Natural light can be beautiful, but it is not easy for a cinematographer to work with. Continuity, dynamic range, hardness and intensity are all potential challenges.
The most obvious difficulty with natural light is that it is forever changing. It can do stunning and unexpected things, but if you don’t move quickly it’s gone. Anyone who’s ever filmed a sunset scene and had the director push for another take after the perfect light has gone knows the disappointment it can bring.
Preparation is key. Previewing the sun path using an app like Helios Pro or Sun Seeker is essential, as is working out the blocking to make the best use of the light. For The Little Mermaid I shot a sunset scene with three actors up to their waists in the Atlantic Ocean. I had to make sure, through rehearsals on dry land, that they would end up with their backs to the sun so that I would be shooting towards it.
I also had a grip next to me with a poly-board to bounce some of the sunlight back into the actors’ faces. This brings us to dynamic range, the fact that there may be too much or too little difference between the brightest and darkest areas. Too much contrast is common with exteriors under direct sun, or interiors with small windows or dark walls. Too little is often the case with overcast exteriors, or interiors with large windows or white walls.
As in my Mermaid example, shadows can be filled in using a reflector, be that the 5-in-1 collapsible kind that are widely and cheaply available, a white poly-board, a frame of Ultrabounce or even a white bedsheet. These will be much less effective indoors, where you may well need to add an artificial fill light, perhaps bounced off the ceiling.
If the light is too flat, contrast can be reduced using negative fill. Anything black can be used for this – a flag, a bedsheet, or the black side of a poly-board or 5-in-1 reflector. Typically this is placed to cut the light on the side of the talent’s face nearest camera to get the most shape in the image.
Direct sun is often too hard to be flattering, particularly in closer shots. The solution is to introduce some kind of diffusion between the actor and the sun. This could be anything from a shower curtain to a 12×12’ frame of Full Silk. 5-in-1 reflectors can be stripped down to a translucent white disc that works well for tight shots.
Indoors the trouble with natural light is that there might not be enough of it. If you like what it’s doing but just need more, try setting up a soft artificial source outside the window. A bigger production will often use 12K or 18K HMIs firing into Ultrabounce, but that requires a serious rental budget and a big generator. A smaller HMI pushing through a diffusion frame won’t be quite as soft but will be much cheaper.
If that’s not possible either, the next best thing is a soft source like an LED panel rigged indoors above the window. By having the source indoors you will lose the natural shaping of the light that the window frame gives you, but some of this can be regained by fitting a honeycomb or egg-crate.
Another option is to place a hard reflector – essentially a mirror on a C-stand – outside the window and angle it to reflect the brightest part of the sky, or even direct sun, into the room. The great news for anyone working on a tight budget is that any old mirror will do, so long as you can find a way to position and angle it conveniently.
The opposite problem is one all DPs have to tackle at some point – namely direct sun coming into a room and moving across it, spoiling continuity. Choosing a north-facing location will save a lot of trouble here, otherwise flags will need to be rigged and regularly adjusted as the sun moves, unless you can move quickly enough to shoot everything before the light has noticeably changed.
Natural light can be one of the biggest challenges for a cinematographer, but also one of the greatest gifts and highest goals to emulate.
Our first location was a medical training ward populated by creepy dummies; we had a brief flashback scene to do around a hospital bed. When we arrived there was nice warm sunlight coming in through the frosted glass behind the bed, so we made sure that stuck around by putting an orange-gelled Aputure 600D out there. Inside we wrapped this with a FalconEyes and Stephen added some soft fill because I wanted the scene to feel romantic. To get some green into the frame (a calming colour in the film’s visual language) we stuck a couple of Nanlite PavoTubes into the background as practicals.
While Hamish (our new 1st AC) and Fifi were building the camera I faffed about with the Prosup Tango slider, trying to figure out a way to have the track go over the bed so we could pull straight back from Paul. It proved impossible simply because the track also ended up in frame, and instead we simply set it up beside the bed. It took a bit of clever blocking by director Jonnie to ensure that the camera could point directly along the axis of the track, rather than at an angle, which would have broken the established visual grammar of the film. This is the sort of thing that takes a bit of time to get back into after months away from the project, but it’s important to get it right.
Next we moved into the foyer, which we were playing as a bank. There was plenty of natural light but we made sure to keep that in the background, neg-filling behind the camera, and adding a key (a Rayzr MC 200) at 90° to the talent (Alex Wilber), who was partly facing towards a computer monitor on that side of camera anyway. A heavily dimmed 2K served as backlight.
After a brief panic when we thought we were missing our favourite lens, the 14mm, we moved to Cambridge 105’s studio a couple of blocks away. A special guest star played a Tony Blackburn-esque DJ and threw in some brilliant improvs.
We fought a battle against the high, bright sun that kept trying to come in the south-facing window, despite us having diffed a lot of it, and blacked out the whole top section, and having blinds partly lowered, and the windows having some special solar coating on them anyway. Once again we fired in the 600D, which probably did very little compared with that sun, and wrapped it inside with a FalconEyes, and added the PavoTubes into the background for colour. The DJ’s computer monitors were set to 60Hz, but I’d learnt my lesson from last year and immediately set the shutter to 144° to sort that out.
We were at Anglia Ruskin University for the day, mostly in one of their media studios. Here we had to shoot a number of things against a black backdrop, mainly to cut into the climax of the film. These included a 180° camera move using the university’s track and dolly. I thought briefly about doing some elaborate lighting rig in which lamps would have to be dimmed up and down to maintain backlight and eliminate front-light as the camera circled, but then I came to my senses and we just fired a Source Four straight down onto the makeshift table that the two actors were hunched over so that it would bounce back up to them. I was using the Soft FX 1 to match the look of the Happy Place scenes from Day 3, which helped to take the harshness out of the highlights where the Source Four was directly hitting the cast.
A little later Jonnie started flinging things in front of the camera. Had he finally cracked? No, he just wanted some lovely slo-mo shots of key props arcing through a black void. We went to 120fps, the Red Gemini’s maximum 4K frame rate, and the higher native ISO of 3200. We were able to make a stop of somewhere between T4 and T5.6 by bouncing two 2Ks into an 8×4′ poly just out of frame, and using three triple banks of the uni’s linear cyc lights in the grid as backlight.
After lunch we came to a couple of crucial shots that were dropped from the night shoot on Day 10, meaning we had to replicate the lighting from Vinery Park. We used the cycs again, a Source Four on a stand as a special flaring backlight simulating the park’s streetlamp, and a couple of 2Ks through a diffusion frame as the key. Although we were back to 24fps we still needed loads of light because one of the set-ups was on an f/14 probe lens sliding into Harvey’s mouth! “It feels really weird,” Paul remarked. Yep. And sorry for bashing you in the teeth with it.
As our time on the campus ticked down we moved across to another building to shoot a call centre scene. We went for our 24mm “tableau” frame that we’ve used to establish all the characters who ring Harvey in their own environments, followed by a couple of other set-ups. We kept the talent’s (Kate Madison) eye-line between the camera and the windows for a nice short key, beefing it up with a FalconEyes, and added a dimmed 2K backlight and some warm PavoTubes in the background (orange being the stress colour in the film’s visual language).
The good folks at BBC Breakfast were up bright and early, set up at the Granta beside Sheep’s Green, shooting live news footage of what was widely forecast to be a record-breakingly hot day. We were up pretty early too, watching from the banks of the Cam at 5:30am as the BBC drone flew over, and hoping that it wouldn’t ruin a take (which it didn’t).
We were shooting Harvey Greenfield‘s only stunt, which I probably shouldn’t spoil by describing. We’d given Stephen the day off, and my trusty 5-in-1 reflector was our only lighting gear, but of course there was no shortage of sunlight. I used the white side for most set-ups, running along beside the Steadicam later in the day to keep Paul’s face filled in when he wasn’t facing the sun.
There was an interesting moment when we had the sun in the background of a low-angle shot. As I’ve experienced before, the Soft FX filter reflected a rectangle of light onto the subject. But even when we took it out, the IRND filter did the same thing. Do all filters do it, I wonder? Must test that one day.
We wrapped a little after 3pm, as the heat was reaching its maximum. Despite all the dire warnings (and drone-worthy news coverage) it hadn’t been too hot to work. We were all sensible with hydration, shade and sunblock, and I even swam in the Cam a couple of times during the day to cool off. You don’t get to do that very often on a shoot!
Straight after wrap I went for another swim in Jesus Green Lido, whence a Channel 5 news crew were broadcasting live weather reports with the pool in the background. The presenter was positioned in the shade and they’d set up a 600D on either side of him to fill him in. Believe it or not, that would inspire the next day’s lighting.
First up was a one-shot flashback scene at the Arts Picturehouse. We used the 600D as the “projector”, positioning it just barely out of the top of frame, and a 4×4′ poly armed over the camera as the screen bounce. During the takes Jeremy wiggled his hand in front of the 600D to create dynamics in the flare.
The day’s main scene was a fake advert starring a nineties keep-fit icon. The aim was a cheesy infomercial vibe, with a 4:3 aspect ratio and over-the-top acting. We cross-front-lit the scene with the Aputures 300D and 200X (thank you, Channel 5), with only a bit of diff on them. I over-exposed by a stop and took out the Soft FX filter to make the image even less filmic. I framed with a lot of headroom and even did a deliberately late tilt-down at one point. When the actual aerobics start, we went even more naff by adding two PavoTubes into the background and the Rayzr MC behind camera, all flashing nasty disco colours. It was great fun.
By the time we moved onto the last scene – another 24mm phone call, in a GP’s waiting room – it was at least 39°C in Cambridge and the UK’s temperature record had been broken.
There’ll be more from this shoot in next week’s post. In the meantime, you can read all the Harvey posts here. Note that the link will display them in reverse chronological order, so scroll down for the older ones.
If you’ve ever learnt anything about lighting, you’ll have heard of the Three Point System: key, backlight and fill. That last one is a soft light which raises the shadows and reduces contrast in the image.
As you might expect, negative fill is the exact opposite. It brings the shadows down, increasing contrast. It’s a big part of cinematography today because the dynamic range of digital cameras is so wide and their light sensitivity is so high that taking away light has become just as important as adding it.
Negative fill – neg fill or just neg for short – can be accomplished with anything black, most commonly a polystyrene board (American name: bead-board), blackout material (usually bolton in the UK or duvetyne in the US) or a flag. 5-in-1 reflectors have a black side that can be used for neg fill too. The term solids or black solids can be applied to any of these tools, indicating that they are completely opaque, as opposed to nets.
When DPs talk about neg fill you often hear the word “shape” come up in their reasoning. Neg fill is typically applied to the camera side (broad side) of the talent, allowing their other side (short side) to remain bright. This has the effect of making the face – or any other object – look more three-dimensional. Hence “shape”. (This is all part of the theory of short key lighting, which I’ve covered in detail before.)
Below is an example from my online course, Cinematic Lighting. In these before and after shots, I use the black side of a 5-in-1 reflector (though you see silver facing camera) to neg-fill Ivan’s short side, adding mood and contrast.
We made it more permanent by replacing the reflector with a 4×4′ floppy flag on a C-stand.
Here’s an example from Heretikswhere I chose to put a glint of light back into the darkness created by the neg fill, by using a matt silver reflector to create a rim-light. (There are many more diagrams like this on my Instagram feed.)
Neg fill is most commonly used outdoors, but it can be desirable indoors too, for example when white walls are bouncing light around everywhere. For the shot below from Exit Eve, I had the white wall behind camera covered with bolton so that the light would all be coming from behind the talent. (See my article on lighting from the back.)
In the café scene from Above the Clouds we shot towards the windows, but there was still too much ambience (mainly from skylights in the roof) on the camera sides of the actors for my taste. We only had a limited supply of flags, so we pressed the sides of the Easy-Up tent into service too!
I’ll leave you with this extreme example of negative fill from Instagram.