How to Shoot Anytime in Daylight Without Lights or Reflectors

How do you shoot at any time in the day, even when the sun is harsh, with no lights and no reflector? Only your camera?

Let me show you:

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Daylight can range from great, which is near and during golden hour, to horrible, which is the few hours surrounding noon.

What’s so special about golden hour?

People call golden hour soft light, but that’s bullshit. For a long time I was confused why so many people call golden hour soft, it’s not soft. The shadows are harsh; the sun is still a point source.

There are three main reasons why golden hour is different:

  1. The light is frontal, which eliminates shadows on the face. You can rotate your actor 360 degrees and he/she will look good.
  2. The intensity is lower than during the day, so you can expose for the face and still get the background.
  3. The light is warmer and makes skin look healthier.

So, after 4 or 5pm, the light is at a Paramount style, so you can shoot head on. After that it is more frontal, like a camera flash, except the entire world is being lit so you get a more natural look.

Bottom line, golden hour is not soft light.

How to recreate soft light during the day

What if we could eliminate the shadows during noon or thereabouts? It’s possible.

In India, noon is a terrible time, because we are so close to the equator. If you’re in a country where during noon the shadows are not straight down you’re in luck. But if you’re near the equator, try to avoid exact noon, and the half hour near it. Even if you have to shoot at noon there’s a workaround, which I’ll discuss later.

For now, let’s assume the sun is not directly above, but slightly at an angle. Now, the shadows fall on one side.

The fun begins now. Here is my 4-step system:

Step One: Backlight

Position the subject’s back against the sun. In other words, backlight your actor.

Now what happens is there is no direct light on the face. The face is in shadow, which in lighting is called ‘flat’. At the worst possible top light, this is the best position for the face.

Step Two: Move

Now we have to deal with exposure. If you expose for the face you’ll see the sky blow out, which is the big problem. If you cut down the light with an ND filter or close the aperture or whatever, the face is underexposed.

What do you do?

Step two is to move the subject so there’s something dark in the background. This can be trees, a building, whatever you have available that’s relatively as the same grayscale value as the face.

So, when you expose for the face, the background is roughly the same exposure as well.

Step Three: Composition

Find a good composition. Sometimes a wide angle might not work; like on a beach, because the ground is overexposed as well. So avoid the ground, and use a more telephoto lens to shoot.

It might not be exactly what you imagined, but if you are forced to shoot at noon you can still come away with a well-exposed and well-composed image. Your original vision with terrible lighting will nine times out of ten be worse.

Step Four: Shade

Post 3 or 4pm, the sun comes down lower. This introduces a new problem: flare.

You can still use the same steps, but with one more step. You might have to get an assistant to hold an umbrella, or use a matte box, or find some shade under a tree so you don’t get flare.

This isn’t very easy to do in cinematography because of movement or space, so the umbrella is probably the simplest and cheapest option. The major negative with the umbrella is it becomes a sail in the wind.

If you can afford a good matte box and good flare resistant lenses, then it’ll make your life a lot easier. 

How to light at high noon

Let the subject face the sun!

But, as you can see the shadows are really harsh. So what you do is let the subject sit down on the ground and look up. Now the light is more frontal, just like golden hour!

The same light is falling on the face and the ground. Thankfully, the ground is close in gray scale value to most skin tones, so you’ll still get great exposure because most cameras can handle the dynamic range difference nowadays.

What if the sun is in the shot? Another trick is to block the sun using your subject. If you find a dark background, then  you can work like before. If you have a brighter background, this will give you a silhouette. Or you can just use frontal light and go higher up force the light to be more head on.

After 5.30 or so the light is straight on, and you can shoot at any damn angle you want. Backlight, sidelight, front light, it’s all good.

Just because you can shoot at any time doesn’t mean you should. You should always plan for the best possible light and be disciplined, but shit happens. Productions fall behind, so at least now you have a tool in your arsenal to shoot even at the worst light if you have to.

This is how you shoot at any time during the day without reflectors or lights.

How to make your life easier

Get a good reflector!

Now, if you can afford a reflector like a SunBounce (Amazon, B&H) you will be able to do a lot more in the sun. It is sturdy, packs into almost nothing and can hold its own in windy conditions. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it.

You can also try cheap 5-1 reflectors (Amazon, B&H) but they flap around a lot in the wind and are not very suitable. But if that’s all you have, it’s still better than nothing.

Most of the time you’ll find yourself using the silver side of these reflectors when you want long or mid shots. For close ups, the white side is better.

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