Filmmaking Lighting

Natural Light: How to shoot using Natural Light

Natural light is an absolute phenomenon in the filmmaking world, learning how to shoot using natural light is imperative. It’s so tricky to nail a cinematic shot in natural light, but when you do, it is incredible. These scenes shot entirely of natural light will make your film a cinematic masterpiece. 

In today’s article, we’re going to look at the benefits of using natural light, why you must use it! And the restrictions you may need to abide by whilst shooting with natural light.

Let’s check it out!

What is natural light? 

Natural light is a light source that occurs naturally, for example, the sun. In terms of filmmaking, natural light is used to light a scene, and it can be moulded to and manipulated using a light-sheet cloth to capture an incredible composition. 

So many directors, filmmakers and videographers have created amazing cinema using natural light; one of our favourites is Gerry (2002) – Directed by Gus Van Sant – however, the late Harris Savides was the mastermind behind the exceptional use of natural light. 

An absolute cinematic masterpiece from these lads.

Here are a couple more examples you must check out – natural light used to the max!

What is the magic hour when filmmaking with natural light? 

The Golden Hour

The “Magic Hour”, also known as the “Golden Hour”, is the last hour of sunlight before sunset and the first hour after sunrise. It’s a cinematographers dream.  

The lights are warm, with lot’s of oranges and reds, perfect for filtering out blue light – the warmth helps people relate to happiness, kindness – utilised by many an indie blockbuster. 

Natural light in the “Golden Hour” creates directional shadows and flattering lighting setups that you can use to your advantage. Don’t forget that the “Magic Hour” doesn’t have direct sunlight, making it softer. 

It diffuses the light, allowing you to shoot crisply detailed and cinematic shot compositions that only enhance your film’s performance on the big screen (And the small screen!). 

You may also like to read: Film lighting techniques EVERY filmmaker must know

What are the benefits of shooting with natural light? 

There are plenty of benefits when shooting using only natural light. Natural light helps to create a cinematic marvel that’s naturally beautiful.

It creates an aesthetic that you can’t replicate with studio light – well, you can get close, but you can’t beat natural light

Here are a few key benefits of using natural light when shooting your next project. 

Looks cinematic

Looks Cinematic

You can’t hide the fact that natural light in film looks cinematic. Look at it this way, picture a warm summers eve.  Clear sky and the sun finally setting, it’s a dark amber colour – the shot you can compose using that as your backdrop is insane. 

If you’ve got a spectacular scene that needs to be delivered with finesse and potency, a sunset is something you must consider. 

Natural light provides you with a range of lighting setups throughout the day, namely our favourite, “The Magic Hour”. Soft, directional and warm lighting can create an atmosphere your audience will revel in. 

You may also like to read: How to get that cinematic feel in Adobe Premiere Pro

Free

No $5000+ lighting rig, just natural light source powering your film. Yeah, we get it; there’s timing, and you need to plan well, but the sun is free, and it provides you with a warm, cinematic light source that can pull your movie from being average to incredible. 

It’s constant, so you know when the sunlight will be available and plan heavily around that to ensure you use the natural light to the best of your ability. 

It’s everywhere!

You can’t hide from it, unless you’re in Iceland, then you may see very little – but for the most part, in the summer months especially – natural light is everywhere!

This means as a filmmaker; you don’t need to confine yourself to an expensive studio – go outside and explore the shot compositions using only natural light. It will produce airy, romantic lighting that will help you create a spectacle of a scene. 

Why not read: Lighting in film: The top film lighting setups you must know

What are the restrictions when shooting using natural light? 

It’s pretty magical when shooting your film using only natural light, but unfortunately, there are a couple of downsides. But, don’t let them overcome you. 

You can manage these by planning well and also being reactive to the negative elements. Let’s delve into these restrictions when filming using natural light.

Time restrictions

Time restriction is one of the most significant issues when shooting using only natural light. You only have a set amount of time where you can shoot using natural light. 

To manage this, we suggest that you plan very carefully and ensure you use your time wisely whilst on set. Planning can help overcome most of the obstacles and help you maximise your time when shooting on the day.  

Unpredictability 

Yeah, this is natural light all over – it’s unpredictable. 

The weather can turn for the worst and pour down on you. You may also have the fun of clouds blocking out your light, dulling the shot. 

To combat the unpredictability, ensure you have an additional day of filming, to capture any shots you may have lost the days prior. There’s nothing worse than rushing a shoot and capturing mediocre footage – be patient and film additional shots the next day.

Light direction (Shadows) 

Light direction (Shadows)

Occasionally you’ll find the light’s direction can add too much contrast to your shot and may cause overbearing shadows that look out of place.

This can be combatted by doing recon before your shoot takes place to look out for potential issues, i.e. a large building blocking out the light. 

You can also use it to see when the best timeframes are to shoot when the light is softer and more manageable so that you can achieve precise, warm shots.

You may also be interested in: Film lighting techniques EVERY filmmaker must know

How to shoot using natural light: 5 Essential Tips

Shooting video with natural light is one of the most powerful light forms and creates a cinematic experience like no other. 

But with such a powerful light form comes a lot of responsibility. When shooting video in natural light, you will have to make sure you’re incredibly well prepared and that your setup is inch-perfect. 

Below are some top tips to help you shoot video with natural light to the best of your ability. 

Let’s check them out.

You may also be interested in Bounce Lighting – Key Tips and Techniques

Make the sun your backlight.

Make the sun your backlight.

This is incredibly important. Making the sun your backlight will not only want to avoid direct sunlight on your actor/object, but you will also want to avoid creating ghastly shadows. 

By having the natural light as the backlight of your shot, you will avoid creating large shadows, but you will produce a nicely lit, even shot that will help you create space between the backdrop and your subject.

With the natural light as the backlight, it will perfectly light up your shot and give you the crisp, cinematic shot you desire. 

Choose the right locations. 

Location is key. When using natural light to shoot video, you need to ensure your location has enough natural light coming through. 

For example, if you plan on shooting video with just natural light in a house, you must make sure beforehand they have large windows or a skylight to get enough light into the room. 

You will need to make sure that there aren’t any obstacles outside blocking the light, such as large trees or front-facing tower blocks.

That is why location is key, and you must scope out your location in advance to make sure it has the right resources for you to shoot video in natural light.

You may also be interested in: DSLR camera guide: What to look for when buying a DSLR?

Choose the correct camera.

You must choose a camera capable of dealing with natural light and has a lot of range. Whilst shooting in natural light, you will want a camera to deal with the more shadowy areas in the shot to ensure your footage’s detail is top quality. 

There’s nothing worse than getting back to start post-production and playing back the raw footage to see grainy patches in your films defining scene. It’s devastating, so it’s a must you choose a camera that’s the right fit for the shoot. 

Select a lens capable of capturing quality video in natural light.

Similar to the point above. When shooting a video in natural light, you will need to have a lens capable of clearly picking up the footage. When shooting video in natural light inside and outside, you will want to have a wide primes lens and pick up low contrast. 

This will allow you to pick up clear and pristine footage, perfect for editing within post-production.

Preparation is KING!

Preparation is KING!

This point covers absolutely everything that links all of the above, and that is preparation. 

Preparation is essential. When shooting in natural light, you must prepare carefully for the shoot. Before shooting in your location with natural light, you will want to visit the area beforehand. 

This allows you to check where the sun rises from and where it sets, which buildings cast what shadows. Ultimately you want to plan each shot carefully to the minute to maximise the natural light and the camera angles to suit the scene. 

You will want your crew prepared and ready to go so you can capture your shots meticulously and plan which angles you want to capture when shooting during the Magic Hour.

How can I make natural light?

Making natural light is a tough ask, but it is possible to create the effect of natural light when you lack it. 

“How to create natural light” is often asked, and this can be for various reasons. You may be shooting in a room without windows. 

Or, you may be shooting at an absurd hour in the morning to get the film finished, and there’s a need for natural light to peer through a window. 

Here’s how to create natural light. 

  1. Use a big white sheet. It can be a table cloth or a bedsheet, preferably plain white.
  2. Grab some powerful LED lights. These will essentially be your “sun”.
  3. Hang up the white sheet where you want your light natural light source to come from. Be mindful where you place the white sheet, as you want it to creep in naturally and spread the light evenly across your frame. 
  4. Position your LED lights. You will want to position your LED lights directly behind the white sheet and ensure the light source is diffused correctly. 
  5. Add another sheet. If your light is still a little too harsh, add another white sheet to diffuse your light source. This will now give the feel of natural light within your frame. 
  6. Ensure your camera settings are correct. Ensure your colour temperature settings in your camera match the temperature of your lights.

How can I add more natural light to a room?

“How can I add natural light to a room?” is a commonly asked question and something many filmmakers need help with when looking to shoot only using natural light. Here are a few tips you can follow to add more natural light to the room. 

  1. Use reflectors and flags. Natural lighting can be reflected a long way, so if your filming with natural light in a room that needs a bit more, simply reflect the light into the room you are shooting with. Using the reflectors and flags, you can divert the light directly onto your subject and light them subtly. 
  2. Naturally, diffuse the light. By diffusing the light, it allows a softer light setup, and the light spreads across your shot evenly, lighting the subject up naturally. It will create depth to the shot and shoot footage with a natural feel.
  3. Light furniture. Adding light or reflective furniture in the shot can help boost natural light levels in the room. Add a mirror somewhere that will subtly reflect the light into your shot. Light coloured pillows will reflect light too. Depending on your shot’s set up, think of different items you can add that are light in colour or reflective to boost natural light levels.

We hope today’s article on “Natural Light: How to shoot using Natural Light” was helpful to you. Let us know your thoughts down in the comments.

Make sure you scroll below to read more on lighting in film – happy filmmaking!

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