Let the Sun Shine In: How To Control the Great Outdoor Light Source

Oh, the glorious sun. This magnificent ball of burning gas sheds immeasurable power on our world from millions of miles away.

It orders our seasons, defines our calendar, lights our days and warms our summers. And, unchecked, it makes for really bad video.

That's right--for all the things our sun does well, it's not the greatest light source for shooting video. Though massive and incredibly bright, the sun sits at a great distance from any Earth-bound subject. This effectively makes the sun a very small light source--so small, in fact, it's as if all its light were coming from a tiny point in space.

So what's the problem with a small light source? First, it casts sharply defined, very dark shadows. Second, it accentuates blemishes or irregularities in whatever surface it strikes (skin included). Third, it creates large differences in intensity between light and dark areas (high contrast). Where video lighting is concerned, that last strike--high contrast--is the real clincher.

Thankfully, there are numerous ways to modify, control and supplement the sun's light for good outdoor video. We'll cover the most effective tricks here, with an emphasis on those techniques that require more brain power than budget.

Control ItSunlight

The simplest way to get good outdoor lighting is to control the where and when of your shoot. Unless you're documenting an event that's unfolding outside your control, you can make some executive decisions about what time of day you shoot, what the outdoor setting is or even what type of weather to wait for.

In a worst-case scenario, imagine you're forced to shoot a human subject in direct, harsh sunlight. Where you position the sun relative to your camcorder and subject can make a significant difference in the quality of your lighting. Placing the sun directly behind you makes your subject squint right into the sun (see figure 1a). Placing the sun behind the subject often causes an unwanted backlight situation (figure 1b). The best arrangement puts the sun 30 to 45 degrees over either shoulder (figure 1c). This gives you natural-looking light on the subject's face without causing undue squinting.

What time of day you shoot will also make a significant difference in the quality of the light. Midday sun shining directly down on your subject can be harsh and unflattering. Shooting in the early morning or late afternoon hours can give you more flattering outdoor light.

If you can move your subject out of the direct sun, do it. The shade of a building can give you softer, more diffused lighting as compared to direct sun. A canopy of trees will soften sunlight even more. When shooting your subject in the shade, watch for bright backlighting from unshaded areas. Move your subject or camera to correct for backlight problems if possible, and use your camcorder's backlight button only as a last resort.

Finally, passive sun control can even include waiting until the weather is more conducive to good video. Cloud cover can turn that small, highly focused sun into a huge, soft light source. A hazy sky can make for excellent video images, and may be worth waiting for.

Reflect It

The next step towards better outdoor lighting involves recycling some of the wasted light not falling on your subject. The sun gives you more than enough light to fix the problems it creates, provided you harness that light intelligently.

The best way to do this is with a reflector. In direct sun, a reflector can bounce sunlight into dark areas of a scene (or onto the dark side of your subject's face). This will help turn an unnaturally contrasty shot into one that's much easier on the eyes.

Though you can buy reflectors custom-made for video, you don't need to. Car sun shades, cardboard covered with foil, posterboard or foam-filled art boards all make great reflectors. If something bounces light in a controllable fashion, you can use it as a reflector.

The surface texture and color of the reflector make a difference in the character of the light it bounces. Shiny surfaces (like foil) make for intense, hard-looking light. A matte white surface (like paper) will bounce smaller amounts of very soft-looking light. If the reflector is colored, it will bounce light tinted with that color. Shiny gold reflectors, for example, are popular for warming up a scene by bouncing yellowish light much like that from a sunset or sunrise.

Diffuse It

Using diffusion is perhaps the best way to tame the harsh contrast created by sunlight. You can think of diffusion material as portable cloudcover--placed between the sun and your subject, it scatters and softens sunlight just like a layer of clouds. Diffusion turns harsh direct-sun lighting into lighting that looks more like that of a studio. Your subject will thank you for using diffusion instead of reflectors--the latter increase heat and light levels, while diffusion reduces the sun's intensity.

As with reflectors, you don't have to buy diffusion material designed for video applications. Any material thin enough to pass light will work fine for diffusion. This includes shade netting for gardening applications, bedsheets and white plastic sheets (like painting dropcloths). Suspend the material over your subject in any safe fashion, preferably with a solid, easy-to-erect frame. If you do a lot of outdoor shooting, you can build such a frame out of PVC pipe or wood. Keep in mind that wind will test the integrity of your diffusion frame, and will make loud buffeting noises through certain materials.

If erecting a large frame seems like a daunting task, there are other means to diffuse sunlight. One option is to build a smaller frame someone can hand-hold over the subject for tighter shots. Stretching fabric or netting over a four-foot square frame of firring strips works well.

You can also purchase hoop-style fabric diffusers that fold up just like a portable reflector. These lightweight diffusers are easy to suspend between sun and subject, though they won't cover a very large area. Use them for tighter, head-and-shoulder shots.

If overhead diffusion makes for lighting that's too flat, try bouncing a little light back into the scene with a reflector.

Supplement It

Finally, you can use battery- or AC-powered lights to supplement sunlight when shooting outdoors. This turns out to be one of the least-effective means of improving outdoor lighting, for several reasons. First, the sun is dramatically brighter than even the beefiest video light. This usually makes it necessary to get video lights quite close to the subject. Second, video lights put out light with a reddish hue as compared to sunlight--this mandates the use of blue color-correction gels (which lower the light's output even further). Finally, pouring more light on your subjects only makes it harder for them to avoid squinting and blinking.

That said, video lights can be a help when shooting outdoors, especially when you're not in direct sunlight. A camcorder-mounted light can bring up the brightness of a face shot in a shady area, or may alleviate a backlight situation (see figure 8). Because of the on-camera light's relatively low output, you probably don't need to bother with a blue gel.

Free-standing lights in the 500- to 1000-watt range can add some punch to your image, provided you match their color output to sunlight with a blue gel. Cloudy days or full shade may give you lighting that's actually lacking in contrast. In these cases, a video light can add needed contrast by brightening up one side of your subject's face. Like a reflector, a video light can also illuminate dark eye sockets or eyes shrouded beneath the brim of a hat.

Tame It

Good outdoor lighting is all about taming the mighty sun and bringing contrast down. With these techniques and some practice, you'll soon be enjoying excellent lighting from even the toughest outdoor conditions.

Loren Alldrin is a freelance video and music producer.