Light Source: The Power of the Sun

Have you ever watched a movie and marveled at the sunlit scenes and dramatic "natural" light effects? Have you ever wondered how directors achieved the rich warm glow that fills a scene with dramatic serenity? For years, film and videomakers have utilized the sun and its array of light to create stirring and dramatic moments in their productions. The sun’s light, used effectively, can change the mood of a shot. Knowing how to use this wonderful light source can lead to better and more effective videos.

Often the difference between good and great video is the quality of the lighting. The sun is one of the primary and cheapest sources of light. You can use the great orb in the sky in a number of ways to take advantage of the large pallet of various shades and intensities it provides. In this article, we will take a look at the sun, its properties and ways to light outdoor scenes effectively.

Light and Shadow

When lighting a scene using the sun as your primary or key light source, there are many properties of light that you have to consider. Two of these properties are the shadows created by the sun and the contrast between the sunlit area and the shadows.

A large light source will create a soft edge to the shadow and smooth the surfaces of objects or faces. This softness gives a look of serenity and peace. A small intense light source creates a hard-edged shadow that accentuates the texture of an object’s surface or the lines and hollows of a face. This gives a dramatic look to your subject. Although the sun may be many times the size of the earth, by the time you see it, it is a very small but incredibly intense light in the sky. This small yet intense light, when shining bright in a cloudless sky creates very hard shadows. However, on an overcast day, the clouds diffuse the sun’s light and it becomes a huge soft light with very little or no shadow.

Contrast is the difference between the dark shadows and the bright light. For example, when shooting an interview on a bright sunny day, you place your subject in the shade of a tree so that you can see the subject’s face. However, the gorgeous blue sky behind the subject becomes so washed-out that you decide to set your camera so that it can see the blue sky. Suddenly your subject is a silhouette. This is a problem with contrast.

When shooting film, the director of a production has the luxury of shooting with a contrast ratio that is at least 100:1. This means that the film will be able to see definition in light areas that are 100 times brighter than the dark areas. Video on the other hand is limited to a contrast ratio of about 32:1. While shooting inside with artificial lights, this low contrast ratio is seldom a problem. When shooting outdoors, the contrast between the light from the sun and the shadows it casts is often greater than the 32:1 ratio a camcorder can handle. Let’s take a look at how we can control the sun’s shadows and the high contrast they create.

Controlling Light and Shadow

If you are looking for minimal shadow and low- contrast lighting, the ideal time to shoot outdoors is on a bright overcast day. The diffused light of the sun creates soft shadows that will flatter your subject and create a scene that has low contrast and few problems for the camera. Even though the sun’s light is well diffused, it can still be extremely bright and you should avoid placing your subject in front of a white or very lightly-colored background.

You can duplicate the diffused light of a bright overcast day by using a "butterfly scrim." While the professional versions are made of metal mesh or silk over a solid frame, you can make an inexpensive version with a cotton bed sheet or mesh landscaping materials attached to a PVC pipe frame (see Homemade Shade, March ’98). By suspending the frame over your subjects, you can turn the small intense sunlight into a large diffused light source. If the sheet is soft, you should get very little noise even in a fair breeze.

Shooting your subject standing in a shaded area is another way to achieve a soft diffused look. This technique however, as we saw in the earlier example, has its problems. It is sometimes difficult to avoid the bright sunlit background. Professional videographers use the butterfly scrim to cut the intensity of the light in the background. A large piece of heavy flat black screening, placed between the foreground subject and the bright background, can create the same effect and the camcorder will not even see it.

If you can’t avoid the sun, use it to your advantage. Place the subject so that the sun is hitting him from the right of the camcorder. Set the camcorder for the shot; then using a white piece of posterboard or foamcore, reflect light into his face from the left side of the camcorder. If you hold the reflector high, the light coming from the bounce-card will look more natural than holding it below eye-level. Again, be careful that you avoid extremely bright, reflective backgrounds. This technique would have worked well for an interview on a snowy slope. Because the subject is looking towards the sun, the sun’s rays would reflect off the snow behind them away from the camera. By filling in their face with a bounce card, you should be able to see the subject, the shot, and the sky.

If you must shoot against the sun or are trying to use the sun as a highly dramatic backlight, a pair of reflectors and a "flag" will save the day. Place the subject with his back directly to the sun. Reflect light off a white bounce card from both the right and the left of the camera and place the "flag," a black piece of posterboard, above the lens out of the camera shot to shade the lens from the direct sun. This flag will reduce the effects of sun flare and haze. You can easily check to see if your flag is working by looking at the lens and seeing if it is in the shadow of the flag. If you cannot avoid lens flare, use it artistically by changing the angle of the lens. You should be able to see the flare moving in a diagonal pattern across the lens as you move the camcorder.

Color and Angle

Two of the most useful properties of the sun are its ability to change color and its ever-changing angle. The sun’s light, as it passes from sunrise to sunset, is a rainbow of colors. In the early morning and late evening hours, the color of the sun’s light takes on a reddish cast. In late morning and towards late afternoon, the sun takes on a pleasant golden cast. Many videographers prize this "golden time" and set their shoot schedules to take advantage of this dramatic "golden light." In the middle of the day, the sun has a harsh, white look. This is the least favorable time to shoot. On overcast and hazy days, the sun’s light has a bluish cast.

The angle of the sun’s light is also always changing. In the early morning and early evening before the sun goes down, the shadows cast are long and dramatic. Later in the morning and during the late afternoon the light is at a higher angle that is both dramatic and flattering. The angle of the sun from about 10am to 3pm is very high and unflattering. Video shot at this time will appear flat and lifeless compared to the "golden time." However, those of you lucky enough to live in the northern latitudes, can use the sunlight at noon because the sun is lower on the horizon and its angle becomes more flattering than in southern latitudes. The same holds true (in reverse) for those shooting in latitudes well south of the equator.

Final Thoughts

With a little preparation, some white and black posterboard and a watch, you can take full advantage of those sunny days. Be sure you maintain continuity between shots in a scene by planning to shoot all of that scene’s shots under the same lighting conditions. Whether it be in the dead of winter with bright snow and gorgeous angles of light, or the heat of summer with sandy beaches and the light of the "golden time;" the power of the sun can make your videos sparkle and take on the look that every professional strives to achieve.

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

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