Outdoor Lighting - Part Two | Print |
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What you need to know to shoot great footage outside - Part Two

Simple Solutions

Other very effective and inexpensive out­door lighting techniques involve simply staging a scene in the proper place with respect to the sun.

You've heard the saying that the sun should always be behind the camera when you shoot. True enough, but it doesn't tell you whether the sun should be to the left, the right or directly behind the camera. Many videographers default to the center position, where the sun sits directly behind the cam­era. This is a bad idea for two reasons:

1.  It puts the sun in the subject's face, which almost guarantees squinting eyes in the shot (see right) and

2.  the shadow that you and your camcorder cast is likely to wind up in the shot.

You can avoid these rookie moves by adopt­ing an outdoor version of the classic three­point lighting setup, which is used to add more light to indoor shooting situations.

In the three-point setup, one light serves as the main or "key" light. It provides most of the light for a scene. It's positioned to light one side of the subject, angled approximately 45 degrees horizontally from the subject.

A second, less intense light shines on the opposite side of the subject. Called a "fill" light, it balances the shadows that define contour and shape. It's often somewhere between one half and two thirds as bright as the key light.

Sometimes a third light adds backlight. A backhght separates the subject from what's behind it, and provides shoulder and hair highlights on people.
Here's how you can adapt this three­point setup to outdoor lighting situations. Instead of standing with the sun directly behind you, change your position so that the sun shines from behind you over either your left or right shoulder. In this position the sun becomes a key light, shining light on one side of the subject's face.

This takes the light out of your subject's eyes and lowers the chance of your shadow appearing in the shot. When the sun shines at an angle similar to a key light, the shad­ows will fall away from you and the sub­ject, and hopefully out of the shot.

You can also add a very inexpensive fill light by just using another reflector. Once you've established the sun as the key light, either clip a reflector to a spare light stand, or have an assistant hold a reflector near the subject on the side opposite the sun. Rotate the reflector back and forth to bounce light onto the "dark" side of the subject. Move away to lessen the intensity, closer to raise it.

If you have another spare reflector, par­ticularly one with a foil surface, you can simulate a backlight. Stand just off camera behind your subject, on the side with the key light. Point the foil side toward the sun and rotate it until the reflection lights up the back of your subject. Presto! Instant backlight.

Occasionally you will encounter out­door settings where the background is as brightly lit as the subject. This is another aesthetically unpleasant situation.

When the subject and background are both very bright, they conflict with each other, creating an image viewers will find difficult to watch for very long. To solve this problem, you must highlight the fore­ground subject. Instead of trying to reflect more light onto the foreground, try shad­owing all or part of the background.

The technique is subtractive lighting, or "flagging." It involves using a card called a "flag" to block sunlight from hitting certain areas. You can buy ready-made flags from video stores, or build your own from black foam boards. In a pinch, a reflector will work as a flag, but black foam board is bet­ter. The reflector's white surface sometimes bounces light where you don't want it.

To shadow the background, position the flag behind the subject, just off camera on the key light side. Angle it so that it casts a shadow on the background. You may need to move the subjects away from the back­ground to avoid casting a shadow on them as well.

Position Problems

Because the earth rotates in space, the sun's position, intensity and color bal­ance change through the course of a day. This can create problems for uninitiated  videographers. Understand these changes, however, and they can become tremen­dous assets.

If you shoot a series of scenes during an entire day, you'll notice the lighting changes from scene to scene. Shadows gradually change position, density and direction, and the contrast range changes. Color temperature also changes through­out the day.

For example: a scene shot very early in the morning will have long horizontal shadows, a slightly orange glow and a lower contrast range. A scene shot in the same location at midday will have dark verti­cal shadows and a much higher contrast range.
You will experience difficulty when you try to edit these scenes together. Differ­ences in shadow placement and color bal­ance will reveal that you shot the scenes at different times (see left).

A diffuser is an excellent way to prevent such problems. Diffusing sunlight hides the movement of the sun across the sky, and disguises the time of day. Sometimes the earth's atmosphere provides its own diffusion in the form of cloud cover. If the forecast says the clouds will hang around all day, you may not need to set up a dif­fuser at all.

Many projects call for dramatic use of light and shadow to convey specific moods or emotions. If yours is such a project, avoid using diffusion; it lessens the impact of shadows. Also avoid shooting in the middle of the day, when shadows make subjects look less than their best. Instead, shoot your footage either late in the day or early in the morning, when the shadows are most flattering.

When the sun is near the horizon, its color temperature is different from when it's high in the sky. At noon it casts a white light high in color temperature, usually around 5,600 K (Kelvin). Your camcorder's outdoor filter works best with this type of sunlight.

At dawn and dusk, however, the sun is lower in the sky, and its glow is a warm, golden-orange color. Videographers often call this period the "golden hour," since it  usually lasts right around an hour. Its color registers much lower than the 5,600 K light of midday-usually around 3,100 K.

Consequently, your camera may react differently when switched to the outdoor setting. If you white balanced early in the day under regular 5,600 K light, the video will turn more and more orange as the evening progresses. If you don't want this look, simply white balance your camera at the beginning of every shot.

While this change in color temperature may prove inappropriate, it can also  be perfect for certain types of shots. The golden hour's long shadows and warm lighting make it an ideal time to shoot dra­matic or romantic scenes.

Be aware that the moment only lasts a short time. You can extend the golden hour a little by reflecting sunlight off a gold-surfaced reflector. However, once the sun either disappears in the evening, or reaches a 45 degree angle above the horizon in the morning, the golden look will be difficult to maintain. If you know exactly when the golden hour will hap­pen, you can plan to take advantage of it on your next project.

On very rare occasions you may need to add artificial light to make an outdoor scene suitable for shooting. This is most common when shooting under either very dark clouds or heavy shadows. In these cases it may be appropriate to use your indoor lighting instruments instead of reflectors to light a scene.

Remember, the color temperature of sunlight is much higher than that of indoor studio lights. To use indoor lights outdoors, you must put a blue gel in front of them. Also be aware that indoor lights shine a very small amount of light when compared to the sun. You may need two or even three instruments to light a subject adequately outside.

Night Lights

Shooting outdoors at night can be trouble for professional and amateur videographers alike. Even with low-light camcorders, it's still very difficult to get good pictures without adding artificial light.

To solve this problem, use a technique called day-for-night shooting. It involves shooting a carefully staged and controlled scene during the day, making it look as if it were shot at night.

Day-for-night shooting isn't easy, and it isn't always effective. To make it work, you must create an illusion of nighttime that will fool your audience. To do this, pay close attention to how your eyes see at night.

Pay close attention to colors. At night our eyes don't see colors as well because of the lower light level. The same is true for our camcorders. Dress your subjects in muted colors to keep the color intensity down.

If your camcorder has a monochrome mode, consider using it instead of the color mode; this will help reduce the amount of color in the scene. Some editing VCRs have chroma controls or monochrome switches, which can also mute color intensity.

Consider buying a blue filter for your camcorder. This helps create the illusion of moonlight by turning sunlight blue. Most video stores carry a selection of fil­ters to fit your camcorder. Be sure to get one that fits your model's lens.

When combined with the other tech­niques, the blue filter greatly enhances the nighttime look.

If there are any ordinary lights in your scene-car headlights, porch lights, win­dow lights-switch them on. Indeed, before you shoot you should turn on any and all lights normally on at night.

You also must know how to disable your camcorder's auto iris and auto white balance circuits-if it has them. When activated, an auto iris circuit lets the optimal amount of light into the lens to make pictures.

With day-for-night shots, you want to limit the light entering the lens. You can only do this when you turn off the auto iris.

The same applies to auto white bal­ance. If active, the feature will try to get an accurate white balance, even with the blue filter on the lens. The goal is to fool the camera and ultimately the audience, so switch off the auto white balance.

With the circuits off, white balance the camera without the blue filter. Place the filter on the lens, and manually close the iris until a small amount oflight enters the lens. Let enough light through to distinguish your subjects, but not any more than that.

The result is the nighttime look: a grainy bluish image with muted colors and contrast. If your editing VCRs allow it, try lowering the black level and raising the luminance during post-production.

This increases the contrast enough to match what our eyes typically see at nighttime.

Wrap It Up

Enhancing your outdoor shoots with reflectors and diffusers is more art than science. The techniques reflect personal preference as much as rigid rules.

So use reflectors and diffusers to express your own visual ideas more effectively.
The best way to learn is to experiment with them.

Stage a simple scene outside, and then create four or five different moods by just changing the lighting design. This'll teach you how sunlight works, how to make the most of your tools and how your cam­corder reacts to sunlight.

Experiment, too, with different materi­als and techniques. You may discover a style that becomes the signature

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