Filmmaking Techniques and Understanding Natural Light

Mastering the Filmmaking Techniques of Natural Light To Reinforce Your Storytelling



a drawing of a film set to plan for filming a scene
a drawing of a film set to plan for filming a scene

Filmmaking Techniques and Natural Night

Like most independent and short filmmakers, I don't have the budget to make the kinds of films I'd like to make. I focused on filmmaking with natural light as a way around that.

For starters, even though it’s not directly related to this article, write projects that don’t require expensive lighting setups. Not only does that eliminate the cost of the lights, it also means you can have a smaller crew.

Embracing the nuances of natural light can transform your film projects, infusing them with an unparalleled visual richness and authenticity. In the world of filmmaking, where visual narratives reign supreme.

Natural light captures moments with genuine emotion, constructs mood, and adds a layer of realism that is often challenging to achieve with artificial lighting. The depth, emotion, and authenticity that natural lighting imparts are elements that can set your film apart.

One of the most enchanting aspects of natural light is its dynamic nature, varying with the time of day, offering a spectrum of creative possibilities for a unique visual language.

This ever-changing quality, while beautiful, also poses its biggest challenge; it requires a filmmaker to be highly adaptable and knowledgeable in harnessing its potential.

This need not be a deterrent. Instead, it's an opportunity to delve deep into the behavior of natural light, understand how it behaves and leverage it to enhance your storytelling.

Image Created by Author Using AI

The Magic of Natural Light

Natural light has a unique aesthetic appeal that can add depth and dimension to your film. It’s good at bringing a sense of realism that can make your story more relatable.

The way light falls on a subject's face or casts shadows in a scene adds layers of emotion and texture to the visuals. Allowing you to capture moments in their most natural form, making your film feel more organic.

Compared with artificial lighting, which is controlled and manipulated to create a desired look, natural light has fluidity and unpredictability. It eliminates the need for additional equipment and reduces set-up time, making it more cost-effective. It also creates inconsistencies and headaches that will drive you crazy.

Iconic films that used natural light:

• One of the most famous examples is Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven", which is renowned for its extensive use of natural light. The film's dreamy, ethereal visuals were largely because of the use of natural light. Giving it a timeless and romantic feel.

The Revenant, by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which was shot entirely using natural light to capture the harsh and raw beauty of the wilderness.

Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins, which used a mix of natural and artificial light to add a sense of intimacy and vulnerability to the story.

The Tree of Life, another one by Terrence Malick, uses extensive natural light to create a poetic and immersive experience, using its subtleties to convey deeper themes.

Nebraska, by Alexander Payne, uses a mix of natural and artificial light to create a sense of authenticity and simplicity, reflecting the film’s narrative essence.

Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón, the most recent example on this list, was a film that used natural light to amplify the film’s emotional and visual impact.

These films exemplify what natural light in cinematography is capable of. Remember, the key is to ensure that your lighting choices align with and enhance your narrative. Revisit some of these films and study how they did this. Focus on their lighting setups and observe how they used natural light. Not just as a tool for illumination, but as an important component of the story.

On "Days of Heaven," Néstor Almendros, the film's primary cinematographer, emphasized an innovative approach by predominantly using the soft, ambient light of dawn and dusk. This method was challenging, as it required precise timing and quick shooting schedules to capture the desired scenes in the limited available light each day. There were practical limitations as well, and interior scenes required some artificial lighting. Overall, the film's visual aesthetic heavily reflects the emphasis on natural light, making it a standout example of using natural light in cinematography.

Similarly, "The Revenant," under the guidance of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, embraced an exclusive reliance on natural light, seeking to immerse the audience in the natural environment of the story. This approach meant shooting scenes only during certain times of the day, particularly the brief period just after sunrise or before sunset — to capture the soft, diffused light.

This choice significantly influenced the production, dictating the shooting schedule and extending the overall timeline, as the crew navigated the limited daily window for shooting and the dependence on favorable weather.

Understanding Natural Light

Natural light comprises a wide range of wavelengths, including visible, infrared, and ultraviolet light. It’s affected by other factors such as time of day, weather, and location. The color temperature of natural light varies throughout the day.

Warmer tones occur during sunrise and sunset, and cooler tones during midday. It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of weather in shaping lighting. Overcast conditions often result in diffused, soft lighting, ideal for minimizing harsh shadows, while bright sunlight can create stark contrasts and pronounced shadows, adding drama and depth to a scene.

Cinematographers must know the sun's position throughout the day and how it affects the lighting of a scene. During midday, when the sun is at its highest point, shadows cast downward, creating harsh light. During sunrise and sunset, the sun's angle is low, resulting in softer lighting with more diffused shadows.

The quality of natural light also varies depending on geographical location. Areas closer to the equator may experience more direct sunlight and harsher lighting conditions, while regions further away may have longer periods of soft, diffused light because of the sun's angle. Understanding and adapting to these nuances is key in harnessing natural light to set the tone and mood of your film.

One of the most significant challenges is dependence on the whims of weather. Filmmakers frequently need to align their shooting schedules around the weather forecast.

An ever-changing sky creates complexity. Natural light is inconsistent. Clouds pass by, the position of the sun continually changes. This can frustrate filmmakers who are trying to maintain visual consistency between shots.

To overcome these challenges, there are filmmaking techniques that filmmakers can implement:

Planning: Always keep a close eye on weather forecasts. Scout locations well before shooting and plan your shot list accordingly. Once that’s covered, always have a backup plan in case of unexpected weather changes.

Be Adaptable: Sometimes, changes in weather can create unique and unexpected lighting opportunities. Take advantage of them. Filmmakers should be open to embracing these changes and adjusting their shots accordingly.

Use Reflectors and Diffusers: Reflectors are great for redirecting (bouncing) natural light onto your subject, ensuring a more balanced and controlled illumination. Diffusers can be equally important to soften harsh sunlight and create a more flattering light on subjects.

Angles and Positions: Experiment with different angles and positions in relation to your subject and the natural light source to create interesting shadows and highlights. Be aware of how the light changes from shot to shot. Then adapt.

Gels and Filters: Use colored gels or filters to add creative effects to natural light. Warming or cooling the overall tones.

Timing for Optimal Light: Plan key sequences during pre-determined times of the day to achieve the lighting effect required for your story.

Patience and flexibility: Natural lighting is inherently unpredictable. Maintain flexibility in your shooting schedule to accommodate the need for on-the-spot adjustments.

Artificial Light Integration: Keep the possibility open that, in scenarios where natural light is insufficient or inconsistent, you may have to resort to some artificial lighting. Tools like LED panels can be invaluable in complementing natural light.

By embracing the right strategies and solutions, you can capture your envisioned shots, even under un-cooperative skies. Understanding natural lighting and being prepared for its challenges is the key to succeeding.

It’s not simple. Learn, practice and be persistent. But that’s life. After a brilliant performance, ask an athlete if that was their first time playing. Why should it be any different here? There is a way around expensive lighting setups and that’s through natural light. Don't shy away from the unpredictable nature of natural lighting. Embrace it. It may set your film apart.

By: SF Block

Writing about indie filmmaking.

This is part one of a multi-part series about filmmaking techniques regarding the use of natural lighting.

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