Outdoor Lighting | Print |
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What you need to know to shoot great footage outdoors.

How do you light the outdoor scenes in your videos? Do you plan and stage each shot carefully to make the most of the sun's glow? Or do you just switch to out­door white balance, call out "Action!" and roll tape?

Even if you choose the latter, chances are your videos still look pretty good. Today's camcorders work well enough in daylight to make very acceptable pictures, even with no attention to lighting.

Maybe that's why videographers don't worry too much about outdoor lighting. Perhaps they think making the best use of sunlight requires expensive instruments and tools they can't afford. Perhaps they just never learned the tricks of managing sunlight in a video project.

That's where this guide can help. In this chapter are some of the popular outdoor lighting techniques. They can help subjects look more natural on video, and improve the overall look of your projects.

You'll learn what tools and gadgets you need to make the most of sunlight. You can build many of them with inexpensive stuff from art supply and hardware stores. We'll even teach you how to create the illusion of a dark night in the middle of the afternoon.

So start taking advantage of what may be your greatest asset as a videographer: the sun.

Principles of Light

The fundamental principles of good light­ing apply whether you shoot video indoors or out. However, sunlight presents unique challenges to videographers. On almost any given day, there is more than enough light outside to shoot a scene. At first, an abundance of light seems like an asset. However, the hundreds and thousands of lumens cast by the sun can actually cause problems for your camcorder. Not techni­cal problems, but aesthetic ones.

At its brightest, the sun can shed more than 10 times the light of one typical indoor instrument. When it shines brightly, it also casts very dark shadows.

In video lingo, the difference between these light and dark areas is commonly called the contrast ratio, or contrast range.

Our eyes can compensate for the high contrast range of a bright day. Our cam­corders, however, don't react as well. They require a much lower contrast range, especially to capture detail accurately. (Of course, our eyes also see better when we lower the contrast range, which is why we often wear sunglasses on sunny days.)

On bright days, the contrast range is usually too high for your camcorder to make good pictures. If you shoot without any lighting equipment or assistance, the sunlight won't flatter your subjects. Dark shadows may leave unpleasant or unnatu­ral accents on facial features. Your images may also look washed out.

A high contrast ratio also affects your camera's automatic iris feature. You may have noticed that when the auto iris is on, its position changes constantly while you shoot.

As you move into a shadowed area, the iris opens to allow more light into the lens. As you move back to the bright areas, it closes again to avoid overexposure. That means you might get even, natural lighting from one angle, and harsh, overexposed lighting from another. The constant move­ment of the iris makes maintaining con­tinuity between different camera angles difficult. It's also very distracting mid-shot.

The goal of outdoor lighting design is to lower the contrast range without damag­ing the natural look of the subjects and the outdoor setting. You want a lighting setup that looks the same to your camcorder, no matter where you put it. To do this, you need to brighten the dark, shadowed areas, and perhaps even lower the overall light level, depending on how brightly the sun shines.

Tools and Tricks

If you're shooting indoors and need more light, the standard practice is to plug in a light and point toward the dark areas. Outside, you do practically the same thing, only with different tools.

You only have one light source-the sun. It doesn't need extension cords or power outlets. Even better, it will usually give you more than enough light to work with.

All you must do is redirect some of that excess light toward the shadowed areas of your set and your subjects. The best, most affordable tools for redirecting light are reflectors and diffusers; they will point light in different directions, and alter the way it falls on a subject. Light will bounce off a reflector, and pass through a diffuser.

Learning to use reflectors is easy. Their behavior is somewhat constant, given the fact that light bounces in predictable angles.

Reflectors vary, however, in three ways: 1) how much light they reflect, 2) how large an area their reflection covers and 3) the color of light they reflect.
Foil or mirrored surfaces reflect the most light over a small area. Pure white surfaces usually cover larger areas, but with less light. Some reflectors have a gold foil sur­face; these bounce light with a warm, rich quality that really flatters skin tones.

Diffusers filter direct beams of sunlight, spreading them evenly over a large area. Like reflectors, they're easy to use and fairly predictable.

A material's porosity and transparency determine its diffusion characteristics. Dense or very cloudy materials allow less light to fall onto the subject. Highly porous materials allow more.

Diffusing sunlight is probably the most effective technique for taming unpleasant shadows and reducing contrast. It does an excellent job of brightening dark areas, while retaining much of the outline and contour.

To use a diffuser, simply suspend or position the material between your subject and the sun. Where you place the material and how you angle it depends on the look you want. To create shadows on the face, place the diffuser close to the subject and off to one side. To spread light evenly and minimize shadows, place the diffuser above and away from the subject, angled down slightly (above left).

Experiment with the diffuser to deter­mine the most effective position for your particular scene. No matter where you put it, your camcorder will make better pic­tures with diffused light.

There are, however, a few drawbacks to using diffusion. It simulates the light you might see on a slightly overcast day, especially when you suspend the diffuser over­head. This lighting tends to be flat- some subjects may look bland under diffused light.

One solution: bounce more sunlight toward the subject. This highlights the subject and slightly increases the contrast range.

Or you can abandon diffusion altogether and bounce light around the scene with reflectors instead. By using reflectors, you can maintain the look of a summer day and still reduce contrast.

Position the reflector to bounce excess sunlight toward shadowed areas, (above right). This lets your camcorder use more incoming sunlight without washing out your subjects.

If you're shooting at midday, unpleasant shadows may appear on your subject's face. The simplest solution is to move your subject out of the direct sun, if pos­sible (left).

Another solution is to use a reflector. Try putting the reflector below the subject's face; this should help eliminate the shadow. Be careful to avoid the "monster look," however. Strong light from below the face is a classic horror film technique, hence the name. Unless you want your subject to look frightening, make sure the reflected light flatters the face. Reposition the reflector as necessary to eliminate the monster look.

One last tip: videographers on the go may prefer reflectors to diffusers. Diffusers can sometimes be cumbersome to set up. Reflectors offer better portability, and still solve many outdoor lighting problems.

Next month, we continue Outdoor Lighting and some Simple Solutions and Position Problems


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