Exposing for the Sky

If you think about it, your camera is basically color blind, which is sad because the outdoor videography world is full of wonderful textures, vibrant colors and beautiful light. Too bad your camera doesn’t see all this beauty. It’s inherently flawed because all it sees is “mushy grey.” Well it doesn’t actually see mushy grey, it interprets everything as mushy grey. Point it at your beautiful golden retriever as she dashes around the grass on a spring-lit day and your camera will think “Wow! mushy grey.” Yeah, it may process additional information in the scene that tells it something was moving around (wow! moving mushy grey!) but the creative interpretation ends there.

Setting the Sky

One of the most challenging tasks you will encounter as a videographer is learning how to adapt to that mushy grey view of the world, but nothing will reveal that inherent flaw more than trying to expose for the sky, which means creating a nicely exposed subject while maintaining a well exposed blue sky. Seems easy enough. The sky is everywhere and you see lots of well exposed outdoor videography with blue sky so what’s hard about that? Just set the camera on automatic, start shooting and let the camera do all the work. Sometimes that actually works out pretty well, but frequently the subject isn’t exposed correctly. It’s too dark while the sky looks good or the subject looks great but the sky ends up white. Some cameras might have an exposure lock button or setting which allows you to aim at the sky, lock in that exposure then recompose your shot but it never seems to yields acceptable results.

If the subject happens to be in the sunlight then you can expect good exposure in the sky but the direct sunlight may be too contrasty, especially if you were shooting a family portrait or a bride in a white wedding dress. It’s all just a big compromise which is why your camera sees everything as mushy grey. It averages the exposure, and just like a blender mixes up all the information, then it pours it out in the form of a big compromise – which sometimes works – but it’s a bland solution to a complex problem. There are two problems here. One problem you can solve and the other you have absolutely no control over.

Let’s start with the one problem you can’t fix; your camera’s inherent flaw. Your camera can render only a limited dynamic range of light. It can render very bright subjects or very dark subjects but not both at the same time. That’s why there are exposure adjustments on your camera and that’s why it interprets everything as mushy grey. It sees all the dynamic range of an average scene but it interprets it as mushy grey because the sensor can only render a limited dynamic range. You can’t adjust dynamic range with the exposure adjustments on your camera so you are stuck with that flaw, but you can change the camera’s settings to correctly render very dark scenes or very light scenes.

Save Time by Spending a Little Extra Time

Frequently you must alter the lighting in the scene and that’s where great cinematography begins because this is where all your creativity comes in! The first step is your interpretation of the scene which is followed with an evaluation of the background, the overall lighting, and subject matter and how they all relate to the story or basis of your shot. Since we are discussing proper exposure of the sky then that is where you start.

Save time by spending a little extra time by taking a few test shots of your surroundings to see where the exposure of the sky lands.

Save time by spending a little extra time by taking a few test shots of your surroundings to see where the exposure of the sky lands. This will give you a starting point and you can assess which view gives the best compromise between nice exposure for the sky and correct exposure of the subject. Replaying it in your camera and viewing it on an external monitor allows you time to visualize what is going on with the existing lighting. Once you have a chosen few views in your camera you can use the built-in histogram to evaluate clipped highlights. You can then go back and adjust the exposure while evaluating the scene right in the camera which will give you an accurate reading of exactly how much light to add to the scene. Once you have selected the best compromise you are well on your way to a better shot.

This is why we always allow plenty of time for us, alone with our camera our thoughts and the scene, because this quality time will pay off once things start rolling. Always plan ahead and be there before everyone else or better yet do this the day before the shoot. Adding light to an outdoor video shoot is very time consuming, complicated, tricky, frustrating and so on, so it’s best to pick a view where the existing assets work in your favor.

Mix it Up

A large white wall makes a great reflector. Throw in a sliver or gold reflector and these two things along with the sun become a nice three-point lighting setup (figure 1). The wall adds plenty of light and the handheld reflector makes a nice key light while the sun provides a nice rim light around the entire scene.

Diagram of a person facing away from the sun and facing a white wall and reflector.
Don’t face your subject in the sun, use it instead, as a rim light, and to be the source for a reflector. Use a white wall for a 3-point lighting setup without blasting the subject with too much sun.

Great. But what if the director wants something different and there is no white wall? One great accessory you can bring along is a graduated filter which are available in various colors and densities.  As long as your subject is in the bottom half of the frame, such as you would find in a typical landscape scene, then things can go well. You can also use a polarizing filter to bring the sky down while maintaining proper exposure on the rest of the scene but their effectiveness is dependent on the angle of light entering the filter, which makes them somewhat unpredictable or even obvious when attached to a wide-angle lens.

You can mix polarizers and graduated filters to create very dark skies for special effects so don’t be afraid to experiment around with filters and maybe even carry a large assortment of them just in case. If you find yourself relying on filters quite a bit, then get a matte box for your camera and attach large filters to that so you can position where they are in relation to the center of the lens. You frequently see graduated filters used in feature films because it’s a very effective and inexpensive solution to a common problem.

Mother Nature, Unplugged

So far we haven’t plugged anything in and we’ve been lucky enough to use mother nature, the existing environment and a few gadgets to get good results, but what if you have a larger set, no power and a director who wants a very specific camera angle? Then you can use reflectors, scrims or a combination of the two. Here is where planning comes in because now you have a lot of stuff on the set, your equipment and perhaps a stylist, talent and other people. The easy way is to place the camera so that the sun isn’t directly overhead and use reflectors to fill in the light. Depending on how large the set is the reflectors can be as small as handheld folding reflectors to as large as a 10-foot wall. Here is where you need a lot of help because the reflectors should not be moving because that movement will show up in the video. It needs to be steady and well weighted.

(figure 2) You can create a three-point lighting just like the example above where we use the sun, the wall and a silver reflector, or you can mix it up and scrim the set and bring in artificial lighting for your rim and fill lights. The reason you would do such an elaborate lighting production is because you need consistent lighting for extended periods of time; perhaps all day or several days of shooting. When we used the sun to reflect off our wall or our own large reflector, we were only shooting a brief scene and as the sun moved across the set we were taking down our equipment, so it didn’t matter. But if we are shooting all day or for several days such as you would see in a location news event or a TV lifestyle feature, you need consistent and predictable lighting.

Diagram of a person facing away from the sun and facing a reflector and a white bounce card.
No white wall available to bounce the sun as illustrated in Figure 1? Grab a large white bounce card and combined with your reflector gives you the options of making the sun work with you, rather than against you.

Large scrims are available from several vendors and now that we’ve let the genie out of the bottle, which is artificial lighting – it’s nice to know how to work with these tools because powered lights means using power generators, which make sound, so now the audio guys have also something to do on this shoot. We should be very glad we planned the shoot well before everyone else arrived! (figure 3)

Diagram showing the light setup covering many hours using a reflector and a scrim over the talent.
For an outdoor shoot covering many hours, you need consistent lighting throughout the day. Using a reflector makes moving with the sun easier, and setting up a scrim over your talent allows you to control the light as the sun moves along.

Exposing for the sky can be as easy as bringing in a small reflector, filtering our lens or just selecting the right time of day and positioning our camera so everything looks good, or it can become a full production, but either way it is expected of us and we should be prepared for delivery, so it’s wise to try, test and do everything possible to understand all techniques available, not the least of which is our creative interpretation of each situation.

Terry O’Rourke specializes in photography and videography for advertising clients worldwide.


Don’t forget the great indoors!

Frequently you will be required to shoot a scene indoors, perhaps in an office, church or school with prominent windows and beautiful indoor lighting. Here you will need many of the techniques you learned about in this outdoor videography lesson. Many times the indoor interiors are just as important to the client as the subject you’re shooting. Perhaps you are shooting an interview of an interior decorator and an architect or maybe a curator of a gallery. Either way, you need to respect the interior ambience while maintaining correct exposure in the windows and the outdoor features. Basically you are trying to bring the interior lighting up to match the outdoor lighting.

Depending on the existing interior lighting, the size of the windows, possible skylights and the time of day, this lighting can be anything from very simple to nearly impossible, so be sure to understand challenges and limitations before committing. Armed with a few secrets, a fair amount of experience and good planning you can expect decent if not excellent results.

The first thing to remember is all you are trying to do is match the sun exposure to the interior exposure and that happens twice a day! Yep it happens every sunrise and every sunset and you have about half an hour during these times to get very good results. Extend that time by bringing in some lighting and you may be able to depend on about 1 1/2 hours of easy shooting. If, just like mentioned above, you are expected to shoot all day, then you need to cover the windows with neutral density filters, otherwise your exposure will be inconsistent throughout the day.


A really hoopy frood.

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