How to harness sunlight for an amazing outdoor lighting setup

“If you really look carefully at natural light, you realize how complex it is, and how it’s constantly shifting. When you put up an HMI and diffusion or bounce, it’s very monochromatic and has a different feeling. So we burned our bridges, and sent all the lights back to the rental house,” — Emmanuel Lubezki on shooting The Tree of Life (2011) with director Terence Malick. The film was shot almost entirely with natural light and earned three Academy Award nominations. So, how do you achieve an amazing outdoor lighting setup for you next project?

The amount of daylight you receive changes depending on your distance from the equator and the season in which you find yourself. There are other variables such as cloud cover, but you can count on the sun showing up just about every day of the year. Not bad, considering it’s free to use.

But as the multiple Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki said, the sun is “complex and constantly shifting.” Understanding how to achieve great outdoor lighting is an important tool for film lighting. Let’s look into few techniques we can use to help us corral the industry’s strongest light source.

Dynamic range

The proper explanation of dynamic range warrants its own article. It’s difficult to explain its complexity in just a few paragraphs, but let’s try.

Dynamic range, when we’re talking about light, concerns the ratio between the brightest to the darkest perceivable image within a single shot. In other words, it’s the range in which a camera can capture details in the brightest and darkest areas of an image.

If the camera moves beyond its dynamic range, the brightest areas in the composition will become clipped or blown out– so bright they lose detail. Inversely, if the camera’s sensor is pushed beyond its ability to perceive details in the darkest areas, the blacks become noisy and/or crushed, something resembling pure black, without detail.

I encourage you to read more about dynamic range but simply put, within a single composition, one of your biggest challenges might be keeping the exposure somewhat even enough so there are not extremely bright or extremely dark areas. If half your shot is in the shade of a tree and half is filled with bright sunlight, you may be in trouble. The dynamic range of your camera may blow-out the highlights and/or crush the darks to the point where there is no detail in these areas. A simple rule is to avoid what is referred to as “mixed light.”

Another solution to achieving great outdoor lighting is to control your light source. Now, the sun does not have a dimmer knob, that we know of. Yet, you can use diffusion to cut the intensity of the sun’s light and make the quality of the light softer and evener. If you’ve ever passed an exterior television or Hollywood film set, you may have noticed what is called a “butterfly frame” or “overheads.” A white cloth or “silk” fixed to a frame positioned between the sun and the subject.

You may get lucky and have even cloud cover. Consistent cloud cover will diffuse the harsh direct light that would otherwise cause deep shadows. Sunlight diffused by even cloud cover will most likely completely eliminate shadows, which can be its own problem. You may need to bounce light back into your subject’s face.


Both bounce and diffusion can be found in a five-in-one reflector, which can be bought for as little as $20 dollars. These zip apart flex circles include a diffuser as well as white, silver and gold reflectors and a black side to intensify shadows or flag off light. The diffusion is worth the cost of the five-in-one itself, but the reflectors add more tools to control the sun by bouncing more light towards your subject’s face. Foam core boards that you buy at your local art supply store work as well.

Color balance

The color of sunlight varies throughout the day and in filmmaking, we measure color in degrees via, Kelvin (K). This, again, is the subject of a longer article but let’s just say that the higher the Kelvin number, the cooler or bluer the light will appear; the lower, the more orange/yellow the color will appear.

You can adjust your outdoor lighting for this by regularly white balancing your camera or alternatively, doing what we’re taught never to do: fix it in post. If there is one and only one thing I resort to fixing in post, it’s white balance. My DSLR is set to auto white balance and the very few times it’s off, I fix it in the edit bay. If you are shooting narratives, you’re probably better off regularly white balancing.

Another time you’ll want to be on manual white balance is during the “Golden Hour” or the “Blue Hour.”

The Golden Hour — your best friend for great outdoor lighting — is a short period of time just before sunset or after sunrise when the sun’s rays are traveling through many miles of dense atmosphere, which causes the blues to fall off, leaving soft yellows, oranges and reds. After the sun has set or just before it rises, you will have some illumination, but no direct rays and your image will appear bluer. This “Blue Hour” is a good time to fake a night scene.

During the Golden Hour, the landscape will be painted in a soft, warm glow.

You’ll want to be using manual white balance during these times so that your camera does not correct these colors, which you are trying to capture. You’ll also want to be very ready to get your shot. These times are often less than sixty minutes and if your actor or interviewee fluffs their lines or the focus is soft, you won’t have much time to fix the shot before your natural light setup is gone for the day.

Because the Golden Hour sun is naturally diffused, you can choose to allow for lens flares, as a technique, without destroying your subject matter, like you would if you did this at almost any other time of day. Experiment with this. And finally, you may want to utilize your wider lenses during the Golden Hour, as the landscape will be painted in a soft, warm glow. This may not be a time for extreme closeups.

Behind whose back

In the beginning, not the bringing of time, but in the beginning our filmmaking education, we’re taught to have the sun to the camera person’s back. But as we know, once we master a rule, we’re then empowered to break it.

Try positioning the talent in a way that places the sun behind them, with the light hitting them in the back of their head. Done correctly, this accomplishes two things. One, it stops the intense, direct sunlight from flooding your talent’s face (which may blow out any detail and possibly cause them to squint). Second, this positioning will give the person a natural backlight that will separate them from the background and create a nice rim light around their head, a technique often aspired to by professionals. Watch out for lens flares and you may need to bounce some of the light back onto the talent’s face for proper exposure.

One final outcome when using this technique and the proper level of exposure could be a silhouetted subject. There is a famous scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film “Walkabout” that The Criterion Collection uses as its cover shot for the DVD version of the film. I always think about this shot when I’m talking about silhouettes.

Practice and experiment

The sun is not only the brightest light source known to filmmakers, it’s also the cheapest for your next outdoor lighting adventures. But it will take some practice to master. If you find that you like shooting using only natural light, you may want to consider moving to Yuma, Arizona. The American city claims it gets an average of 4,015 hours of sunshine per year!