All short filmmakers have to learn how and where to compromise. Sadly, tight budgets frequently require filmmakers to scale back their artistic vision, something which can mean huge changes in the films they make. These alterations could be anything from changing where a scene takes place to even removing certain scenes from a film completely.

One of the main areas of production that can really impact the cost of a film is lighting. Without good lighting, even the best script, most beautiful location, and fantastic acting are wasted. Light can not only create a district mood or fell to a film but can also serve to guide the audience’s attention to whatever part of the frame the director wishes and shooting short film.

While elaborate lighting setups make scenes shine with style, they also take a lot of time, money and expertise to get right. Such lighting setups often limit cast members to specific points on a set known as ‘marks’. Due to these lighting setups, cast members cannot stray from their mark as it will disrupt the lighting effect that has been carefully created.

The good news for short filmmakers on a budget is that there is a way to dramatically decrease the amount of time and money that needs to be spent on lighting. By using natural light, filmmakers can benefit from the rich sources of light that the world all around them offers.

Not only will this reduce the need to hire lots of expensive light rigs etc., but it will also reduce the amount of time needed to set up each scene. Over the course of a month’s shooting, this could shave days off the shooting schedule and leave extra money that can be better used elsewhere.

Top 10 Ways to Use Natural Light in Your Short Film


Filming Outdoors

Shooting outdoors is a great way to enrich the onscreen world that your characters live in. Our planet is full of amazing places that make excellent settings for scenes. Whether it is the urban jungle of Mathew Kassovitiz’s La Haine or the vast rolling landscapes of The Sound of Music, a film’s outdoor location can actually become a whole character of its own.

1.    Know your location

The most important thing is to understand what kind of lighting and weather conditions you can expect from your location. There is no point wanting to film a mythical scene where the Sahara desert is drenched in rain, for example. Understanding the kind of lighting conditions you can expect at whatever time of year you intend to film, really is vital if you are to ensure that your scenes are to look their best.

2.    With lighting, consistency is key

No matter whether you are shooting indoors or outdoors, it is vital to be consistent when it comes to how scenes are lit and the direction of the light source. The first thing an audience notices it an unexplained change in the position of the sun or light in a room etc.

Getting the light exactly right when shooting outdoors can be a real challenge. It is for this reason that your crew should plan the day’s scenes carefully so that shots that show sources of light such as the sun are all filmed closely together. Generally, light cloud covered days are a great help as they remove the powerful shadows that sunny days create and so don’t provide an obvious indication as to what exact time of day it is.

3.    Use Morning Light and Sunsets

Twice a day the natural world gives filmmakers access to some of the best lighting effects that have ever been seen on film. Early morning light is crisp and has a completely unique feel to it. The growing light, as the sun comes over the horizon, has been the backdrop of many horror films as well as romance films over the years.

Perhaps the most famous example is in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The iconic scene when the two characters sit looking out over the Queensboro Bridge was filmed at 5am, just as day way breaking. Golden sunsets have also provided a powerful backdrop to numerous films from John Ford westerns to Easy Rider.

4.    Use Flags and Reflectors

Any outdoor shoot will require flags and reflectors to make sure that the lighting is just right. Flags help to dampen a light source while reflectors are great for increasing light intensity and dealing with unwanted shadows. 

5.    Use those moody shadows

Late in the day, as the sun heads down to the horizon, the light casts long shadows off of objects such as buildings. Though these shadows don’t stay still for long, they are a great way to add style and depth to your film. Keep in mind that scenes will need to be filmed quickly as there is such a short window. So if you are on a budget, try to use this lighting effect for short exterior scenes only.


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Filming Indoors

Indoor shoots often take longer to set up but have the bonus of allowing filming to go on for much longer. This is the time for your lighting expert to really shine so that you can create some truly iconic shots.

6.    Start by turning off all lights

The best setup tip I can give is to completely shut down the room before you start. Walk around the space and get to know the lighting sources and their effects by gradually turning them on and off. This will give you a much better understanding of how different light sources are affecting the room. After this, you will know where to place your camera and how the light will impact your shot.

7.    Get any outside light under control

If your scene is set in a building that has exterior windows then it is really important that you get this light source under control. Try to avoid shooting directly at exterior windows as this will result in overexposure and the need to heavily light things in the foreground to compensate.

Try to use gels or diffusers to dumb down the intensity of the light coming into the room so that you can concentrate on capturing the delicate interior lights instead.

8.    Be creative

Since the consistency of interior lighting is better, it gives filmmakers more time to play with different lighting setups. Rather than going with one or two main lighting sources, try instead to use a combination of smaller lights to give your scene a better mood. Simple tricks like shining a light through drapes have been used in the past in films such as LA Confidential to really make a scene magical.

9.    Use those flags and reflectors

As with outdoor shooting, flags and reflectors are really important when trying to get the lighting just right during indoor shoots.

10.    When you can change the light change the shot

Lastly, a great tip when it comes to lighting is to always be adaptive. If you find that you can’t get the light quite right then try changing where the actors stand and even the angle of the shot instead. Doing these two small things will help you overcome lighting problems.


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