I have received many requests for information about how I light day exteriors. I thought I would break it down for you. Lighting day exteriors is as much about choosing the right time as it is about your manipulation of the daylight. Sometimes you can choose the time that you shoot. Many times, you are locked into a schedule that doesn’t necessarily work for your lighting approach. If it is not the right time, you have to go with it and do your best.
On Need for Speed, we have a location that takes us 2.5 hours to get there. The location should be shot in the morning, but because of the crew’s turnaround the night before, we cannot get there until 8am. Sunrise is 6am, so we do the best we can to work with it. You have to say, is the location worth it? This one is absolutely worth it. You compromise the light to gain the big picture, a location that the audience will be blown away by. You do not worry that the light is not exactly how you envisioned it. Making a film is about compromises. Period. If you don’t approach a movie this way, you are being a little naive. It is all about making those compromises and turning them into a positive, every time!!!
“The Tools for Finding the Best Time to Shoot”
I use a variety of apps to educate me on where the sun is no matter where I am shooting on this wonderful planet. My first choice is Helios, but it is pricey. This is a very advanced program. I have not been able to figure out all of the uses yet because there are so many.
My second choice would be Sun Seeker. This app enables you to do some of the same things that Helios can do, but with a cheaper price tag.
My fail-safe, always accurate, never let me down tool is SunPath. Unfortunately, you now need a PC to run the thing since Apple upgraded to the new operating system. It is, hands down, the best program. You use a compass to guide you, not your iPhone.
“Shaping the Light”
• Back Light
I would always try to look for a back light orientation for your scene. This enables you to shoot for a good amount of time without the light changing. As the light gains its height in the sky, I just slightly rotate my actors to match that rotation, always keeping them back lit. The reason for this is that frontal sunlight can be very harsh at times. It can make it very difficult for the actors to keep their eyes open without squinting. That never looks good unless you are Clint Eastwood and it works like a million bucks. HA HA!!! You can bring a bounce in to fill or use as a key light, which is passive. This means using the sunlight, the same source that is back lighting the actor, not adding another light into the bounce. I love all types of bounces no matter what output I need from it.
• Clay coat is a bounce that is like 12% grey. This makes the bounce less forceful and makes your actor’s skin not sheen as much. This can be very important in dealing with beauty close ups.
Buy Clay Coat:
• Bleached Muslin would be my second choice. Again, it is not as reflective so it gives you a more indirect feel and is softer overall.
• Bead Board is something I use when I want to go handheld on a walk and talk or get in there really close with the actor’s eyes. I walk with the camera and the actors in a ballet to get the right kick angle from the sun.
• Ultra Bounce is the material I use to reflect light from greater distances. It has a kick, but not too bad and delivers a soft feel, just more direct and much more punchy.
• Negative Fill
Just using a bounce can work great, but there are some times when you want more mood in your scene. That is when you use what is called Negative Fill. During the day, light is all around us. It is coming from the sky, from the horizon, from the ground, you name it. I use large solids, which are black in color, for wider shots and then 4 x 4 solids for close ups that I can work in as a ballet dance with the bounce. Usually I work the bounce. I have a grip doing the negative fill as the actors move if I am not operating.
When shooting a wide shot, I try to shoot them at the most perfect time. Let Mother Nature do the lighting and the contrast control for you. For the medium shots, I bring in 12 x 20 clay coats to reflect a key light source and a 12 x 20 and a 12 x 12 solid for negative fill.
This negative fill can sometimes be a frustrating process because of the daylight coming in from all over. Shaping this light to your liking can feel a little too stylized if you hit it with too much contrast, so beware. If you are in an alley or around tall buildings, then you can get away with steeper contrast. But if you are out in the open, I find that creating a contrast of about 2 to 2.5 stops down on the negative fill is good and plays nicely with almost any scene.
• Side Light
Working in the ability to block a scene where your actors land in a side light scenario is always very pleasing as well. This is done by orienting your actors in a way that they are lit with one side of their face keyed by the sun. Getting this just right is what I learned from Herb Ritts, that perfect angle of light which shapes the face in a way that is beautiful. If you are shooting this kind of light in the morning, then I would shoot the close ups first, while the sun is still in their eyes, before it goes skull eyes. I am sure that you have seen this before. It is when you shoot outside when the sun is too high and the actors look like skeletons because they have these deep shadows in their eyes when the light is too toppy.
You can jump out wide and dial your contrast down in post when you are not looking at their faces so close up. If the light ends up going out of their eyes while you are shooting the close ups and mediums, then you can always go to some diffusion to be able to smooth that transition into their eyes a bit. I always feel that this looks lit, and I try to set myself up for success with getting in there first up. Block the scene so you know where your actors are going and where the wide shot will work. From there, systematically take it apart and start on the money shot, which is in the emotion of the scene on your actor’s faces.
So much of this is going with your gut and what you like. Some people would start with the wide shot and then work their way in and light the mediums and wides. I feel that works very well too. However, I find that sometimes I have to do so much to make that look good that I should have just shot it at the right time. It is much faster. You decide.
“Not Using Natural Light”
On the The Rat Pack, I lit almost every shot during the day with HMIs. These are daylight balanced lights that match daytime Kelvin color temp, which is around 5500 Kelvin. I would either bounce 18Ks off 12 x 20 Ultra Bounces or drive 18Ks through light grid or full grid diffusion frames. Then I would add a searing back light with a mirror board off the sun, or an 18K spotted in. Sometimes a 7K Xenon was needed. This was the look and feel of this movie. Rob Cohen, the director, wanted the character’s life to be a stage. So every time you saw them, they had the perfect key light, back light and fill level. Most of my other films have been more naturalistic. I don’t choose. I go with the director’s vision and the best way to tell the story.