Getting Started: Shooting on Sunny Days

Shooting video outdoors is often a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you can take advantage of wide open spaces, beautiful locations, and the brightest light source around: the sun. By contrast, however, there is the unpredictability of nature, which can translate into a lack of control over your shoot.

Maintaining control over your shooting environment is the key to making outdoor shooting a success. As a videographer, the one element that will cause you the most grief is ambient light. As such, our discussion here will focus on outdoor lighting-both quantity and quality. First, quality.

Achieving the Right Balance

You may not believe it, but not all white light is the same. And we’re not referring to brightness, but color. White light, which is actually a mixture of light of many different colors, is actually tinted to a degree by the mixture of those colors.

Consider, for a moment, the light that comes from an incandescent light bulb and that which is produced by a fluorescent light. The incandescent light is warmer in color, while the fluorescent lights are cold. That’s because incandescent bulbs give off light that is redder than fluorescent bulbs, which tend to be blue-green.

These differences among the light produced by various sources, including the sun, can likewise wreak havoc on your video. Why? Because subjects shot under different lighting conditions will assume some of the characteristics of that light. That’s why your subject’s skin may take on a bluish-green tint when shot under fluorescent lights.

Videographers compensate for these lighting differences by adjusting the camcorder’s white balance. When you white balance a camera, you tell it what color white is under a given lighting scenario so that the camera can avoid the color bias produced by the ambient light and record individual colors properly.

Most of today’s camcorders do not require that you white balance them manually. Instead, they have several presets that can be applied to a variety of lighting conditions. One of those is typically an “outdoor” setting. It’s worth noting that some models don’t allow you to control white balance at all. Check your owner’s manual to find out if your camcorder has such settings. If so, they are most likely adjusted using a button, dial or menu setting. Simply set the camcorder to the “outdoor” setting before you begin your outdoor shoot. Your camcorder’s electronics will then automatically compensate for the color of the sun’s light.

If you have the option of white balancing manually, do it. This is the best way to ensure that your whites are white every time you shoot. White balancing is a simple operation. Simply hold a white card in front of your camcorder. Zoom in so that the white card completely fills your frame. Then, press the “white balance” button (it is most often a button on those camcorders that include manual white balance). White balancing will insure proper color balance whether you shoot indoors under fluorescent lights or outdoors in the bright, hot sun.

Sunlight: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Fortunately, the quantity of light is never an issue when shooting outdoors. Unless it’s the middle of the night or you’ve decided to shoot under a rock, the sun will give you all the light you need.

That abundance of light, however, can pose problems for you. You’d be hard pressed to find an artificial source of light as bright as the sun. All that illumination can make for an ugly combination of hot spots and pronounced shadows.

You’d be hard pressed to find an artificial source of light as bright as the sun

You can deal with a high contrast shot like this in a number of ways. If you’re a patient person, and the day is cloudy, you can wait until the sun goes behind a cloud or the sky becomes overcast before you begin shooting. Clouds diffuse the sun’s light while only reducing slightly the sun’s illuminating power. The result is that the sun turns into a soft light source rather than such a harsh one; shadows will soften or disappear entirely, and the overall lighting effect will be more uniform.

If you’re like me, though, you won’t have that kind of patience. You’ll need some substitute for cloud cover. One solution is to create an artificial diffuser by creatively using a white bedsheet, or some other translucent white material, to soften the sun’s light.

You can apply your light diffuser in a number of ways. If the sun is high in the sky, for example, delivering most of its light from directly overhead, you may have to construct a makeshift tent. Perhaps you could stretch your bedsheet across several clotheslines and position your subject beneath the bedsheet, producing the rough equivalent of an overcast day. If it’s earlier or later in the day, however, you might have a couple of friends stretch the bedsheet between them and hold it off to the side of your shot, between the subject and the sun. The sun will still illuminate your subject, but as the light passes through the bedsheet, it will become more diffused and reduce the contrast of your shot.

You can also compensate for high-contrast outdoor conditions with lens filters. Used principally in still photography, lens filters screw onto the front of your camcorder lens housing and actually modify light as it enters the lens. Not all camcorders allow for the mounting of external filters, however; check your owner’s manual before opening up your checkbook to make a purchase.

While lens filters can provide a variety of visual effects, you can get your hands on a contrast filter that will serve to cut down on the amount of contrast you have in your shot. You can even get filters that can help you white balance your camcorder, if you find your camcorder is having difficulty compensating for the color and intensity of sunlight.

Because filters tend to cut down some of the light’s intensity, they are ideal for use outdoors. Since the sun is so bright, you can afford to reduce some of its intensity without affecting the quality of your shot.

Aiming Sunlight

You can take advantage of other more natural diffusers of light, as well. You can make use of any large object that casts a shadow large enough to accommodate your shot. These objects can run the gamut from trees to buildings, to rock formations.

In situations such as these, however, you may find that you’re blocking too much sunlight. While you may be reducing excessive brightness, you may now have to deal with a shot that is simply too dark.

Fortunately, it is possible to redirect some of the sun’s light toward your subject from different angles. This is accomplished with reflectors that bounce the sun’s light.

Many low-cost items can serve as reflectors. Go down to your local hobby shop and pick up some white posterboard, for example. You may recall from your 10th-grade science class that the color “white” is produced when all colors of the light spectrum are reflected evenly off an object’s surface. That’s why white posterboard, or any flat, white item you happen to have handy, is able to reflect a respectable amount of sunlight back onto your subject, without changing the color of the source. By adjusting the distance from the posterboard to the subject, you can vary the intensity of the light that is reflected into your shot.

Need more light? Try something more reflective. Mount sheets of aluminum foil on your posterboard and you will reflect more light. Need to really shine some of the sun’s rays onto a particularly dark portion of your shot? Grab a mirror off the wall and go to work.

Outdoor shooting holds a lot of challenges to the videographer, but also means a lot of opportunities for outstanding video. Maintaining control over your shot, primarily your shot’s lighting, will be job one. The bottom line is that when you shoot video in the great outdoors during daylight hours you’ll have more than enough light at your disposal to produce good video. What you need to do is manipulate that light so that it works for you, not against you. Using a few low-cost (and readily available) tools and techniques can make your next outdoor shoot look like it was produced in a high-tech movie studio.

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