The Solution Isn't Always Magic Hour: 4 Tips for Filming in Natural Light

Summer has officially started, so all of your adventures, your vacations, your outings, your excursions will have one thing in common: a whole lot of available natural light.

Special thanks to  Gnarly Bay  for providing all of the visuals in this blog post.

Special thanks to Gnarly Bay for providing all of the visuals in this blog post.

For a filmmaker, this means the difference between capturing something tremendously moving and giving up on a shot completely.

The phrase “chasing the light” is well known amongst visual storytellers not just because it’s a fun recreational activity—no matter where you are in the world, natural lighting will make or break a shot, all depending on capturing it at just the right time.

Of course, making the most out of available natural light is the mixture of much—luck, location, time, and understanding how light works to name a few.

When these factors line up, fall into sync, the beauty of sunlight is the dynamism it provides any shot.

A shot can sparkle immeasurably when a visual storyteller knows how to harness natural light.

Which by no means is an easy task to wrangle.

It's why on cloudy or overcast days, using natural light is pretty much—to mix metaphors for a moment—a breeze. But by doing so you're avoiding an opportunity to add to your stories in ways you couldn't otherwise. 

A true champion of light-chasing knows that the perfect opportunity will only come to those prepared for it.

It’s well within your wheelhouse right now to, as you live it up in the upcoming months of pool parties and BBQs and grains of sand trapped between your toes, ready yourself to bring along your camera and capture something beautiful using only the available sunlight around you.

As part 1 of Story & Heart's 4-part series on using light: Here are 4 simple tips for shooting in the wild by filming in natural light.

1. Move.

The position of light is easy to keep in mind when we’re adding light to a scene, but when working with natural light, it's a little more difficult to move.

Because it's the Sun. Get it?

Er, anyway, if you’re stuck making the most of the light as it is—if you’re stuck with little control over the source and intensity of light—look at the factors that you can control: where you stand and when you shoot.

Where you stand will in essence alter the direction of light, and the direction leads to shape.

Consider this logic: the more we shoot with the light, the more within our frame is lit, the less of our scene is hidden or in shadow, and so the less depth we’ll see.

So, shooting “with the light”—such as using on camera light or standing with the sun at our backs—will minimize and remove most of the shape / depth in our shot. Rotating off axis, so that the light is at our side, achieves some well-needed drama.

Even or shapely? Flat or varied? For answers, always return to your story.

For example, news programs are often very flatly lit, which plainly suggests that nothing is obfuscated. For a show which—ideally, as this is up for much longer discussions given your primary source of news—holds truth and transparency above all, this makes sense.

As we shoot off axis from the light, the more our scene falls into shadow, and this is why we can say our shot starts to look more dramatic. Think film noir: chiaroscuro makes every camera movement leaden with portent.

2. Balance.

Our cameras can only handle so much range of light in a scene—them’s just the breaks (for now).

So when shooting in natural light, we want to study the relative light within our frame: the intensity of light, and, specifically, how much light is present in each of the different layers of our shot.

By “the different layers” we mean subject, foreground, background, etc.

Look at the relative amount of light. This isn’t about seeing exactly how much light is there care of a sophisticated—or not—light meter.

A filmmaker working in natural light must develop a sense of light as it interacts with other light. Your environment does not operate within a vacuum, and neither should your composition.

Say you’re shooting a sole traveler trekking across the desert. And then let’s imagine that the background of your shot is a bright sky. It all comes down to that choice: blow out the sky or birth a silhouette.

We could go for a raw, unproduced feeling by exposing for the subject and letting all the detail in the sky go to the birds. Or we could opt for something mysterious by silhouetting our subject and exposing for the sky.

Predominantly, when shooting across different layers of light, we must be thoughtful about the ratio of light across them. This is why shooting into the Sun can be such a headache, both literally and functionally: you’ll find your subject and the background backlit, with very little light actually on him or her, yet the sky will burn brightly, often exceeding the range of light your camera can handle.

What if we rotate or tilt up / down, then? We put the Sun at our side, evening the lighting on our subject, as well as on our background. 

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Of course, with any decision or intent, there is always some way to blow out a portion of the frame or use silhouettes in order to affect your story—they key is to make these decisions with purpose.

How will they expose crucial elements of the message and emotion you’re trying to convey?

3. Study.

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Do this: hold your hand up to the light. Spread your fingers apart. The gradation from the dark area on your fingers, which is probably facing you, to the brighter regions that are lit is how harsh or soft the light is. A really soft light will have a really slow gradation from bright to dark; the edges of the shadows will be soft. A harsh light will have the opposite gradation: stark and quick.

When we refer to how harsh or soft it is, we're referring to the quality of the light. 

In realizing what determines the quality of light, we can look at a scene and predict how the light might look through our camera.

Two things will affect this: the size of the source and the proximity of our source to our subject.

Without sending you scurrying to the library to verify this fact, believe us: the Sun doesn't change in size that much over the course of a year. It also doesn't get that much closer or further to us.

So what gives? Why are we even talking about this then?

While the physical size or proximity of the Sun doesn't change, the apparent size certainly does.

We say “apparent” because we are only changing the perceived size of the source of light, not the actual source itself.

Clouds do not magically make the Sun a defiantly larger light source, but what they do is functionally bring the light source closer to us, and thus provide a much softer light.

What is something that affects light magically, though?

Ever heard of the appropriately named Magic Hour, the time just after sunrise, or just before sunset? 

It's often something filmmakers and photographers love shooting in because the light is softer, sourced from a pleasing direction, offers a warmer color, and is still as bright as it would be in much earlier times, allowing us to capture more balance overall.

That's what makes it magical: your light is soft yet you can still instill plenty of shape in your visuals. You've got yourself a big, beautiful, natural softbox care of the earth's atmosphere (go earth!).

Here's the thing: while we often equate “soft” light with “good” light, we need to, as we’ve said many times already, consider story first.

There are plenty of examples in which you might want your story to feel more aggressive or scary—thus, a harsher light is more relevant.

4. Cheat.

Just because you can't modify natural light doesn't mean you can't collaborate with the sun.

If you're working with the light as is, and you don't have the gear or the crew to make the light better, take the time to look at what objects might naturally do the work for you.

Be resourceful. Be aware. 

Large buildings with light walls, at the right time of day, can offer incredible bounce if you're standing nearby.

Additionally, skyscrapers with windows that have a mirrored coating will often reflect a cool, sharp light (like a silver reflector, say) which can amazingly affect a subject’s hair.

And lastly, if you need to find both soft light and enough light to establish depth and shape, head towards the edge of a shaded area. In full sun, the light has a tendency to be too harsh, and in full shade light can have no shape. Find that edge and you’ll find a balance.

Making the most of natural light is about finding the right location and right time of day, of course, but is more about taking that time: to look for what naturally helps you.

The goal above all is to ease your mind as you move into this new season to shoot. There should be little standing between the shots you absolutely want and the shots you can get with the state of the world available to your lens.

As always, we’d love to hear any more tips you may have to making the most out of natural light. Please share in the comments below, and better yet, share with us any stories in which you found that perfect shot—when the light was just right.

Special thanks to our friends at Gnarly Bay for providing all of the beautiful imagery in this post.

And be sure to check in next week for part 2 of 4 in our series on making the most of light in your stories.