3 Simple Rules for Filming Without Lights (Exterior)

11 Jan

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I often get asked about lighting techniques for Film and TV. Whether you’re lighting a simple interview for a TV documentary or organising a big lighting set-up for a film or TV drama, I will eventually have articles on here to explain all the techniques you’ll need to employ…

However, for now I want to start with the basics, some of the fundamentals of good lighting.

The first thing I want to talk about is shooting using Available Light. Available light is the ambient light that is exists in any given situation. In other words shooting in available light is when you don’t add any of your own film lights. (“Pretty obvious” I hear you say, “Thanks for that great pearl of wisdom there Chris!“).

So, if there’s enough light around without needing to rig any of your own lights, it should be pretty simple, just pick camera up and start filming right?!… Wrong!

Occasionally I have laps of concentration and end up inadvertently watching Daytime TV (it happens OK?!)… and the number of times I see examples of how not to shoot in available light is unbelievable! Bleached out images of presenters, dark shadows of the camera operator and mic shadows mysteriously drifting in and out of shot, not to mention unintentional lens flares all over the place (remember, this isn’t Star Trek and we’re not shooting Anamorphic!).

So… let’s get to it! Here are my 3 Simple Rules for Shooting With Available Light….

Shooting Exteriors
Shooting drama exteriors will invariably need additional external lighting. In documentaries however, you’ll most definitely be shooting (day) exteriors in available light, so let’s stick with the documentary scenario for now.

Shooting in hard sunlight comes with its own set of challenges. It can result in high contrast, ‘Hot Spots’ (areas of overexposure) and lens flares. If you’re filming an interview there can also be the added complication of having the interviewee squinting into the light (like some form underground rodent) if you position them in the wrong place.



(SIDE NOTE #1: It’s worth a mention here that I’m not saying you should never shoot into the light – there are many cases where shooting into the sun can be very artistic and really create a lovely atmospheric feel to a sequence – I’m just advising that 9 times out of 10, it’s going to look better with your back to the Sun.)

So, this helps in 3 ways.
1. It produces modeling and creative shadows.
2. It holds the colour saturation of the image.
3. You don’t get lens flares.

Let’s look at these in a bit more detail.

1. Modeling
Shooting with the sun behind you has another advantage – the light creates much more ‘modeling’. What I mean by that is when the light hits the subject (person, building, street etc) it enhances its structure by creating shadows; this makes the image far more interesting because it emphasizes its form.

When shooting exteriors you get the best modeling from hard sunlight, on overcast days the light is generally quite flat and provides little or no modeling at all… *sadface*

2. Colour Saturation
Finally the other main reason for shooting with your back to the sun is that it enhances the ‘Colour Saturation‘, or ‘Colour Vibrancy‘, of the image. If you shoot into the sun (i.e the sun is in front of you), then the whole image generally looks a lot flatter, colours can appear a little ‘washed out’ or de-saturated and if shooting on a digital format, you’ll most probably struggle to expose the sky and  your subject correctly.

(SIDE NOTE#2: Having said all that, sometimes shooting with the sun behind you can create unwanted shadows, especially if the sun is low. You may set the camera up (even start to film) and as the sun gets lower in the sky, sure enough your own shadow, or the shadow of the camera, starts to creep slowly into shot. DARN! This is very common when filming interviews with an interviewee close to the camera. To remedy this one, try shooting on a longer focal length lens so you can have the same basic framing but lose unwanted shadows as you’ve increased the distance between you and your subject. Swell.)

Another one of my MSPaint jobs… but you get the point!

3. Lens Flares
Lens flares are all to do with the light source and the characteristics of the lens. If the sun, or a bright light, is directed down the axis of the camera lens then you’ll start to get lens flares.

This can be avoided by having a Matte Box on the camera (which has Bellows that can be extended to shade the lens). Alternatively you can hijack some well meaning person who is handy with a flag (no I don’t mean the type flying over Buckingham Palace when the Queen is in residence… God Bless her!). No,a flag in our business means something that can shade or block out light.

All this leads me nicely to Rule No. 2…



Some look nice, some dont. If you’re using them creatively fine, but if you want to get rid of them, follow my advice…

There are two types of flag, the first is a ‘lighting flag‘: a large black panel that can be made from black material, plywood or even polystyrene sheets sprayed with black paint.

The other type is either a Matte Box (mentioned above) or a neat little gizmo called a ‘French Flag‘ which is basically a small sheet of black aluminum secured to a flexible arm. You can attach this onto the camera body and positioning it to shade the lens from the sun or your lights.

Here’s your standard Flag that you’d clamp in place to control light.

Incidentally the average cost of a French Flag is about £45 ($70) if you don’t have that sort of money to wave around (sorry no pun intended!), then buy a flexible arm on ebay, like this one here.

Clamp a sheet of Black Wrap to one end of the arm (to create the flag) and stick the other end to the camera body. Job done! Huzzah! For an extensive article on flags check out this blog.

“But Chris, I really want to/need to shoot into the light!”
Ok ok, no big deal! If it’s a sunny day and you are filming an interview with someone and you want to shoot into the light for whatever reason (maybe the background is of key importance and relevant to the interview) then you should always use a ‘Reflector’.

—————————————————————————————————————————–RULE RULE NO.3/ USE A REFLECTOR.

Such a valuable piece of kit!

A ‘Reflector‘ is basically a white material of any kind, that reflects the light from the sun (or film lights/practicals) back onto the person you are interviewing (in fact it can be used to bounce light anywhere you might want/need it… rather handy!).

Reflectors can be the ‘fold up collapsible variety‘ like Lastolites – Lastolites are sort of spring loaded reflectors that fold away for storage. (Warning!Once unleashed into the world from the confines of their carrying bag they can sometimes simply refuse to be folded back again! It’s a bit of an art to fold them back up and it never looks good wrestling with a big white frisbee in front of your crew… it’s probably easier to find a camera assistant with at least 3 arms, even then I reckon they’d struggle with it!)

Or if you’d rather avoid the traumatising experience altogether, large sheets of white polystyrene also make great reflectors but are obviously far more difficult to store in a crew car. Trust me, I’ve tried… I’m still picking bits of broken polystyrene from behind my steering wheel.

If you’re looking for something creative perhaps you might want to consider…


The Silhouette Shot
A ‘Silhouette Shot’ is where the main object in shot (person, tree etc.), is black against a correctly exposed background, like the sky for example.
This shot is very simple to achieve by exposing for the sky and under exposing for the subject in shot. The best time for moody exterior silhouette shots is either dawn or dusk but you can actually shoot them any time of the day. They really create a certain atmospheric feel and can influence the perspective and expectation of an audience. But more on creative lighting in another blog!.. Onwards!

So there are my 3 Rules for shooting with available light outside:


If you’re filming in hard sunlight, whenever possible, keep the sun behind you.

If you have to shoot into the Sun (or want to for creative effect), use a flag to lose unwanted lens flares.

Use a Reflector to bounce light onto your subject.
And finally… a nice creative tip:
For a silhouette shot, expose for the sky and under-expose for the subject.

Right there you have it, pretty simple but VERY affective! But wait… “What if you’re filming indoors?!”, I hear you cry… Well for that you’ll have to check part 2 here.

(*WARNING* SHAMELESS PLUG) I run a course on Lighting & Cinematography, so click the link or get in touch if you’re interested in coming and learning in person!

Hope this helps!

Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.

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29 Responses to “3 Simple Rules for Filming Without Lights (Exterior)”

  1. Jim January 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    Really useful blog – thanks for all the great info on here.
    I’ll be looking into getting myself a reflector!

  2. EllJW January 11, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    this is brilliant. been looking for practical tips on lighting for my documentaries. thanks and keep the coming 🙂

  3. pete January 14, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    I disagree wholeheartedly. Why would you not backlight something with a low sunlight? That’s when the light contains most interesting colors and contrast. In fact, shooting with the light right behind the camera is what creates the flatest images. Some of the most beautifully photographed exterior shots in cinema were lit with available backlight.

    • freespiritfilm January 15, 2012 at 1:13 am #

      Everything you’ve said is completely right but I never actually said not to backlight something with a low sun. Low sunlight is beautiful, just before sunset is the infamous ‘magic hour’ for feature films – which is why I made a specific note to say that shooting into the light can bring lovely images if you’re doing something more creative – but I was focusing more on documentary coverage where it would be both quicker and easier to use the sun’s light, than to fight it without the use of lights (which there may not be time for in a documentary situation).

      Perhaps I should have been more specific about what I meant by ‘keeping the sun behind you’ – I was using it more as a general direction as opposed to meaning ‘directly behind the camera’. Anyway, good points, I hope that clears things up slightly and I also hope that you’ve enjoyed reading the blog 🙂 Keep in touch x

  4. Matt Loeffel January 25, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Hey Chris! Thanks for sharing your knowledge about filming 🙂 I was wondering if it is possible to download your articles as a PDF-file somwhere. I would like to collect it all together for offline using. I know, I could print it out, but converting it directly into a PDF would make a better layout I guess.
    Again, your posts are treasures 🙂

    I say hi from Switzerland

    • freespiritfilm January 26, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

      Hi Matt!
      Thanks for your amazing feedback – it’s always great to hear what people think and to know whether or not it’s useful. I’ll have a look into the pdf idea – I don’t know anything about it atm, but you could always just copy and paste the content into word and then convert that into a pdf if all else fails 🙂 Any suggestions for future blogs? What would you like to read about? Also do you follow us on facebook and twitter?
      Many thanks for your support and for taking the time to comment,
      All the best,
      Chris x

  5. captaindash May 10, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

    Great stuff!

  6. Henrietta Onyekachi May 22, 2015 at 4:12 am #

    Thanks a lot. It’s so amazing!

  7. Marrill Collins March 10, 2017 at 6:30 pm #

    How would you suggest I get consistent lighting for a short film? If it’s shot in different places (say, indoor and outdoor, possibly on different days), how do I make sure to not drastically change the lighting?

    Would I have to use and editor to get something consistent?

    • freespiritfilm March 3, 2018 at 6:41 pm #

      There are no shortcuts to this, you have to plan ahead and pay attention to the weather patterns – on large scale productions silks will be put up to diffuse the sunlight; if the clouds roll in then it looks no different. All in all, just be vigilant and try your best to choose locations that you can control.

  8. M.s Raju August 8, 2017 at 1:42 pm #

    Hi sir Really this is nic tip. do the vtht light .for shooting…

  9. freespiritfilm January 20, 2014 at 1:18 am #

    Hey really great to know that the blog helped! Thank you for featuring it I your post:)


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