What To Do When You Don’t Have Lights For Your Scene

I always hear “any camera will look amazing as long as you light your scene well” regarding cinematography. Now, lighting for film is a HUGE topic that cannot be covered in one blog post, but it is extremely important to understand when creating any kind of video. Whether you are new to the video production world, or simply want to learn more about cinematography, this post will share some insight as to what to do when you are in a situation where bringing even one light is not possible.

Let’s jump back to last July. Heidi and I hopped on a plane to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, we had everything with us, our camera, sound mixer and microphones, a laptop…. but no lights. You might be thinking this is crazy for us to even attempt making a film without bringing a single light. In this situation, we were unfortunately unable to bring a light with us due to our flights weight restrictions (it was a struggle to even bring a camera with those weight restrictions). Let’s start here: What do you do when you don’t have a light with you?

The answer, put quite simply, is to pay attention. Your only light source is the sun and now you are forced to think about where you are placing your subjects, and the time of day you are filming. If the sun is directly overhead, you will get some really-harsh shadows on your subject and it just wouldn’t look good in the camera. In this situation it is almost impossible to film outside, and with limited time, you then film inside. There is only so much you can do in-camera to increase its sensitivity to low-light before the footage starts to look super grainy and ugly. This is where you will use windows and doorways to your advantage. Let’s look at a few frames from our documentary:

Ritah in “Center of Hope”

Ritah in “Center of Hope”

Arthur in “Center of Hope”

Arthur in “Center of Hope”

This first frame is Ritah. We were filming this about midday, and the sun was incredibly bright. So we moved over to her office where luckily she had a large window letting in a TON of light. This is one of those rare situations where we got really lucky without needing lights. The sun in this scene helped fill in the rest of the room as well as acting like a “key-light” to light our subject.

The second frame features Arthur. The computer lab at H.E.L.P. International Primary School doesn’t have as large of a window as Ritah’s office did.  This room was significantly darker, and we needed a way to create that separation from the subject and the background. Here we used the doorway to let in some light for our subject. This helped separate him from the darkness of the rest of the room. To help with this we also put him in a position where the back windows were creating a “kicker light” to help separate him even further. This nice little touch of light on his shoulders really helped fill out the rest of this interview.

Let’s hope that whenever you have to film something you are able to bring at least one light with you. If not, pay attention to where the sun is and see if there is any windows or doorways to aid in lighting your scene. In my next blog post I will be showing you how just one light can make a difference and make your life during production much easier!

Be on the lookout for the release of our film “Center of Hope” coming out at the end of this month!