An inexperienced film maker may think that using available like exclusively will make their work easier and more affordable; after all, the costly rentals of a wide array of lights will be avoided, and you can use what you have around you to make your movie magic.  That notion goes out the window as soon as you get down to the nitty gritty of actually filming your movie.  Relying on natural light, or the available light around you, can make a great effect, but it simply requires more work for some while reducing it for others.  However, this does not mean you should avoid this technique; in fact, all it means is that you should study up on these tips for shooting with available light!

1.  Find the Appropriate Camera


We can profess to the day we die that it’s not the tools or equipment that make the shot, but the genius director of photography and his keen eye.  They say John Bonham could make even a child’s drum set fill an arena.  Let’s not fool ourselves: just as Bonham would not have played Wembley on a child’s set, a good DP will know what camera to use.  So while it’s nice to think that it’s the DP’s eye, we know it’s his eye combined with his expertise in the subject of camera selection.  For example, a good DP will know that a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, and its signature dynamic range, is great for outdoor shooting, but if you’re shooting mostly at night, something like the C300 or the 5D MKIII would be best.  Do your research!

2.  Lenses Are Everything


So we agree that the right camera is important.  But what is a camera without its perfect lens?  Choosing the right lens for your production can make or break your picture quality.  For example in the day time, you are going to want to use a wide prime lens, whereas for nighttime exteriors and interiors, you’ll want a range of fast lenses, and especially at least one wide.   The Rokinon Cine Lenses are a great choice for a lower budget film, as you won’t lose a lot of quality, but will have a lot of variety to choose from.

3.  Flags and Reflectors

Round white reflector held by a designated holder set on a lighting stand, ready for studio photography usage. Isolated on white background.

Round white reflector held by a designated holder set on a lighting stand, ready for studio photography usage. Isolated on white background.

Using available like doesn’t mean that you have to use only the natural light as is.  It’s extremely important to use reflectors and flags to create fill and negative fill, or to add splash to the background.  Reflectors also don’t have to be high quality store bought pieces; you can get great makeshift reflectors at art supply stores or film supply stores.  Using flags for negative fill is important on extremely bright sunny days on exterior shoots – the fill will help define your actors’ faces and provide necessary contrast.   Ignoring proper reflector and flag use is a major mistake for low budget films.

4.  Timing is Everything

If you’re relying on natural light, you are going to have to plan around the time of day.  Shooting during Blue Hour and the Magic Hour are easy ways to take advantage of the natural lighting – though you’ll have to be on the ball.   The Blue Hour refers to the time when the sun has just gone down or is about to come up – so it is not visible in the sky – but the maximum amount of light is washing over your set.  Magic Hour is the sweet sister of the Blue Hour: the time right after the sun comes up or before it goes down.  Utilizing how the lighting of these unique times of day shows up on your footage will allow you to sell the fact that it’s night, even if it’s not.

These are the best tips.  Of course you’ll need to make sure your actors are on the ball and that your locations are scouted properly to best utilize the lighting.  Hiring pro art departments and being fully prepared is of the utmost importance.  Never try to wing it on a natural light shoot.  But it doesn’t have to be too difficult to save money and get your shoot to be successful!