10 Cinematography Tricks for Working With Only Natural Lighting

When asked why he preferred shooting with all-natural lighting, Stanley Kubrick simply replied, “Because that’s the way we see things.”


It’s a trend that’s growing in filmmaking. The excellent “Dallas Buyers Club,” for instance, used only all-natural lighting during filming. This sounds like it might make things difficult, but it actually came with its own benefits. Director Jean-Marc Vallee stated that the actors didn’t have to worry about hitting their marks to keep within lighting zones, so it offered a lot more creative freedom for the cast. The sheer heat of artificial lighting rigs was also not missed!

Whether you’re shooting with natural light simply because you’re on a budget or for stylistic reasons, we’ve got some tried and tested tricks on how to get the best out of it.

When Shooting Indoors:


    • If the room has windows, it’s generally a bad idea to shoot towards them. This will lead to overexposure and a nasty, bleached-out effect to the background (as well as anything in front of the windows being underexposed). Rather than wrestle between the two extremes, place place the camera adjacent to the window — to get more of a sidelight. This provides natural lighting from the window and avoids blow-out. This is extra important when interviewing for documentaries!
  • Load up on gel sheets. Specifically, ND gel. When applied to windows, it really cuts down on the amount of daylight and makes exposure a lot easier to manage (more on how ND filtering works here)
  • Aside from lighting itself, the most important thing in any cinematographer’s lighting kit are reflectors.  We cannot understate this: they’re definitely vital outdoors, and even more so when shooting inside using only natural light. It’s by far the easiest way to manipulate and maximize whatever lighting you do have to get rid of problematic shadows. Note: You may find it difficult to get a proper return if you are reflecting indirect light.
  • Shake it up. You can’t always manipulate the light exactly to your liking, so manipulate the subject instead. Extreme planning before a natural light shoot is important so as to not waste time on the day, but be mindful that it’s sometimes best to scrap what you had on paper if it’s not looking right in the camera. Reposition everything if you must, and be mindful of those shadows as you go.
  • Scrims are your best friend. Scrims will not change the quality of light from hard to soft, but it will knock down the intensity by diffusing light. Diffusion may be your best friend.

When Shooting Outside:


    • Take advantage of blue hour and golden hour. Blue hour refers to the sliver of time after the sun disappears over the horizon but the sky is still lit, while golden hour is well known to filmmakers as the hour leading up to sunset (or an hour after sunrise). Blue hour is really handy for when you want to illustrate that it’s nighttime but don’t have any way of lighting a scene during actual darkness, and golden hour simply makes everything look gorgeous. There’s even a website that helps you plan for it in advance. That all said…
  • It’s not all about the golden hour. Keeping track of the sun is a very important factor in outdoor filmmaking, but you’ll also need to be conscious of what might get in between you and the sun at any moment — i.e.: clouds. While there’s not much you can do about the weather, you can note down any trees or buildings that might cast shadows at any given time (ideally when you do your first location scout).
  • Make sure everyone on the crew is prepared ahead of time. As with shooting indoors, you don’t want to be spending any more time than necessary setting up a shot or running through lines with the actors, especially when the sun is rapidly heading towards the horizon.
  • Make use of flags. Just as reflectors give you better control of how much light is going where, you’ll often find yourself in a situation where you’ve got too much light (particularly during summer day shoots). Flags — or cutters — are sections of thick black cloth stretched around a metal frame that allow you to block out sections of light and add some dramatic contrasting to the shot.
  • Pay attention to color and emotion. Getting the optimal amount of light is one thing, but getting the right “flavor” is another altogether. Be sure to check out our guide to color design, since a clinically perfect shot without any emotion whatsoever isn’t very compelling.

So there we have it: Hollywood-style cinematography without a Hollywood budget.

Got any of your own tricks on working with natural light? Any lessons you learned the hard way while out in the field? Hit us up in the comments below and share with the class!

HDRI: Getting The Effect Of Live Action Lighting In Animation

Author: Mark Sawicki, Co-Chair, Animation Department, New York Film Academy Los Angeles

HDRI Example

One of the most challenging effects to recreate in animation is live action lighting. This has most commonly been caused by the differences between real light and mathematically simulated light in a software program. Real light follows the laws of physics such as the inverse square law that states that doubling the distance of the subject from the light halves the amount of light striking the subject. In the computer, the fall-off of light can be drastic or non-existent depending on the settings. A virtual light in the computer can be designated not to cast a shadow or even subtract light.

While this extreme control can lead to amazing effects, it offers little assistance when virtual lights must match real light. The main reason virtual lights have trouble mimicking real light has to do with the amount of calculation needed to simulate a real light. For example, to light an object without a cast shadow may take a second to render; with a cast shadow perhaps two seconds, with a cast shadow with realistic soft edges using a calculation called ray tracing, perhaps five seconds. A full simulation that renders the light with a cast shadow and the reflected light off adjacent objects, will take a radiosity calculation that can have a time frame of a minute or more per frame.

For a producer, time is money and any way of saving time will save money. As a result, many virtual lighters use the technique of rendering one frame with radiosity to use as a reference and then use faster calculations and many more lights to mimic true light. As an example, to avoid calculating bounce light off of a floor, a thrifty artist will merely create another light to simulate the bounce light off the floor by placing a virtual light underneath the floor projecting light through the floor and onto the animated character. This simple technique can save untold hours of rendering time on a project.

A new trend in the industry that is used on higher budget projects is to record HDRI data on the set. HDRI stands for High Dynamic Range Imaging and was used on the fantasy film G-Force directed by Hoyt Yeatman. Essentially the process consists of shooting the live action scene and after recording enough takes to satisfy the director, a special HDRI camera is placed in the middle of the set. It is essentially a still camera pointing into a mirrored half sphere so that the entire area is recorded. This is a wide-angle photograph of all the instruments used to light the set. The camera records this image several times at widely different exposures from very dark to very light. These disparate exposures are subsequently blended together to create a wide range of light where the images of the lights can have roughly the same brightness range as the real lights on the set — hence the term high dynamic range.


An example of HDR Imaging at work

The next step is that the HDRI fish eye view of the set is mapped to a dome that surrounds the virtual set in the computer. This dome covered by the “image” of the live action set lights and used as the light source for the animated character inside. We have essentially lit the animated character with the original live action lights represented by the HDRI image. As a result, the lighting on the character will match perfectly with the live action as the same lights are used by both the live action and animation.

The HDRI technique can be a valuable asset when the technology is available. If you are on a low budget project and need to use the standard tools within MAYA or other software, learning how to simulate real light with off the shelf virtual lights will always be a valuable skill set.

Mark is the author of “Filming the Fantastic” and “Animating with Stop Motion Pro” both published by Focal Press.

Soft Lighting: How To Build A Covered Wagon

Author: Salvatore Interlandi, Interim Chair, Cinematography Department, New York Film Academy

Cutting chicken wire to create a covered wagon for lighting

A covered wagon is a homemade soft light that is basically light sockets mounted to a strip of wood wrapped in chicken wire to create a structure that will support diffusion around the fixture. Perfect for night interiors and a must on my truck.

Jay Holben details the creation of a diffused batten strip using readily available materials in this great book on homemade lights: A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Video Lighting on (Almost) No Budget by Jay Holben.


  • A strip of batten
  • Pigeon plate
  • Chicken wire
  • Electrical tape
  • Duct tape
  • One 25′ #12/3 cable
  • Wire nuts
  • Box of short (1/2″ or 5/8″) wood screws
  • Surge protector
  • Dimmer – Leviton 600 watt rotary dimmer
  • Binder clips
  • Four porcelain sockets
  • Four bulbs of your choice: (PH 212, PH 211, BCA, BBA, or CFL’s)

Diffusion: Unbleached muslin (diffusion of choice), 250, opal, or parchment paper (if you are on a budget.)

Commando Cloth (Duvatyne can work, but commando cloth is stronger, better, and safer.)


  • Staple gun
  • Drill
  • Wire crimpers
  • Wire cutters
  • Screwdriver
  • Pliers

Disclaimer: Anyone attempting to make homemade lights must have a clear & strong understanding of electrical wiring and electricity. If you do not have a strong understanding of electrical wiring, then it is advisable to NOT build any homemade lights.

Step One:
Take your batten strip (suggested size for a 4 bank wagon – 1′ x 4′ x 5′), space out your porcelain sockets, and attach them to the batten. You can design any size covered wagon you want – 3 bank, 5 bank, 6 bank.

Step Two:
Lop off the Female Edison Connector and strip off about five feet from the #12/3 extension cord. You will use the male prong to plug into your variac or surge protector that will act as your on/off switch.

Step Three:
Wire the porcelain sockets together in a parallel circuit to either the dimmer or to the bare ends of the extension cable. You can use the wire that you lopped off the #12/3 extension cord as conductors. Be sure to keep consistent black wire as your hot and white as your neutral. Be sure to use wire nuts and electrical tape to secure the connection. If you are using a rotary dimmer, then be sure to attach the dimmers to the batten strip as well as wiring up the dimmer(s) to the bare ends of the extension cord.
NOTE: Before making homemade lights you must have a clear understanding of electrical wiring and how electricity works. A great resource for you would be to look at the chapters on electricity in the Set Technician’s Handbook written by Harry C. Box before taking on this endeavor.

Step Four:
Center and secure the pigeon plate to the back of the batten strip for quick and easy mounting.

Step Five:
Bulb up the porcelain sockets—I like to use PH212 (150 watt bulbs) with a 4-bank covered wagon that is roughly 6 amps perfect for a 600-watt rotary dimmer. If you are using higher wattage bulbs like BBAs or BCAs, then secure two dimmers to the end of the batten strip similar to what you see in the image above. If you use compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), then keep in mind that they cannot be dimmed. If you do attempt to dim CFLs, then you will either burn out the lamp’s ballast or
 the dimmer.

Step Six:
Unroll the chicken wire and staple it to one side of the batten strip.

Step Seven:
Unroll the chicken wire over the top of the bulbs to the other side. You want space (about 4 inches) between the top of the bulbs and the chicken wire, so the bulbs do not touch the diffusion material. “The higher you make this gap, the larger the diffusion face will be and the softer the fixture will be. When you’ve measured what you need, use your cutters to trim off the excess wire.” (Jay Holben) It’s good practice to trim off the pointy or edgy remnants of the chicken wire. Another good idea to avoid harmful pinches is to get some duct tape and tape the end of the chicken wire – almost like duct tape border.

Step Eight:
Staple the second side of the chicken wire; creating a structure that will support the diffusion material around the fixture.

Step Nine:
Measure out your diffusion and mount it on to the fixture using binder clips. My diffusion of choice is muslin (unbleached or natural) to give the unit a warm feel. Clothespins (C47’s) can also do it though sometimes they snap and fly off when wrapping the commando cloth around it. I don’t think it is wise to tape the diffusion to the back of the unit—it gets messy/sticky.

Step Ten:
Measure out some commando cloth and wrap the unit to give it some control. NOTE: You must leave room at the ends of the covered wagon for the heat to escape, otherwise the heat will build up and burn the muslin or the bulb will pop. Also, commando cloth is flame retardant.

Step Eleven:
Plug into variac or your lunchbox and turn on the light. The pigeon plate allows you to mount the light onto grip head or a c stand. The variac or the dimmer allows you to bring down the intensity.