Natural Light: Filmmaker Friend or Foe?

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Natural light is known for being a large, beautiful light source, particularly at magic hour aka dusk and dawn. It’s also extremely popular as it’s accessible to everyone and provides such great lighting. The downside- it can change with the weather, literally. And if you live in Texas, you know that means that it can change any second. Even though a photo shoot can last several hours, the individual product, the photo, is a still capture of time. Whereas video or film is a moving capture in time. If your scene calls for a bright sunny day and in the middle of your talent giving their lines the clouds cover the sun, that shift in light can dramatically change the look of your footage with the director of photography scrambling to readjust the scene and camera settings to this new change. Or stop the shoot altogether to wait for the sun to come back. That’s a big example but the point is sometimes natural light changes your scene in more subtle but still obvious ways. Like what happened in this Bake Off shoot.

Last year I had the pleasure to conceptualize, produce, and edit a promotional video for the 1st Annual Dallas Bake Off hosted by Dallas based event company, Three Twelve Co. As soon as I heard the name, I knew exactly what the shoot was going to be. I grew up in the early oughts so my inspiration was the competitive reality television show. The look was monochrome white on white- white chef uniforms in a white kitchen environment. The shoot location was the company’s event studio complete with tall ceilings, large white walls, and a huge wall of windows that let in lots of natural light.

Now mother nature can provide beautiful diffused light but the problem is she can be temperamental. This was my 1st non corporate shoot in a room with natural light. Previously, my video work was only in windowless rooms and labs. Anyhoo, I didn’t take into account that over the course of this 6 hour shoot, the sun would change position in the sky. When I got the footage home, I realized this when I saw the lighting and color discrepancy. It took many hours, but I was able to match up the scenes for the most part. Another thing I learned was that white background + natural light does not equal white light. Daylight is actually made up of a few colors, the predominant one being blue.

I did bring in some external lights to light the models from overhead and in front, however, daylight was the main source of light for the background and ambient light. I learned a valuable lesson in lighting 101 from that project and I'm happy to report that the client was pleased and didn't notice the lighting discrepancies. 

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Since then, I have shot in natural light but I limit it to only a 2 hour window, at magic hour (dusk & dawn) and mostly outside shoots. The few times I had an indoor shoot and there was a large window light source, I scouted the location in advance at the time I would be shooting to see how much the natural light source affected the overall scene, and then limited shooting time to about an hour. Why that time frame? I find that the sun tends to hold a similar position in the sky for 1-2 hours at any given point in the day = similar light source which cuts back on countless hours trying to fix it in post.

So is natural light a filmmaker's friend or foe? I'd say it's definitely a friend, but be prepared for it and adapt accordingly. What's your experience in shooting in natural light? Let me know in the comments below!

Until next time,