Outdoor Cinematography

Outdoor cinematography is a challenge because the camera does not adjust for contrast as smoothly as the human eye. Consider the subtle adjustment your eye makes while watching a waterfall and noticing the fish in the swirling shadows. The problems of contrast simply don’t exist for humans. That’s why many videographers don’t even place their eye to the viewfinder when putting together outdoor cinematography. Amateurs don’t notice contrast problems, but professionals do. Pros in outdoor videography always compose and light for the camera’s eye.

A Problem You Don’t See

Lighting guides explain technical issues, and that’s the easy part. Outdoor videography challenges that range from sunlight drilling down on a subject to tinted rays bouncing off a painted wall are largely solved with white-balance controls and a light metering system. But real skill is in intuiting how to see like a camera. Remember that the greatest editing software can’t compensate for compositions ruined by poorly-conceived contrast ranges. The way to navigate this landmine is to practice four steps: scout big, reframe for contrast, light right and be prepared.

Step 1: Scout Big

Lighting the great outdoors means isolating its immensity by time and space. You can do this only by scouting your location. Bring your camera, find and frame your setups and travel close to the shoot date. Outdoor videography technicalities are secondary to the unknown site itself and the weather changes that add adrenalin to the mix. Understand the nature of light sources. That means timing the movement of the sun and shadows, finding electrical plugs or measuring football stadium halogens. Your confidence from the scout will motivate your crew. Even more, it will reassure the talent and client that your shots will look their best.

Scouting gives you an instant read on what is happening with seasonal sun angles, in particular

Outdoor videography lighting is akin to camping, and you must approach it with the same patience and respect. Scouting gives you an instant read on what is happening with seasonal sun angles, in particular. At certain times of year, the sun is moving very quickly from day to day. You can determine backup plans, workable sheltered areas, exterior elements critical for lighting that tricks the viewer and contrast ranges ahead of time. Tomorrow the sun may or may not shine, so always find electric sources for lights and load limits, how much extension cord you need and how many battery-powered lights you should bring as main or backup sources. Unless you’re conjuring a remake of last year’s blizzard, the weather must be workable.

Bear in mind that, while professional outdoor videography lighting requires equipment, at the heart of it are the electricians, gaffers and grips who are experienced in outdoor light. Practicing teaches you to watch that dropping sun and tree shadow that is creeping onto the scrim or reflector.

Workarounds for unforeseeable problems on location, such as audio noise off-screen in a scene that has perfect light, might mean changing location – but consider the time required for breaking up and setting up again. By scouting, you know beforehand whether to shoot the scene wide and dub in dialogue later or to drop dialogue altogether. Prioritize lighting, shooting and schedules to make the hard choice of letting some things go in order to get the well-lit action you need.

Step 2: Reframe With Contrast in Mind

One principle of shooting outdoors is set in stone. As soon as you lift the camera to your eye, you should find the optimum contrast range between all elements in the shot. Ask yourself how you might reframe or light your subject to compensate for an overly-bright background. Practice without an impending shoot.

On an artistic note, you should decide how exposure affects your story. If you are going for drama, then high contrast in the frame is good. But bear in mind that wide exposure ranges must work intimately with composition – for instance, the audience must recognize that the blown-out background is intentional.

Woman and dog with sun as rim light.
A rim light, either directly from the sun or a reflector, can separate your subject from a busy background.

Consider the rules of contrast between subject and background as they apply to clothing, as well. Be aware of the floating head syndrome, the result of a light-skinned subject in a dark shirt on a dark background or a dark-skinned person in a white shirt with a light background. For color choices, know that, if you want your movie to have a mood of heightened reality, then bright colors and vivid color ranges may work. But keep in mind that most video does not adjust to certain color and luminance qualities within a frame. For example, a green tree, if lit properly and in the near- to mid-background, will dominate even a properly-exposed fleshtone subject and create aberrations in the lighter subject image. Understanding composition, contrast, light and video avoids surprises in the editing room.

Step 3: Three-Point Sunshine

As odd as it may seem, the elements of three-point studio lighting apply in the field. While reflectors and lights pop your image and render three dimensions to the screen, Mother Nature dictates much of what you decide when setting up a shot outdoors.

That great ball in the sky now fills in for the studio’s key, fill and backlight. In the role of key light, the sun classically fits the definition when you use a reflector to target it exactly where you need it. Keep in mind that reflectors are easy to move, and their bounced sunlight is a softer light. Also remember that the size of the source determines the softness of a light – the bigger the reflector, the softer the light. Morning and late afternoon are best angles to contour shadows when working with sunlight as your key. As the sun moves, the color of the light also changes. Maintain lighting continuity, and consider shooting a sequence over the course of several days.

Similarly, reflect the sun as a rim light – or back or hair light – to separate your subject from the background. Create this third-dimension illusion with a second reflector throwing light onto the back of the subject. Get creative, and pull a white vehicle just off-screen to mask sounds and wind, to reflect the light or to act as a huge light stand!

The industry refers to raccoon eye light for poorly-scheduled filming during mid-day that creates harsh shadows in eye sockets. If you must shoot during these hours, reflectors are critical for redirecting the light and creating good key light effects. Problems still may arise when the talent is squinting to avoid sunburned eyes.

In the studio, a flood usually throws the fill light to increase overall exposure. Outdoors, the sun fills this role perfectly by always casting a wide illumination. But the purpose of fills is to soften the harsh shadows of the key light, and, unless there are clouds, you will need to diffuse that hard sunlight fill by one of two methods: reflecting or diffusing.

Reflectors come in a range of varieties, from art-store purchases of white core board to photography-store flexible reflectors. With many sizes, colors and price ranges, the deciding choice may be how you plan to hold them: the trick to reflecting light is keeping the material steady in the wind. Beware of rippling fabric reflectors, which create a wavy light or core boards that blow out of position.

Diffusing sunlight can be a challenge. It means putting a scrim, or gauze, high and far away to keep out of the shot. Remember that the sun is moving, so find a place where a building or tree line won’t interfere before you’re ready to shoot. Depending on the sun’s angle and intensity, curtains, you can use single or doubled sheets or cotton muslin to diffuse the sun. Be ready for building moveable frames on your set. There are professional diffusers, light stands and arms for this specific purpose. Remember to rent or make sandbags for stability, whether the wind is a factor or not.

Bride standing outside in shade.
The quick solution to a bright day is simply to find a tree to act as a natural diffuser

The quick solution to a bright day is simply to find a tree to act as a natural diffuser. Be aware that your fill, the sun, is moving. You have worked hard to control even lighting, so watch for it piercing through leaves, which can happen in seconds.

If you need to shoot with the sun behind the subject, place a reflector in front of the subject to increase the light in the shadows. Always be aware of lens flare unless you intentionally want it, and flag a shadow across your lens with a reflector. Watch closely for the sneaking edge of the reflector, which is another good reason to use tools to hold flags rather than bystanders with weakening arms. In even tougher scenes, when you must shoot the subject from below, and you are literally shooting into the sky, a diffuser on the brightly-lit subject itself works well.

Step 4: Light Kit Care

Track hours on your bulb-life, and have spares. Clothespins are critical for pinning diffusers. Even the ordinary elements must be protected like eggs. For starter kits, consider 12 items: manual light reflector, mid-to-large whiteboard, poles and clamps to stabilize it, plus external extension cords, traditional lights, extra bulbs, diffusers and gels, as well as a battery-powered light, gaffer tape and sandbags. That’s a dozen in a nutshell. There will be more.

Remember that your battery-powered light will not cast far and works as a spot light, unless you have the option of using a white ceiling or reflector to bounce and soften it. Battery management is a real concern. If you’re in a shadow area and it’s hard to bounce sun into the subject, use a portable light and blue gels to match the temperature of the sun. If you are buying one, consider paying more for movable arms, gels, bulb life, sturdiness, weight and flexibility of use.

Summary: Seeing with New Eyes

Shooting in the great outdoors brings gold to your video production. After all, the viewer is sitting in a dark room, and nothing beats the allure of travel. Similarly, the performance of onscreen talent is often enlivened by being outdoors. But the importance of learning the four steps of outdoor lighting is that it gives you confidence. Like camping, if you bring the right gear, protect it and know when and how to use it, your crew, cast and client will appreciate your methodical approach to the whims of nature. While they may be distracted or overwhelmed, they will recognize that you’re not seeing what they see. Your eye is set to see in a new way: adjusted to the lens of your camera.

Jeanne Rawlings is an Emmy Award-winning sound recordist and documentary producer. Her former clients include the National Geographic Society, ABC and Discovery Channel.

Side Bar: Lights for Nights

High contrast is the definition of outdoor night scenes; the trick is to keep blacks rich and mid-tones exposed for detail. If you’re working at night, scouting pays big rewards when you locate potential light sources within the shot. Keep in mind that wide-angle compositions open your iris and let more light into the camera. Of course, you can’t always shoot wide, and thus you will get better images if you find ambient streetlight to bring up the background levels.

It’s more practical and very realistic to create pools of light that mimic true nighttime light. Gels can simulate sources and stimulate mood. Consider blue gel for the moon or colored tints to simulate emergency vehicles. Finally, avoid using video gain to increase your exposure, because it desaturates colors and increases tape noise. After all, you are simulating night! Remember, making the picture seem brighter destroys blacks and adds a haze, or noise, if you boost the signal with the gain control. If you must use it, don’t go beyond +3dB gain.

Whether you have electric outlets or need battery-powered illumination, remember that any light can be used in multiple ways. Take your three-point lighting principles into the field. Reflectors bounce a single key light and thus become the fill, if they’re big enough. Frontal lighting is never a natural look, so turn your camera-mounted lights towards a reflector. But if you want the reality-TV or live newscast look, you’re in luck with the headlight-on-the-camera position.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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