Welcome back to the final part of my “Tips for Shooting Without Lights” series.
In the previous article, we discussed filming outside and how you can get the most out of the available light… click here to check it out – as with that article, we will mainly be focusing on documentary coverage where there’s no time to setup lights. Documentary training is some of the best training you can have, it teaches you to be quick, resourceful and intelligent about how you utilise your environment and the time you have there. So regardless of what you’re filming, if you can put these guidelines into action, you’ll have added some valuable tools to your… tool box.
Be aware however – you can get some lovely shots by doing things that I recommend avoiding (what surely not?!), but I want to try and suggest how you can light a subject so he/she is clear on screen and your images look clean and professional. So, let’s take a look at shooting interiors. Huzzah!…
Unlike exteriors, for indoors there’s one main rule…
When shooting interiors with available light whenever possible WORK WITH THE LIGHT.
It’s actually a rule you should use whenever and where-ever you’re filming, not just inside without lights, but it comes into its own indoors. Don’t fight the light (hmm… could make a good album name!), use whatever light there is in the environment to your advantage and don’t make things hard for yourself. I like to split this rule up into 3 “sub-rules” (no not sub-rolls!). These include:
- Controlling the light by closing/opening blinds and curtains.
- Utilising whatever electric lights are in situ (table lamps, overhead lighting, monitors/tv screens).
- Standing your subject facing a source of light (a window for example) to illuminate him/her on screen – Avoiding shooting against bright backgrounds and having to battle with your exposure.
These are the basic points that you’ll walk away with after this post (that’s the plan anyway), learn those and put them into action and you’ll be a resourceful, creative and fast paced filmmaker… the envy of your filmmaking friends! Hooo-ra!
So let’s look at some of those “sub-rules” in more detail:
1/ Controlling the light by closing/opening blinds and curtains:
When you first walk in the room, the first thing you should start thinking about is: “Do I need to control the light?”. Is it far too bright or terribly dark? If so, what tools are available to fix the problem?
If there are windows with curtains or blinds… get fiddling! Perhaps you have a strong beam of sunlight coming through your window and you want to reduce its intensity without cutting it off completely, try partly closing the curtains to allow some light in but not all. Even better if you’ve got yourself a reflector (covered in the previous post here) why not bounce some of that lovely light onto your subject? Or even use the reflector itself to cut off or soften the light by having a fellow crew member hold it up in front of the light source. Easy.
2/ Utilising whatever electric lights are in situ (table lamps, overhead lighting).
So you’re relatively happy with what you’ve got so far but the scene needs a bit more illumination, perhaps it’s night time and you have no windows to help you out. Available light isn’t just restricted to daylight, you are often called upon to shoot available at night interiors using artificial lights like angle poise lamps or table lamps.
So start looking at what you’ve got available. What lights are there already located in the environment that could help you out? Table lamps and over head lights with adjustable heads are perfect and allow you to point their light wherever it’s needed. If for example you are filming a sequence of someone working at their computer at night, using an angle poise desk lamp in shot can really create a great mood. You can position the light so that it illuminates the computer and the person’s face – it’s a simple technique but a very fast, effective way of lighting. Incidentally, when we use lights like table lamps and desk lamps that are in the scene, we call them practicals.
If the light is too hard – bounce it! Grab your reflector or if you haven’t got one, use a wall, point your light straight at it – if the source is powerful enough, the resulting light will be softer.
Can you get creative with what’s available? How about making a gobo to liven up the background, something I’ve covered in another one of my blogs here. The bottom line is, you’ve got to be clever, you’ve got to be resourceful. There are often plenty of options available, it’s just about knowing where to find them!
Again use the light to your advantage.
Added Tip: If you like using practicals in shot like table lights or angle poise lamps it’s really useful to get yourself some Dimmers to control the intensity of the light. A Dimmer is an electrical gizmo (a variable resistor for you technical types), that you plug the lamp into to enable you to control the voltage through the lamp. So if the lamp is too bright for the shot you can lower the bulbs intensity – swell. Dimming lamps affects the colour temperature of the light which can create a very pleasant warm feel to the shot. (If you don’t understand colour temperature no worries we’ll be covering all that soon).
Aaand finally… it’s a big one!
3/ Stand your subject facing a source of light (a window for example) to illuminate him/her on screen – Avoid shooting against bright backgrounds and having to battle with your exposure.
If you are shooting someone in a room that has windows, it’s really never a good idea to shoot the person against the windows (i.e window in the background of the shot). One of two horrible things will happen…
1/ You will have to expose for the light on the person in the room,
which will mean that the exterior view through the window will inevitably be over exposed (or Burnt Out as we say in the trade). This happens because it’s generally brighter outside than inside – pretty obvious!
So now you have a horrible bleached out background. Now you try and correct that by adjusting the exposure for the background and guess what?
2/ The person you are filming becomes under-exposed or dark.
What you are doing here is creating a real problem for yourself. You are trying to compromise for both areas of the shot (the background and the foreground). What you actually end up with is both areas looking dire. For this reason always try to avoid shooting against windows.
“But what if”, I hear you cry, “the background is really important and it needs to be in shot?” (let’s say you’re in one of those fancy VIP suites overlooking a Formula One race track and you’re interviewing someone about the race… it’d be fantastic to see the track in the background wouldn’t it?). Remember we are shooting available light here (no added filming lights to illuminate the person). What can you do to stop the background from becoming over exposed? There is a solution… and if you have the time and money you can get round it (I appreciate if you’ve got those resources, you’d probably have bought some lights along too!… But I’ll cover the solution anyway for interest).
You need to reduce the light coming in through the window.
There is something available called ND filter (ND stands for Neutral Density). It’s a Lighting Gel which comes on a large roll. When you tape it across a window it reduces the level of light coming in through the window, but doesn’t affect the colour temperature of the light.
By putting ND on the window you can reduce the light coming in through the window and expose for the person without the background becoming over exposed. (ND’ing the windows can take a bit of time so if you don’t have a lighting crew with you, I’d go and have a cup of tea and get the soundman to do it for you – they do have their uses I suppose!)
Here’s a quick bit of info on ND:
ND filter comes in 3 basic types.
ND3 which reduces the light intensity by 1 stop
ND6 which reduces the light intensity by 2 stops
ND9 which reduces the light intensity by 3 stops
Here is a link to Rosco Filters where you can buy ND.
Incidentally ND filter can also be put on film lights to reduce the intensity of the light coming out of the lamp, and you can even use specific ND filters on your camera to reduce the light entering the lens itself, but note: this will reduce the overall light levels of your shot and is best used in very bright environments.
Now you can understand that if you don’t really need to see through the windows then you can make life A LOT easier for yourself and USE the light to your advantage.
Make sure you get the daylight (window) somewhere behind you, so that instead of continually fighting the light you are actually making the light work in your favor, it’s now lighting your scene! Thanks Sun! Mwahah!
Working this way produces a really natural look because the light is generally quite soft. An added advantage when shooting under available light means being able to work more quickly because you’re not having to rig any lights, which is great for documentary work or films on a budget!
(Having said all this you can get some really atmospheric silhouette shots of people looking out of windows, but it’s a very specific type of shot – if you want it go for it… but what we are discussing here is filming standard stuff in available light.)
So there you have it:
“ When shooting interiors with available light whenever possible
WORK WITH THE LIGHT and think about:
1/ Controlling the light by closing/opening blinds and curtains.
2/ Utilising whatever practical lights are in situ (table lamps, overhead lighting, monitors/tv screens).
3/ Standing your subject facing a source of light (a window for example) to illuminate him/her on screen – Avoiding shooting against bright backgrounds and having to battle with your exposure.”
These rules are not set in stone and there are always exceptions so I’m only giving you some guidelines here. I believe if you know the rules then you can break them – that’s what creates outstanding material – but step one is making sure you know the rules in the first place!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and got something out of it and, if you fancy coming and talking/learning from me in person then I run a Cinematography/Lighting course (Shameless plug – but hey.. a guy’s got to make a living!.. right?)
Get out there and have fun – all the best!
Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.