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Outdoor Lighting for Digital Video

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/22/2011

Lighting for the outdoors can be one of the most difficult ventures for new digital video enthusiasts. A few key principles can help ensure the quality of your final images.

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    The Difficulty of the Outdoors

    The beauty of shooting with a light-weight digital video camera is that you have the versatility to switch between one kind of environment to another. More than half of the recording that your standard home digital video producer would like to record is outdoors, mostly because that is the stage for so much of life’s more dramatic moments. Since natural light introduces problems of its own, many new videographers try to avoid shooting in broad daylight as much as possible. There are a few key tricks that can save your image from overexposure when you brave the outdoors with your camera.

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    Sunlight and Backgrounds

    It is always important to know exactly what direction the sunlight is coming from. If you catch a beam of that direct sunlight into the lens of your camera you are going to record a hideous glare and the image will be useless. If you are shooting non-participating people, that is to say people you are not interviewing or directing, or inanimate objects, it is a good idea to keep the sun to your back right or back left so you can use it as a key light. The subjects will be well lit and there will be no direct light coming into your camera lens. If you have the subjects looking in the general direction of the camera then it is important to reverse this completely and put the sun to their back. This is done because the most important thing a viewer wants to see on a human subject in a film is their eyes. If they are facing sunlight at all they are going to squint ever so slightly and the image of them will end up being less than stellar. Like with any form of shooting it is important to keep a significant distance between the subject and the background. The outdoors tend to have much more colorful and active backgrounds, so it is even more important to keep it out of focus in order to not distract the audience from what you intend for them to see. If you do not have sufficient room between the subject and the background available, or it just will not stay out of focus, try backing the camera up and then zooming in on the subject. If this does not work try turning the aperture up, but this will also make the final image brighter. Remember, if the person is not talking about the background then the background should not be in focus.

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    Controlling the Sunlight

    You can still use the principles of a kicker and fill light out in the field. When you are trying to light a person it is best to bring at least two types of reflective devices. You can purchase professional reflectors for a reasonable price from a location that sells video equipment, but it is just as easy to make them at home. You are going to need a white card, which can be substituted with a cheap white poster board. A foil reflector is great, and you can simply take a thick piece of cardboard and cut it into a large circle. Then cover it tightly with foil. This should be able to reflect a beam of sunlight very adequately on to the subject. The strong foil reflector is great to use as a backlight in strong sunlight, while using the sunlight itself as the key light on the long side of the person’s face. Employ the white card on the other side of the person’s face, and bring it just close enough that their natural skin tone is illuminated. If you only want to use a reflector use it for the fill light in place of the white card. This is where professional reflectors are great because of their flexible nature. The silver foil is the standard for using a fill, but many come with a gold foil option as well. That is great for using as a fill on someone with a very light complexion, and makes them appear as if they have a golden tan. Though you can create this reflector at home it is not going to have the same versatility as the store-bought reflector because it will not have the ability to bend in the same way as the consumer ones are designed to. Always make sure you bring an object that can act as a shading mechanism if the light gets too bright on the subject. You can use the reflectors you are already bringing, but they will create heavy fall-off from the light because they are completely solid. If you have people helping you shoot this video then try bring a thin, white sheet and holding it up in between the sun and the person’s face. That way the direct sunlight that you are using for a key light on the long-side of the subject’s face will be much more diffused, although not all together eliminated.

    Controlling the light while filming outdoors can be a challenge, but with some advanced planning and attention to detail, you can still produce quality video recordings.