Guiding the Light

It isn’t easy controlling natural daylight for a shot let alone an entire day’s shooting.  In this post we go over how our camera department tackled lighting an indoor cafe setting, shooting a scene over the period of a whole day, and maintaining a look despite being low on manpower and gear.

This post is the continuation of the series of lighting breakdowns from a recent short film that I shot on the RED Epic. For the previous breakdown on an interior night scene you can check out this post here.

The Location & Schedule

In today’s scene we are taking a look at fighting the sun while shooting daytime interiors.  The entire film was shot on location with a large part taking place inside a working cafe.  The cafe was covered in floor to ceiling windows on two sides and dark blue/black walls on the other sides.  We were scheduled to be shooting in the location for an entire day and we needed to maintain a reasonable amount of continuity between the shoots as the dialogue was only supposed to occur in movie time over a matter of minutes.

Our tight schedule meant there was no time to wait for the perfect angles and then shoot, shoot, shoot.  We had to make do with what we had.  The lighting kit was small to say the least.  We had an Arri 1.2k, a couple of 2×2 Kinos, a single 2×4 kino and that was it for daylight fixtures.  We had a few more tungsten weapons but considering we were on location and restricted in terms of output none of them would be of any use to us.

Getting Prepared in Pre-Production

If you have ever read this blog before you will know that I am crazy about pre-production.  I love the research side of things.  Hunting down new techniques and tools that can help get the job done in a better more efficient manner.  All in an effort to build a cinematography guide to help define the style of the piece.

After our location scout I immediately started sourcing my image library for examples that I could pull inspiration from.

I knew We could use the big windows for motivating the side light so I wanted a soft look that had a sunny wash to it.  I wanted it to be bright but I didn’t want it to be hard light.  Just a soft bounced sort or look.  I pulled these stills from A Serious Man shot by the great Roger Deakins.

Wide 2

Filling the Cinematography Guide

As you can see these have exactly what I was going for.  The light is motivated from the windows and there is a bit of natural fill coming from the light getting in the room and bouncing all around.  Armed with a few more photos for inspiration and ideas I set about coming up with a plan.  The only issue being we had almost no budget for lights so it was going to be massively dependent on getting a lucky day with the weather.

Here is what we went with.


Breaking Down the Scene

The scene started with a wide master shot and then punched in for a medium two shot and a few dirty OTSs.  We blocked out the positioning of the action so that the actors would land at a seat that had the most exposure to the naturally soft, overcast light coming from the sky.  I was hoping to light it to a T4.5.  I added the 1.2k HMI in to the mix to give us a bit of consistency if the sky dropped too much.

I had Joel Crane, the gaffer extraordinaire, bounce the HMI into the white awning just outside the window and that gave us a nice soft light that added nicely to what the sky was already doing.  It would have been nice to have a 12×12 ultra bounce and a bigger unit but sometimes you just have to go with what you have.  We had a white awning and a 1.2k.  In the end it was really just boosting the levels.

Starting there looked OK but when we went in for the singles we needed the key light to wrap a little further around the actors face.  We were losing the eyes a little as they talked back and forth.  To solve that we took our sole 2×4 kino and placed it just off to the left of camera and cut out two of the bulbs and that gave us just enough fill to keep everything together.


The Two Shot

So in the two shot (50mm) you can see what looks to big the big sky source  pouring in camera right.  That is almost all HMI as the sky at this point in the day was getting very dreary.   Then you can also see on the camera left side of the actors face the little bit of fill provided by the kino, camera left.Cafe_3_1.156.2

The Wide

In the wide shot (35mm) the main actors are looking pretty good using what was essentially the same set up. We did shuffle back the kino a little bit and turned on another bulb to give it a bit more juice.  The real problem here, which we couldn’t quite get right, is the left side of the frame was starting to fall off as it got away from the HMI spread and you can see the drop off in exposure.  When we do the final color I will be able to push a little bit of exposure back on that side.  We tried, in later shots, filling it in but all we had left to do the job was the two 2×2 kinos.



It is a little bit difficult to see from this shot (80mm) as the actor on the left has turned his face a little bit more extremely than what it is earlier in the clip.  That makes his lighting a little bit flatter.  I could have killed the Kino and brought in a little bit of negative fill to add some contrast but I think it would have been a bit too extreme to match the previous shots in the sequence.

The background in the male actors single was pretty dark as it was buried in the corner and the wall itself was black.  To fight that issue we just shuffled in one of the kinos and shot it into the ceiling just out of frame.

Fighting the Weather

This shoot presented a big challenge with such a small crew, limited amount of time, and even less lighting gear.  The weather held out for a little bit but as soon as the rain came we were forced to compromise on some creative decisions.

In the end though it was my job to try and ensure that the audience was never aware of the shifting light and changing weather.  Consistency is key for keeping the audience in a suspended state of belief when watching your film and I hope when this film is released all of our efforts will help to keep the audience engaged.

More In the Series

Check back next week when we go over another scene and breakdown another set up.

About The Author

Cinematographer and host of The Wandering DP Podcast. You can see select examples of work at my personal site or follow me on instagram.

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5 Responses

  1. Khai

    Been following your posts and it has been a great learning resource and a great place to discuss ideas.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. David Ross

    I just discovered you and your website and podcast. 30 years as a grip and gaffer now I’m finally moving to behind the camera. The information you are sharing is like gold to me. Thank you for your hard work .

  3. Paulina Dabrowska

    I just start out as a DP but I highly enjoy the pre-production process as well! And I really appreciate your posts. Looking forward to more of your pre-production breakdowns!