Night Light: The Secret to Shooting a Convincing Day-for-night Scene

The technique of shooting outdoor night scenes in broad daylight has been around since the early days of film. It is commonly called Day for Night (DFN), and you can spot it in films like It's a Wonderful Life, Planet of the Apes and Jaws; documentaries like The Creation of the Universe; and, of course, the French film, Day for Night. At times, the effect is obvious; at others, it is not.

But today's camcorders are able to shoot in very low light. Those with infrared capabilities can even make some subjects visible in pitch black. So why would you want to fake it by shooting in the day to simulate the look of night?

Read the article Night Light: How to turn the light of day into the dark of night.

Video Transcript

Ah, a moonlit walk in the forest. It's a nice thing. And if you happen to be a cinematographer who is also an insomniac, this is just about nirvana, but for the rest of us who like working during the day, this is your tutorial. We're going to tell you how to turn day into night, commonly called day for night. We're gonna focus on two aspects; one, doing everything in the camera and seeing how that comes out, the other, shooting as we normally would and post-processing everything in software, and then we'll compare the two.

One last point, it's also about selling the shot. Obviously, I wouldn't dress this way in the middle of the day, and here in northern California, we happen to be in the middle of a heat wave as that will show you. So next scene, I'm changing clothes. Okay, this feels a lot better. I'm standing here in front of the mother of all white balanced targets. I've got several different common objects here that we're gonna use to white balance on to give us that blue that we're looking for to simulate nighttime.

Now, we're gonna start with just a standard white balance card, that's what I white balanced on to get this right here. We're gonna move on to something slightly off-white. This is a standard folder file. This is a gel, just as you can see, I've just taped it up here along some white, a manila folder or manila envelope, a color temperature orange gel, a color chart, this is gonna show you what we're going to do later in post-production to compress some of our highlights, and then finally a yellow folding – or hanging folder. All of these are gonna give us slightly different color temperatures that we can use to our advantage, whether we want very, very deep blue or just slightly blue.

So what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna zoom into each one of these white balance, come down here, get a quick shot of the color chart, and then zoom out a little bit so we can see a little bit more of the environment to kinda show the effect. So let's see who this works. Now, I'm going to bring this into Premier Pro CS3 so I can show you both the apparent difference and the actual difference between the various color balances that we're going to do, and I'm going to use a reference monitor that I've enabled with the RGB parade scope here.

Now, of course, this always comes down to a subjective call, but if you're trying to repeat a process, it's important to, you know, at least know where you are so you can get back to it. Now, as I white balance on each of these, I'm going to tell you what the viewfinder shows me as the color temperature, as it adjusts to the degrees in Kelvin. The larger the number, the cooler the temperature of the light source, but what we're going to be doing by white balancing on these warm targets is fooling the camera into thinking that the light source is warmer than it really is. The result will be a shot that gets incrementally bluer as we go down the charts here.

Now, let's start with a neutral chart and this chart right here was shot balanced on 6,000 degrees Kelvin and white balance is nice and even, as you can see by the red, the green and the blue representations here on the RGB parade. This is what a normal color balance looks like. All right, let's go ahead and start by zooming into the first folder. Now, the color temperature started at 6,000 degrees Kelvin and let's see what this folder gives us. And it is 5,200 degrees Kelvin. Let's pull out a little bit and we'll go in on the chart and we'll see, I have to stop it here just for a moment because that way we can see what the chart actually looks like. Now you can start seeing a little bit of a stair stepping here, so the blue is more prominent. All right, let's zoom out and take a look at the overall environment. You know, if you were looking at this, you really probably would say, yeah, it's okay. You really wouldn't see a huge difference.

So let's go ahead and zoom into the straw gel. Now the straw gel, when it balances comes to 3,700 degrees Kelvin, and coming into the chart, let's go ahead and stop it there. Again, just a little bit more, so we can see we're starting to get bluer but we've got a nice even distribution where the blue becomes more apparent. Now, let's go ahead and zoom out and take a look at the environment. Yeah, now we're starting to see a little bit more blue, certainly here in these neutral gray rocks as they're starting to show a blue tinge.

All right, let's come into the envelope and see what that balance gives us. We're balanced there at 3,400 degrees Kelvin, and let's come in and take a look again at the chart and see how much different we're looking here. We'll pause that, and again, just incrementally lower, each one of these, as you can see, so the red very much lower than it used to be in an overall even distribution. And let's go ahead and zoom out quickly to the overall environment. Yeah, now we're starting to see blue is really starting to color all of the different values, both the darks here, the relative lights and certainly the greens are starting to shift toward blue.

All right, let's zoom into the color temperature orange gel, see what goes on there. And we have got color temperature of 3,000 degrees Kelvin, much bluer, as you can see. Let's go ahead and pause, even lower. So you can see, we've got a process going here that is going one direction. Now, looking at the environment. Again, certainly bluer, and that may be the effect that we want, and we really won't know until we try the very last one. So let's come into the folder, and the folder gives us when we are balanced on it, 3,000 degrees Kelvin.

Now, what's interesting about the folder, as you'll see, let's pause for a moment, look at what happened here, even though it would seem apparent that we would just get a cooler look overall, look at how much red contribution there is to this. So it's clear that it really does matter what kind of white balance targets you use. Try to stick with the orange hues. If you shift towards yellow, you're gonna get a lot more of the red contribution, and consequently – let's pull out a little bit here, we're gonna have a lot more magenta in our look. See how these neutral gray rocks now look fairly magenta not blue. So again, it really does make a difference what kind of target you use.

Now, let's put together the whole effect in camera real quickly. We're gonna come down to the color temperature orange gel and I'm gonna get a little bit of that sun in here so it should even make this whole thing cooler. Yep, I got 2,300 Kelvin, and I'm gonna come over to the color chart and I'm gonna use this for my exposure value. Right now my iris is on auto, I'm gonna switch over to manual and stop it down two stops. I'm right now at F8, I'm gonna go to F11 and F16, so that should be in the ballpark. Let's come out and see what that looks like. Yep, everything's nice and dark, in fact, maybe just a touch – I'm gonna bring it back a half stop, a little bit more – there we go.

Now, let's take a look and see what it looks like when we have talent in the scene. So, the idea is to make sure that you get a little bit of sun on your talent, because when you bring everything else down in exposure value, you're face is just gonna be so dark it's unrecognizable, and this whole thing is a fake, so we're just trying to make it at least one that people can see. So this is how you do it, get a patch of sun on your talent, color balance on your color temperature orange or something similar, and everything done in camera.

Now, let's compare that with out it looks like in software if we were to shoot normally. I'm going to use the video from our open as this sample. I shot this just as I would any other daytime scene shot in the afternoon. The key here, as it was in the all in-camera day for night effect, is to get enough direct or reflected light on your subject so that when you darken the overall exposure, you still have a recognizable subject.

Now, we're in a heavily wooded area so it does pose some unique challenges of even finding light to reflect, but we were able to find a patch to reflect back on my face, as you can see here. The only thing I did slightly differently from a standard exposure is that I exposed for the lightest part of the scene. Normally, I might let some of those blowout, but in this case, so there were some leaves in the background here, and as you can see, the rim light here on my hair and shoulder would have given away the shot if I had let those blowout. In other words, you really haven't seen a shot during nighttime that blows out your highlights, so you don't want to do it here. So the exposure, perhaps is just a half a stop or so less than it might normally be, but otherwise, it's a normal exposure.

So we're going to make the same two adjustments we did in-camera, add some blue and reduce the exposure, but as you'll see, we have a lot more control with this method. In the process, you'll also see how saturation is reduced. So let's start with getting our blue first. So I'm gonna come down and find tint, there we go, and drag that on to our timeline. Now, there is a lot of different ways that you could get this effect. The reason I like tint, number one is it's real easy, and number two, we have the ability to control the amount, not every effect allows you to do that, so this is just a real easy way to get a quick assessment of whether or not something's working.

So, I'm going to just pick on a blue, let's be consistent, let's call 220 on the hue and I'm just gonna say right around there. So this is going to be – the blacks are going to be that color blue. Not a lot of change but as you'll see in just a moment, as we map the whites to the same degree, do 220, come on, there we go. And let's see, give it a value right in there. As you can see, this is just eyeballing it and we'll do some tweaking later.

All right, so we've got a nice even hue here. Now, the amount is at 100 percent, so this is essentially just a tint. I've really taken out all the color information by allowing this amount to be 100. Now, if you read the article recently in Videomaker, we talked about how the rods and cones perceive darkness and color in darkness, so I'm not gonna go over all that again, but you do see some color information but not a lot. So I'm gonna bring this down to, oh, 76, 77, well, let's go a little bit higher. So you can still see that there is some color difference in my face. There is an overall value of blue going on here, and so that's just what we're looking for.

All right, let's move on to adjusting the exposure. RGB curves is my favorite for this one. Again, there are several different ways you could do this, but curves is quick and painless. Let's reduce the tint, open up the curves. Now, as you can see, we've got a master and one for each of the primary color channels. The master, obviously, controls just, like it says, all of them. I'm gonna bring that down to about 50 percent. Now, as you can see here, we're reducing the overall exposure, and the one thing that we're gonna have control over here that we didn't in the in-camera effect is the ability to keep our blacks from crushing, and that's important if you want to see some information in the whole image area. Now, if you don't care then the in-camera effect, crushing the blacks is fine.

Now, we've got a very linear line right here in the master, so we haven't done much with the contrast. Let's tweak it a bit. We're going to increase the contrast in the blacks and increase it a little bit in the very lights, but reducing it in the middle tones, so that we actually see some information. So here on the left, I'm gonna bring that to the right just a little bit to increase that curve just a hair. It's going to do a little bit of crushing of the blacks. As you can see right here, there's a little bit of crushing going on but it's not too bad, maybe I overdid it, so let's bring it back to the left just a little, there we go. And so you can see they're not crushing too badly right there, probably two spots in the area of somewhere around here and in the background, but it's not much of the image area, so that works out fairly well. And then up here we've increased it.

Now, I'm gonna bring a little bit of the red down and I'm gonna bring a little bit of the blue up. Let's leave the green alone 'cause it's really best to just operate with two of these, green normally is kept static. So there we go. We've got something that I think is fairly believable, but of course, it's always up to you.

Now, one last thing, if you did tint below the RGB as we'll move it, you can see there is a real difference, see, we've got a bit more washed out here, so the order of your effects really does make a difference. We've got a nice value there. This is probably a very believable day for night shot.

Finally, let's compare the in-camera shot with the one done in software. Now, of course, these are two different scenes, but I think the big thing to point out here is that we retained much more detail in the blacks in the one that we did just in software. It's pretty clear that this image here, as you can take a look at the crushed blacks all the way along the bottom in the in-camera versus the one where we did it all in software, you can see, we still have some bottom room as opposed to headroom where our blacks could go. Now, we could even make this darker and only crush a few blacks and still have some detail. We can still see the texture in the tress and such, whereas here, we really lose most of that information. Now, these are two different techniques and they may be very, very applicable, depending on what the style is you're looking for.

One further area of proof, I can compare the two charts. This is the normally exposed chart, this the chart exposed for the day for night after we already brought the exposure down. Now, to make this a fair comparison, I'm gonna take the identical effects that we put on this scene, just taking the tint and the RGB, copying those, and then I'm gonna paste those right into this chart which was exposed at the same normal rate. So as we can see, we still have a nice gradiation, we're not crushing a lot of blacks, whereas here, even though again the framing isn't identical, but we can certainly compare like values here with that, and there really is no comparison. So again, depending on the style that you're looking for, either one of these techniques may be valuable to you.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial and good luck with turning day into night.

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