Helping out your friend, the Sun. 4 tips for modifying natural light.
Last week, with both the onset of Summer and our refreshed needs for adventure, we began this 4-part series on making the most out of light in your visual stories by offering up the breakdown on 4 tips to keep in mind when working with unmodified natural light.
This week we’re going to remove the “un” from “modified”, but first, here’s a quick recap:
Move: Since you can’t control the direction of light—because you can’t control the way the Sun points—what you can control is where you stand and when you shoot.
Balance: Consider the layers of your shot and the light within each layer. This refers to your light’s intensity: whether or not you have enough light isn’t an absolute gauge; instead, develop a sense of light as it interacts with other light, relatively.
Study: The harshness or softness of light refers to the quality of light. Closely observe how light changes to determine its quality, and then make decisions based on how that harshness or softness affects your story.
Cheat: Just because you can’t modify natural light doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate with the Sun. Be aware of your environment. Is there anything around that can be used to naturally aid your shot?
This week, we’re going to take one step further and start modifying natural light.
But this doesn’t mean that all your light-based needs are suddenly and forever met. Far from it, in fact.
We are only providing tools—ways to help you more deeply consider light as an important function of your story, and then make decisions with purpose and intent—not replacements for the storyteller’s beating heart behind the camera.
There is no perfect way to shoot light, no “right” way every time. Instead there is only the light that is perfect for your story, the “right” light for your message.
So, you’ve done everything you can to make the most of the unmodified natural light, but you’re stymied. It’s just not enough.
Which means it’s time: it’s Summer, yeah, but it’s also the ripe moment to step in and give your light that extra help it needs to tell your story the way you know it needs to be told.
How do we do that? It’s still pretty simple:
Here are 4 easy actions to take to modify the natural light on your next Summer shoot.
It's tough to physically add more natural light—that is, unless you have the power to add another Sun to our solar system.
We're assuming you don't...no offense.
Anyway, what we’re referring to is adding light to your scene by bringing existing light closer to your subject.
We do that by bouncing it. Whether that sounds funny or not, it’s already happening around us all the time. Right now! Light is constantly reflecting from every surface. It’s what light does. It’s how we see colors; colors are just bounced light—once light hits any surface, it changes. In fact, once light hits our eyes, it bounces.
To modify light, a filmmaker shouldn’t work against it, but with it. It’s like the difference between cutting wood with or against the grain: be its friend, not its opponent.
So, we take existing, available light and bounce it directly to our desired location.
The best way to work with the Sun is to take the incredible amount of light it casts, and reflect it back or refract it into your scene. Sometimes this happens naturally: from a white wall, say, or a van—some other large and light object.
Bouncing light from the Sun will change the quality of the light, as you're bringing the light source closer to your subject. Often this means softening it, though if you wanted to maintain a harsh or sharp light, you could use silver reflector or shiny board.
This relates to last week’s “Balance” tip: when you think about intensity, you should think about how much light you have and the relative amount of light you have compared to other light sources in your shot.
To properly cut light, a filmmaker must never consider light in any absolute sense.
As is the case with working in natural light, “enough” is a completely relative term.
So, when shooting outside, a tool called a net will work quick wonders in reducing relative light amounts. Nets comes in half or full stop amounts, which means it will either cut the light in half (full stop) or cut it by a quarter (half stop).
If you can’t tell by now, we have a huge crush on the Scrim Jim. We’ve already mentioned it twice, and we’re not even to the the third point of this post.
For those just learning to use a net, what the Scrim Jim knocks out of the park is its variety of fabrics, so you can mess around with modifying the light.
It also folds up into a small package, allowing you some dependable, practically weightless mobility. You can bet your light modifiers are always within an arm's reach.
Nets are great for cutting light, but they don't affect the quality of the light—the Sun will still be as harsh as it was without the net.
Which may be exactly what you're looking for.
So, in cases where you want to soften the light (and bouncing the light won't quite work within the context of your story), you can do so care of diffusion.
And as we learned last week, there are two ways to soften the quality of a light:
- Bring it closer to your subject
- Increase the apparent size of the light source
But, well, not to state the obvious or anything: the Sun is far away. Like 92,960,000 miles kind of far. It's effectively an intensely harsh pin light.
So those last two points are pretty much non-starters.
Yet, a diffusion panel essentially takes the "apparent" idea to the extreme when it comes to the Sun. By placing a diffusion panel between your subject and the Sun, you're bringing that light source dramatically closer, and thus producing softer light.
How much softer?
Well, that depends on how close you place the diffusion panel to your subject.
And wouldn't you know it? The modular Westcott Scrim Jim system comes with diffusion fabric!
Our last tip this week for modifying natural light is to removing it altogether.
Wait...say what now?
Seriously. Since we’re dealing with natural light—and so with the Sun (or clouds)—we can’t just ask the sky for less light in a specific area in our shot.
But thanks to a fancy tool called a flag, we can remove light—what is referred to as negative fill.
Like nets, flags come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and weird names: from only inches across to square feet, from “fingers” to “meat axes” (Ha! Gross.), a flag will add depth and drama to any shot by throwing up some simple, distinct, direct contrast.
Add layers, play with darkness, create depth—like we mentioned last week, think of film noir, or even just old black and white films for that matter: the relationship between light and dark is fundamental to visual storytelling.
And handily enough, both the Westcott 6 in 1 Reflector Kit and Wescott Fast Flags come with a flag option. And if that we're enough, you can add a solid black fabric to your modular Westcott Scrim Jim system.
Whether you bring it closer, tone it down, or remove it completely, light is best modified on its own terms: By respecting it as the powerful force moving behind, within, and through the stories we love.
After all, what do we need?
Whatever our stories do. And in telling these stories, light can be our best friend.
As always, we’d love to hear any more tips or tricks you may have up your sleeve when it comes to modifying natural light. Please share in the comments below, and better yet, share with us any stories in which you found that perfect tool—when you bounced light just so, or when you built a flag from a garbage bag or something.