How to Film in Direct Sunlight: Use light modifiers

How to film in direct sunlight

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Have you ever found yourself shooting video in bright sunlight and realized getting the exposure right for your face was really tricky? I know I have. But I kept at it, did my research and put it into practice. So now I have a technique that answers the problem of how to film in direct sunlight.

But if you’ve not done it yourself you might be wondering, what’s the problem? You need loads of light to shoot video.

Well here’s the problem.

Bright direct sunlight is what photographers and videographers call hard light. And hard light produces harsh or hard shadows. So how to film in direct sunlight? You could use a reflector to bounce the sun’s light into those shadows. That can add extra problems and not easy if you are filming yourself. My preferred method is to move into a shadow or use a sun diffuser screen. Not only will the diffuser cut the amount of sunlight it will also change it to soft light, getting rid of those hard shadows.

How to film in direct sunlight

Shooting video outside

I produce videos and TV spots for my clients and occasionally that involves an outdoor shoot, which can be a blessing or a curse. Often my clients will tell me, “The weather forecast says it’s going to be a bright sunny day. It’ll be a great day for the shoot”. Well, that sounds reasonable enough. After all, the great outdoors looks wonderful when it’s sunny.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get a well-exposed shot of your face in bright sunshine.

In theory, shooting outdoors should be great. The background is usually interesting and the lighting comes free of charge.

The problem with filming outdoors is that you have little or no control over the sun.

First of all, the sun is continuously moving. Not only is it moving from east to west but its height varies above the horizon. Depending on your climate, the other problem is partially cloudy skies. If you have broken cloud the brightness and quality of the light will change as the cloud covers the sun. But this article is about filming in direct sunlight, so I’ll assume there is little or no cloud.

Positioning the camera

Outdoor Lighting - Squinting into the sun

So filming in bright sunshine can be a real challenge. The standard advice to newbie amateur photographers is to place the camera between the sun and your subject. As general advice that works reasonably well. As you can see above, the sun is square on to my face so it’s evenly lit. But with the sun relatively high in the sky there are deep shadows under my eyebrows and chin. However, the sun was still low enough to be in my eyes, causing me to squint and look uncomfortable.

When filming facing the sun you will have even lighting across the face but you could end up squinting

To get the sun out of my eyes I’ve moved so the sun is 45-degrees to the side. The problem with the shot this time is that it’s really difficult to get a good exposure. As you can see below, when the right-side of my face is exposed correctly the sun-side is too bright. But if I try to adjust the exposure so those bright highlights look better, the shadows become really deep. Neither is a good look but it’s a common problem when filming outdoors with an iPhone.

Outdoor Lighting with sun at 45 degrees

Having the sun off to the side is better but getting the correct exposure can be a problem

Shoot your video in the shadows

Outdoor Lighting - In House Shadow

Under such bright conditions look for some shadows behind a building or hedge. When you are standing in the open, the shadow area it looks quite dark. However, there’s plenty of light in there for you to film. It looks dark because your eyes are adjusted to correctly see in the area lit by the bright direct sunlight.

Outdoor Lighting - Direct sunlight and in shadow

Because the sky scatters sunlight in all directions there is plenty of light, even in the shadows. The light evenly illuminates my face and the look is more attractive than with direct sunlight. Now take a look at the comparative images below. When I moved myself and my camera into the shadow of the house the look is much better. The soft light in the shadow of the house evenly illuminates my face. It’s not perfect but it is much better than the shot in bright sunlight.

The downside of filming in shadows is that you have lost those attractive outdoor backgrounds. There’s not a lot you can do about losing those backgrounds but you could set up a backdrop. A plain background might be better than bricks. Filming in the shadows also makes the image a little flat. To put some contrast back into the shot try bouncing in some sunlight with a reflector. Of course, you will need some help using the reflector.

Fill in the shadows with a light reflector

How to film in direct sunshine - Photographer's Reflector

To improve the lighting you could try using a reflector. You can then bounce some light onto the dark shadow side of the face.

I use the reflector in the studio or for indoor shoots using a light stand and heavy-duty metal clamp with 5/8 inch light stand attachment. However, an extending swivel head boom arm reflector support is actually more elegant and easier to use with a reflector when working on your own.

Unfortunately, this is not a great solution when working outdoors. You will need to set up the reflector by trial and error until you have it at the right angle. Unfortunately, you will only get a short amount of shooting time before having to adjust the reflector.

The sun is not static and moves in both height and direction requiring repeated adjustments of the reflector. If you have an assistant to hold the reflector the sun’s movements will not be a problem. Your assistant will intuitively adjust the reflector to compensate for the suns movement.

So using a reflector to fill in those deep shadows works outdoors, provided you have an assistant. But if you are filming yourself the reflector is not going to work so well. You already have enough to do, never mind holding a reflector and tracking the sun! The other problem of using a reflector is that your talent may object to all that sunlight in their eyes. So what would be a better option?

Use the reflector as a diffuser

How to film in direct sunshine - Using a Reflector as a Diffuser

As I mentioned, the center of the reflector is a white translucent material. Instead of using it to bounce the light on to your talent you could use it as a diffuser. Not only will the amount of sunlight be reduced but it will also change the quality of the sunlight. The light now has a soft quality where the illumination seems to come from all parts of the diffuser. But you still get some shadows to give definition to your features. You can see the difference in the set of images below.

In the above images, I’m holding the translucent part of the reflector in my hand (let’s call it a diffuser). Unless you are happy with an outstretched arm this is not the ideal way of using the diffuser. As previously mentioned it would be better to have an assistant holding the diffuser. But the angle is not a great concern when the sunlight is shining through the diffuser. So if you are working alone you could mount the diffuser on a light stand.

Admittedly the sun will still move and eventually, you will have to make adjustments. But if you have a larger diffuser, say 43-inches or more, you will have enough time to record short videos. I use a Neewer 5-in-1 collapsible disc light reflector that really does a great job. Its diameter is 43-inches (110cm) and is easy to collapse and store in my camera case. The reflector has a white translucent center that can be used on its own as a light diffuser. Plus the outer reversible cover converts the center to a silver, gold, white or black reflector. It is available at an affordable price from Amazon.

If you want more time between adjustments you could get a butterfly frame sun diffuser. But this would bump up the cost considerably The frame is more-or-less square with the diffusing material stretched across it. The frame is then mounted between two heavy duty stands.

The trouble with such bulky equipment, like a butterfly frame, it increases the complexity and set up time. With a much larger surface area, it will be affected much more in a light breeze so will need securing. To use the diffuser in a butterfly frame I know I would need assistance and I’m guessing you would too. When shooting alone, my solution to soften bright sunlight is to use a photographer’s translucent white diffuser umbrella.

Translucent white diffuser umbrella

When using a light in your studio it will normally be similar to a point source. Point sources produce hard light and hard shadows. By placing a diffuser screen or diffuser umbrella in front of the light, it becomes a soft light source. That’s because the whole surface of the diffuser becomes the light source. The other effect the diffuser has is to reduce some of the light. In the case of the diffuser umbrella, about half of the light is blocked. So, in our scenario of filming in bright sunlight, the umbrella will do exactly what we are after. It will reduce some the intensity of the direct sunlight and smooth out those hard shadows.

The idea is to reduce and diffuse the sunlight. The material of the umbrella will block about half of the sunlight and the whole umbrella becomes the light source. Those bright hotspots and dark shadows are eliminated because the intensity and quality of the light are now ideal.

There are two common sizes of photographer’s diffuser umbrella, 33inches, and 60 inches diameter. The smaller 33-inch umbrella is big enough if filming yourself in a head and shoulder shot. For a wider shot or a two-person shot, I’d use the 60-inch umbrella. In fact, considering the larger umbrella is less than double the price of the 30inch, which wasn’t all that much to start with, I would buy the Neewer 60inch umbrella that is available from Amazon. It offers much more flexibility for only a little more money and works really well.

So what difference does the diffuser umbrella make? Well here’s my original shot, with the sun about 45 degrees off to the side. And the same shot with the umbrella blocking the direct sunlight.

How to film in direct sunlight using an umbrella diffuser

You can see in the images above when I use the umbrella the lighting of my face is improved. There’s still some shadow to give definition to my features but that harsh glare on the left has been eliminated. Don’t worry about having your arm stretched out holding the umbrella. To make sure you don’t look as if your umbrella take care when framing your shot. A simple head and shoulders shot should easily hide the umbrella. However, a wider shot may require a different method of holding the umbrella in place.

Umbrella Holder

If holding the umbrella doesn’t work for you it is easy to mount the umbrella diffuser on a light stand. You will need a standard light stand and an umbrella holder. Here are two versions from my kit bag. The first incorporates a heavy duty metal clamp for holding a reflector or small collapsible backdrop. The second has a hot-shoe mount that I also use for mounting an LED light panel.

Attach the holder onto the top of the light stand. Slip the shaft of the umbrella through the hole and tighten the thumb-screw to hold the umbrella in place. Adjust the direction and angle of the umbrella so you, or your talent, are in its shadow. When working outdoors it will probably be a good idea to add some sandbag weights. Place one or two over the legs of the light stand. I normally use one sandbag on the upwind side but do whatever is appropriate. If the breeze is too strong halt filming since your umbrella and stand may topple over. Remember, the umbrella will act like a sail and catch the breeze on a windy day.

Get the right equipment

Do not try saving a few bucks by getting a white golf umbrella. I have tried one and it did not work well. The material on golf umbrellas is not sufficiently translucent and block too much light. Moreover, golf umbrellas need to be held since they cannot easily be mounted on a light stand. Even if you use the mental clamp holder on a light stand it will not be very secure.

Umbrella Diffuser

The proper 33inch reflector/diffuser umbrellas are OK but for less than double the price I would buy the 60inch version. I actually bought the smaller umbrella first and then bought the 60inch one so I could shoot wider shots. Considering the relative price of the two umbrella sizes I think it makes more sense to get the larger one. I bought both of my diffuser umbrellas from Amazon and have found the quality of both to be good. They are quite light to hold and the results have been really good. Even when filming on the brightest of days the umbrellas have become an indispensable part of my kit bag. The 60inch umbrella is good value on Amazon.

Neewer 5-in-1 collapsible disc light reflector

As I mentioned, the 43-inches (110cm) Neewer 5-in-1 collapsible disc light reflector also works well as a diffuser. Remember it is the core ring with translucent material that you need to use as your light diffuser. Usefully the reflectors has interchangable silver, gold, white and black covers. It is available at an affordable price from Amazon.

Universal Light Stands

If you haven’t already got some light stands (you can never have too many) here’s a link to a couple of universal light stands on Amazon. With the right clamps/holders, they can be used for lights, holding your umbrella diffuser, reflector or even a collapsible background. The stands can be adjusted from a minimum height of 2ft 8in to 7ft 6in. Each can support loads of up to 7lbs.

Umbrella holders/mounts

Finally, I also got my two umbrella holders online and both can be used for dual purposes. The reflector clamp with umbrella reflector/diffuser holder works really well and I’ve also used it to support a collapsible 5x7ft background. You can get it here on Amazon.  The other type has a hot shoe mount above the hole for the umbrella reflector/diffuser. I use this when mounting LED light panels that need to be tilted either down or up. It’s available here on Amazon.

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