? 
Shooting a school event, the stage is in soft focus while the parents are in focus but silhouetted.
In Figure B, we see parents recording a stage event at a school function. By setting the camera to correctly expose for the stage lights instead of the seated parents this image becomes visually interesting. 

Hide From the Sun

Contrasty natural light is a fact of life and Figure C shows us how frustrating it can be. Here the sunlight hitting the grape cluster straight on is harsh, boring and really doesn’t work well. 

Side-by-side shots of grape clusters. One is flat and has bland lighting while the other is more dynamic with texture and backlighting.
This image might tell a story of harsh sunlight and dry condition, but it is esthetically rather weak. So why not move around a bit and find a better angle for better lighting? Figure D has the same scene in the shade, yet it provides opportunity for much better detail while the sun peeks behind the grapes and back lights the leaves. 

Patience and Twilight

Let's look at another example of using light to make an otherwise uninteresting scene more dramatic. 

Shot of night shift workers arriving to work at twilight.
People arriving to work at twilight for an evening shift isn’t very interesting but with the camera strategically placed to take advantage of those long, evening shadows and backlit aprons, suddenly there is beauty in an ordinary scene (Figure E). Quickly responding to each situation can be challenging and rewarding, but there is a bit of luck involved. This shot was well-executed due to camera placement.

Waiting for the right moment can be more predictable and just as rewarding as can be seen in these two examples. In Figure F, our image has decent detail in the shadows as well as the highlights. 

Side-by-side shots of giant windmills. One is shot right at dusk, with limited color. The second one, shot a few minutes later shows the windmills backlit by a nice colorful sunrise.
The scene is well defined and there is no question as to what the subject is. It’s acceptable but lacks drama, which many times is preferable because if every image in an article was incredibly dramatic the readers would become exhausted. Figure G shows the same scene about 15 minutes later. It is much more dramatic, provides a different impact to the viewer and tells a different story. The detail in the windmills isn't as well defined, but the overall shot changes a good shot to a great shot. 

A New Angle Adds Drama

One thing you always need to remember, is to always have several choices so you or your editor can manipulate the tone of the story with images. Sometimes the light on the subject is flat and contributes little to the image. You may need to find drama where there is none, and you can do this by placing the camera where it will capture more than what is actually there. Looking at Figure H, we see a visitor placing a coin on a monument in Washington D.C. The lighting is flat with few lighting details to help define the situation. By strategically placing the camera angle to use the reflection in the polished stone, we see better details in the main subjects, the hand and the coin, allowing the viewer to understand what is going on while the less important parts of the image fall into the shadows 

Side-by-side shots of action showing a child laying coins on a dark marble sculpture and a second shot is of the child panning for gold at an old time festival.

Shadows and Drama

Struggling with the shadows can be frustrating and cause you to miss great opportunities. Just watching each situation unfold gives you time to relax and really understand what’s going on and how to interpret each scene. Timing, along with camera placement, often results in a successful story. Figure I shows a child in very contrasty light but setting the camera to expose for the highlights and patiently waiting for the right moment paid off.

To make truly great video, you need to feel the scene and read the existing light throughout. Highlights and shadows help define texture and shape, while camera placement and
timing allows the photographer to interpret the scene. An ordinary scene becomes an eye-catching image not only because the subject matter is interesting but because the dramatic lighting is interesting as well (Figure J). 

Two shots showing backlit shots. Shot of a well-lit ship entering dock with the people watching backlit, and a slightly washed out shot of a boy on his first plane ride.

Just Go With It

Sometimes the worst lighting makes the best images because the deep shadows along with bright highlights creates shapes and the viewer can fill in the blanks. Our final example (Figure K) shows a window that is way too contrasty to expose correctly, so we forget about getting details and just expose for the ambient light within the room. Classic window lighting, along with an unusual subject matter, becomes a fun image as long as you cooperate with, rather than try to alter, the existing light. Imagine how boring this image would be with correct exposure and fill from a hot shoe light. Remember, sometimes the light speaks to you. All you have to do is listen.


Contributing editor Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.

Tags:  June 2014
Terry
O'Rourke
Mon, 03/10/2014 - 10:46pm