Have you ever tried to film or photograph someone during the middle of the day? In my case, this always turns out to be a disaster! To the camera, even the most beautiful faces don’t cut it, and inanimate objects lose their luster due to odd shadows. The only time I have ever had success during a midday shoot is when I deliberately went for a deep, shadowy eye socket look … which was never.
There is a very good reason this phenomenon happens during midday: it’s all about angles. The sun is in a very bad spot during the middle of the day because it is directly overhead. Due to the sun’s extremely harsh angle, very short shadows are cast, and thus a myriad of patchiness ensues on film. Not only that, but the color of the light during midday is very cool and blue, which paints our subjects with an air of sterility. All of these reasons make it almost impossible to get a good shot off. But, if shooting outside is a necessity, following some key fundamentals may give us the look we want.
Recently I wrapped up shooting a Father’s Day video called “Hero Dad” for Boy Meets Girl Visuals. The script required an outdoor shot because the setting was a cookout. I swallowed hard, knowing what this would entail. My focus: colors that really popped and skin tones on the actors that rivaled those of high-end productions. This is where the “magic hour” came into play for me.
In the course of a day there are two times that are perfect for shooting: dawn and dusk. The reason is the color of the light is warm and the angle of the sun is very conducive to making the actor’s faces glow. There is just something magical about the way faces, places, and things look at this time! If you watch the Cameron Crowe film We Bought a Zoo, you will quickly notice most of the scenes were shot during the magic hour.
Doing a few tests at the location of my shot, I realized I only had between 6pm and 8pm to shoot. Before 6pm, the shadows at the location would cover the set and after 8pm the sun would get too low. Your timing will vary depending on the season and location you are shooting as the suns path fluctuates throughout the year.
Two hours to wrap up a short film shoot is not an immense amount time, thus I needed a plan:
I needed to do research at the locations to see how the sun’s position cast shadows. This was important for continuity. I also took this time to preplan the staging and blocking while walking through the entire shot in my mind. I did some camera and diffusion tests to make sure I had all the necessary equipment. All the while, I constantly checked the weather. As a result of my preplanning I discovered that a mild gust of wind at 10mph was more than enough to blow over my diffusion silk mid-shot. If I had left all of these details for the day of, there would have been no way I could have gotten through the entire shot list!
After establishing that I would have great sunlight, I had to move on to diffusion.
Normally, sunlight shining directly on a face is too harsh. The light produces hard edges on the shadows and shows off even minor flaws on the skin. I decided to set up a large silk diffusion between the direct sunlight and the actors. This diffusion softened the light beautifully on the female actor and child actor. I chose not to use the diffusion on the father character because hard light sometimes really suits male faces. The diffusion worked perfectly — it produced a warm glow fitting for the story and the characters. It also helped to wrap sunlight around the faces so the contrast was balanced.
(A note on silk diffusion: Normally you would need to go rent a frame, stands and a large silk but that can be expensive and time wasting. I got a great tip from a friend to use fabric shower curtains instead. It worked! I had to test out 3 – 4 different brands but I eventually found a great replacement for the typical silk at a Family Dollar. It did a great job at wrapping the light around the actor’s faces and giving the film a narrative like look.)
The last thing you need to think about when filming at this time is that the shadows move very quickly. This can lead to disastrous mistakes in continuity! During my film the shadows were moving so fast we had to move the grill a number of times on set. We also ran into issues with having some takes of the actor totally in shade and other takes of the actor totally in sun. The best way to work around this is to go back to the basics. Do your wide shots first. Nail them! Get what you need out of them and then start bringing the camera in closer. It is really easy to cheat a close-up, so if you have to move the set or the blocking to keep up with the sun, it isn’t a problem. Grab your pick-ups last because these are also super easy to cheat in editing.
With enough preplanning and preparation, outdoor shoots can be quite successful. The look is really unrivaled and the thrill of overcoming this challenge is intoxicating! So try to scout your location carefully, experiment with diffusion beforehand, and have your actors well-rehearsed so that you can focus the time on pulling great performances out of your actors.
Remember, it’s only the magic hour if you’re ready for it.
Sloan Inns is a filmmaker for Keystone Community Church and for Boy Meets Girl Visuals. In addition to filmmaking, Sloan leads worship and is constantly explaining that his accent comes from South Africa, not Australia. You can find more of his work on his Vimeo Channel.