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Lighting Day Exteriors

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.
 

Helios

 
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.
 
Sun Seeker

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.
 

SunPath

SunPath

“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:
Adorama
 

12x12 Clay Coat

12×12 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.

Buy Bleached Muslin:
B&Hamazon.comeBayAdorama
 

Bleached Muslin

 
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.
 

Bead Board

 
• 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.
 

6x6 Butterfly Ultra Bounce

6×6 Butterfly Ultra Bounce


 

 
• 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.
 

skull eyes

 
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.
 

18K Fresnel

18K Fresnel

7K Xenon

7K Xenon


 









Author: Shane

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41 Comments

  1. Awesome post again Shane! Love this! I love how you light your daylight outdoor scenes, in fact, I think you’re the best at it.

    Just a couple of questions. Do you ever diffuse the back lit sun, so its not direct, if that makes any sense.
    Also, if you were shooting a medium shot with 2 people, one being of a very dark complexion and the other being fair, would you use different bounces on their faces?

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    • MK, WOW, thank you for those kind words. Yes I diffuse the sun back light all the time, especially if you have blonde hair. It tends to blow out quickly. I will use 1/2 Soft frost as well with that. Bead board and Ultra Bounce are my favorite.

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  2. thanks Shane for this helpful Article about lighting I really learn a lot …a question about the Negative fill is there a certain time to do that or do it what ever you want it !? like if the sun is down you get to cut it with navigate or what ever the sun is ,,you have the choice ! …and about the size of the negative it should be big or small like the reflector ! ? like if you want to do it in 1 person …..is that make sense ! hhhh …….thanks you for your time and the effort you put on this blog I really appreciate that. and looking to meet you someday! or coming to one of your boot-camps and have some drinks cheers !!

    best regards

    Post a Reply
    • VisualMED, Negative fill is best used when the sun is over 30 degrees in the sky. The size of the negative fill depends on how much contrast you want and how much light is bouncing around. The other day on Need for Speed I used a 20 x 20, 12 x 20, 12 x 12 and a 20 x 30. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve. We will soon see each other. A storm is coming next summer.

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  3. Shane, I always get a strong sense of your passion for teaching and sharing knowledge when I read your posts. Thank you. I hope some day I have to opportunity to attend one of your lectures, workshops, or presentations. I know many others feel the same too. Thanks again to you, your family and team. I honestly wouldn’t have the understanding of cinematography I have today without this blog.
    -Iain T

    Post a Reply
    • Iain Trimble, these are the comments that motivate me and inspire me to take all the time to do this. Without all of your comments and kudos I would wonder why!!!! Thank you for you wonderful words.

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  4. Great post! It took me some time to truly understand that when shooting exteriors with the sun you have to be strategic about placing the subjects. I really love the back light approach since to my eye it creates the most pleasing image. However, choosing the right approach based on the project is the way to go. What you did on The Rat Pack is insane. Awesome work.

    Post a Reply
    • N.K.Osborne, thank you for those wonderful words. The Rat Pack is one of my favorite films and it was my first. Glad you liked it

      Post a Reply
  5. Very helpful as always. Thanks for the article. Outdoor lighting is always a challenge and it’s great to see a variety of ways to accomplish the shot. I recently invested in two 8×8 butterflies and they have been a huge asset on set.

    Post a Reply
    • Tony Reale, thanks for the kind words and all of your support

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  6. This is the most comprehensive article on lighting exterior scenes. THANK YOU !

    Post a Reply
    • christopher kechichian, thanks for those wonderful words. You are very welcome

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  7. Great post Shane. As always irreplaceable source of information. Any advice on good place to buy clay coats online?

    many thanks,
    Paul

    Post a Reply
    • Paul, some people call them Ultra Bounce, some call them clay coats. Ragtime in LA

      Post a Reply
  8. As always, thanks a lot Shane, I’m finally getting guts to start exploring lighting, thank u so much.

    Post a Reply
    • fiftybob, yeah baby!!!! get out there and tear it up. You are very welcome

      Post a Reply
  9. Hey Shane, there is a cool sun position website that is very similar to the PC program:
    http://sunposition.info/

    I also recently started using a very cool Google Maps website:
    http://www.suncalc.net/

    If you haven’t seen the Google Maps thing you should try it out with a satellite overlay of your location. Really awesome for a quick and dirty location you didn’t have time to scout!

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  10. Great tutorial. thank you Shane, for taking the time.

    Post a Reply
    • Sasan, you are very welcome and thank you for your support

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  11. Shane
    Like you I have always found it so important to know where the sun will be on my location shoots. I was so surprised to see that you have taken the same route that I have over the years and I feel compelled to write you after reading your blog.
    I am a Car Photographer for Advertising Agencies and constructed and filmed sets over the years for Chevrolet, Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln Mercury , etc.  When I found a location for a car shoot I would take a compass reading to see what time sweet light would happen and where on the compass bearings. I found that all I needed was to know where the sun is at a particular time of the year and location on the map. I was always making notes of the compass readings on paper for the shoots. Some sets were so large the compass readings would have to be accurate because once built, the set couldn’t be moved and the light dam well  better be perfect. 
    One day it came to me that a sketching App to make drawing’s for viewing of your set would be beneficial. All info can be logged and emailed to the crew and clients. NO LOST or MISPLACED PAPER NOTES!  I don’t have to go back to the location to see it again either….Another advantage is to get on Google Earth and log all info for my location without taking compass readings on the location and then use my App.
    The App is called sunplanr and it is an electronic sketching tool……
    IT IS NOT A SUNPOSITION APP!
    Sketch your set and the object you’re filming electronically instead of writing notes on paper with Sunplanr for planning. Draw it out graphically on your iPad, iPhone or iPod and soon Android. Set the dial to the simple compass bearings of your set and manipulate the sun around the product on the dial to view what the best light is and time of day. No imagining!
    There are no     l   o    n    g     learning curves like supposition apps….No need for a computer. The biggest complaint among Pros I talk to is the supposition Apps have large learning curves and they are expensive. My system is cheap, accurate and SIMPLE !
    For sun information I use sunposition.info because it is the same information as Sunpath and a lot cheaper. Sunpath reports are $10.00 for 7 days and supposition.info is $18.00 a year.
    Shane, I have so many free codes from Apple to hand out and would like to offer you one to try out. After reading your article, “Lighting Day Exteriors” on your blog I really believe it would be beneficial to you. You may see the app at http://www.sunplanr.com

    Thanks for your time

    Dick Reed

    Post a Reply
  12. Hello Shane,

    And what about shooting big countryside outdoors at night, where only moonlight is available for the characters?
    How do you like to mimic that?

    Best regards,

    J.B..

    Post a Reply
  13. Hi Shane,

    Just to say thank you for your blog. I’m a camera operator with a thirst for more knowledge about cinematography and without access to feature film sets and experienced crew your blog is invaluable. Maybe I won’t get much chance to utilise the information in my day job but I’m still passionate to further understand the craft and develop my knowledge in an area which has historically been a dark art impenetrable to outsiders.

    Nice one

    Sri

    Post a Reply
    • Sri Southall, You are welcome and I thank you for those wonderful words. Keep pushing yourself to grow. I love that you have this thrust. The push means you will be shooting. Positive energy.

      Post a Reply
  14. Hey. This is really great. I love hearing other people’s theories in lighting. Very nice insight.

    Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Andy LaViolette, you are very welcome and thank you for your support

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  15. Love the article Shane, I’d have to agree that the Ultrabounce is about the perfect source in these conditions!

    Can you briefly touch on a few techniques you like to do when it is cloudy or overcast? Most of the above information seemed to me to be about sun control, but with overcast skies, I am never totally sure how to best attack them. On one hand, you (usually) don’t want to overlight, it can quickly become too unnatural and the talent too bright, but on the other hand, they often do require a little bit of cleanup and I’ve seen some beautiful lighting when it was clearly overcast that looks perfectly natural. Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • I’m also very much interested in lighting on overcast days. Do you light with lighting or bounce (is bouncing possible without direct sunlight?)

      Post a Reply
  16. Hi Shane, your articles are amazing! i’m just reading all of them: an helpful insight. Thanks for sharing your knowledge! One question, i can’t find a good translation from english to italian of “bead board”, is this polystyrene/Styrofoam board?
    Thanks again

    Post a Reply
    • Luigi Tadiotto, thank you for all of your wonderful words and support of our blog. Yes Bead board is poly in Europe. I love the quality of this bounce, the BEST!!!!

      Post a Reply
  17. its a great website i just found it, i have been working in films for 6 years but we always can learn something new everyday , i love to learn from people like you who really care about to guide well to the new generation and over all i see you are happy to share your knowledge with us. congratulations for you website and i will try to check out all your post and if i have any question it will be a pleasure you could help me , thanks. OMAR.

    Post a Reply
    • Omar Macias, thank you for you kind words and support, enjoy their is a ton of great info. The keys to the castle.

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  18. Dear Shane
    I hope you are doing well and are having nice Days.
    I am really glad can learn a lot of things of your posts on You Tube, Sites, Blogs,…
    I live in Sydney Australia and I am here as refugee from IRAN since 2 years ago and I have done more than 35 Feature film, short film, Documentary, TV show … in my country.
    I am really happy that I can be keep in touch with you as professional cinematographer and one of the ASC member, and of curse my goal is become the ASC member.
    My name Is Morteza ( Morri )Actually I’m going to buy Steadicam and I want to known as Steadiman here in Sydney, I’m researching about witch brand is better MKV or Steadicam.
    It is kind of you if let me know and give some advice witch one you consider is more professional.
    All the best
    Morri

    Post a Reply
    • Morri Bigdeli, that is a wonderful story and I am glad you have found a home. I would buy the Steadicam, more money but worth every penny. I am here for you and love to share and educate the future of filmmaking.

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  19. Hi i really like your idea of exterior day shoots more especially how you use negative fill.Now i have a shoot on a overcast day shooting one cast and a lot of cattle and have 18k,12k and 4k how can you advance.

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  20. Shane, so much really awesome info. I love shooting outdoors and so I am really going to eat this stuff up. Btw, Into the Blue is one of my favorites. Awesome job. Awesome job all around!

    Post a Reply

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