Day for night shooting: shooting night scenes on a budget

Shooting at night is a major hurdle for many productions, big and small. Without the right camera, lighting kit and crew, nighttime shooting is nearly impossible. While technological camera advancements and affordable lighting make it more achievable, shooting at night just isn’t feasible for film productions working under a strict budget. In these kinds of situations, cinematographers will shoot day for night.

Day for night shooting is a technique that has a long history in film. Movies like “Casablanca” utilized this technique, as well as modern productions like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” With careful planning and a skilled production and post-production team, you can shoot any night scene without shooting until midnight. Understanding lighting and day for night shooting is an essential part of film lighting.

Day for night shooting: what is it?

Mad Max: Fury Road day for night
From film Mad Max: Fury Road. Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

Day for night shooting consists of numerous cinematic production and post-production techniques to make a daylight scene look like it takes place at night. Day for night shooting takes careful planning; the illusion breaks easily if done improperly.

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We see day for night shooting first implemented back in the silent era of film. Since the human eye associated moonlight with blue, productions tinted release prints blue. This sold the illusion of moonlight.

There are various techniques capable of achieving a nighttime illusion. Depending on the production, they either set out to create the effect during production or rely heavily on post-production editing. Both ways achieve effective results. Post-production takes a longer time and is harder to do. However, it’s more practical for productions without the budget to get equipment capable of pulling off the effect on-set. Usually, film productions implement day for night techniques in both production and post-production.

Why shoot night scenes during the day?

Film stocks and camera sensors lack the sensitivity human eyes have, meaning they pick up a lot less light than our eyes. While we see fine if the full moon is out, cameras struggle to capture the same amount of light. In most cases, you capture just darkness if you rely on natural light.

If production has a high budget, getting a camera with capable low-light performance and lighting kit helps. However, most film productions lack this kind of luxury. Day for night shooting cuts production costs. Also, shooting during the day gives post-production more footage detail to work within post-production, allowing for more creative opportunities. Lastly, production schedules vary from project to project. It might not be practical for a production to shoot at night, whether due to location booking conflicts, actor/crew availability and strict production schedules. Shooting day for night allows productions to shoot night scenes when they are ready for it.

Pan's Labyrinth day for night
From film Pan’s Labyrinth. Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

How to shoot a day for night scene

There are a few ways to achieve the illusion of night while shooting during the day. Taking the production approach to the technique involves adjusting your exposures, white balance and mindful, creative framing. When you go the post-production route, you need to adjust highlights, mid-tones and color grades.

Production

Keep your exposure low

Ensure there’s no natural light in your shot to avoid overexposure. Seeing a sunspot in the sky or reflected off glass instantly breaks the illusion of night for your audience. It’s okay if the overexposure comes from practical lights, such as a street light or a lamp. You want to avoid shooting the sky, especially if you are shooting in the middle of the day. Because of the bright sun, the sky overexposes your frame. The easiest, quickest way to work around this is by framing the sky out of your shot. Achieve with tighter framing, high camera angles and careful location scouting. Pick a location with lots of structures, like high buildings or tall trees. Use these structures to block the sun and sky.

Shooting during dawn or dusk is another option. The sky is usually not bright enough to overexpose your shot, but there’s enough light for your camera not to be underexposed. Shooting at these times also creates long, hard shadows, which implies moonlight. If you can’t avoid showing the sky, use an ND filter (neutral density filter). It reduces the intensity of the sky. Also, you can remove the sky in post-production. However, it will take some time and a lot of hard work to achieve the day for night illusion.

When setting your exposures, shoot at about 2 to 3 stops down below the standard exposure. Shooting at a lower exposure creates deeper shadows, selling the illusion of moonlight. Other techniques include increasing your f-stop, using a faster shutter speed or using an ND filter. All of these ways achieve a similar effect.

Most of the time, overexposure ruins the day for night illusion, though there are expectations to the rule. Mad Max: Fury Road overexposed its shots, rather than underexpose them. Ultimately, Fury Road’s post-production had a lot more detail to work in post-production. Shooting underexposed always results in detail loss. By underexposing, the film achieves a unique night scene fitting with its high contrast aesthetic.

Video courtesy: Happe Chape

White balancing

Next is white balancing. With your white balance, you want your temperatures to run cooler. To do this, set your white balance at 3200K. At this temperature, your white balance achieves a moonlight look. You whites need to have a cooler, blueish look. Since moonlight is often thought to have a blue hue to it, it helps sell the illusion.

Post-production

Depending on how much you did in production to achieve the illusion of night, you either have to do a few tweaks or extensive refinements. A lot of it comes down to color grading, but first, you need to make sure your exposure levels are correct. Lower your highlights to about skin tone and raise to mid-tones to bring back some of the detail lost when raising the highlights.

From there, start adjusting color and saturation. Most of the time, you need to increase the blue/magenta into your highlights and shadows. Also, be sure to desaturate your scene as well. Too much saturation looks too vibrant. If the sky shows, use a gradient to lower the exposure.

Doing what’s practical for your project

Filmmakers have to make do with what they have, which brought about some creative solutions. Shooting day for night is one of them. You don’t need a large budget and top-of-the-line equipment to shoot night scenes. Shooting day for night is both a practical and effective way to shoot your night scenes.

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