How To Film Indoors With Natural Light (Tips and Tricks)

Filming with natural light can be a challenge. Compared to artificial light, natural light doesn’t bend as easily to your filmmaker sensibilities. But if you take time to plan carefully, you won’t have too much trouble filming with natural light indoors.

Here are some tips and tricks on how you can film indoors with natural light:

  1. Consider whether you truly need an all-natural light setup. 
  2. Do a (literal) rain check. 
  3. Consider shooting during midday if your shoot is short.
  4. Find a location with natural light suited to your needs.
  5. Adjust your camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
  6. Use 3-point lighting to your advantage.
  7. Use reflectors.
  8. Use diffusers.
  9. Move your subject about a couple of feet from the light.
  10. If all else fails, get help from artificial light sources. 

Below, I’ll go into more detail on the tips and tricks when filming indoors with natural light. By the end of this article, I hope you become comfortable working with light as a filmmaker.

Film Indoors

1. Consider Whether You Truly Need an All-Natural Light Setup

Before you think about using natural light for an indoor shoot, consider whether it’s your best option.

Are you using natural light because of budget constraints? If that’s the only reason, know that budget lighting options are available, which we’ll discuss later. 

Are you using natural light because you want to create a particular effect for your film? In the movie “The Revenant,” the filmmakers used natural light to give the viewer a sense of time and ever-present tension in the atmosphere.  

No matter your reason, it should be worth all the difficulties of working with natural light. After all, if you struggle way more than you need to with your shooting, your stress is bound to show up on film in one way or another.

2. Do a (Literal) Rain Check

Natural light is challenging to work with because it’s unpredictable. One moment, you’re filming on a bright sunny day; the next, the clouds will put a damper on your shoot.

If you intend to film with natural light, try to do it on a day when the weather is relatively stable. Check the weather updates in the area where you intend to film. For example, if the weatherman says it’ll be sunny throughout a specific date, you might not have to worry much about sudden light changes when you least expect them. 

But if the weatherman anticipates cloudy weather, consider postponing the shoot. Because they’re always moving, clouds can cause subtle lighting changes your camera might be sensitive to. The last thing you want is for your viewers to get distracted by the constant changes in light on your film.   

3. Consider Shooting During Midday if Your Shoot Is Short 

Some times of the day are better for shooting indoors than others. For example, if you’re shooting near a window, the midday light shining through that window provides just enough exposure for your film. After all, the indoors are usually darker than the outdoors, and having the light from outside shining into a room balances things out light-wise.

Of course, midday lasts for only about an hour at most. If you’re only doing 5-minute videos or ads, using midday light is fine. But if you’re filming a two-hour-long movie, you need a better plan than “Shoot during the midday and hope the weather will stay fine throughout that one-hour window.”  

4. Find a Location With Natural Light Suited to Your Needs

With your DSLR camera, scope out the place where you will shoot. Hold the camera with the viewfinder towards you, look through the viewfinder, and move the camera slowly around the area. See how the light changes when you point your camera towards one corner, towards another corner, etc. If you find a spot that looks good no matter which angle you look at it, that might be an excellent place to start filming.

It’s essential to use your camera (rather than your naked human eye) when assessing the quality of light in a location. After all, your viewers will be seeing your film as captured by your camera, not as you’re seeing the scene in real life.

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5. Adjust Your Camera’s Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO

Your DSLR camera’s default settings may not be the best for capturing natural light. In that case, you need to be familiar with the three features that affect how your camera captures light: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Aperture

Aperture refers to the size of the part that opens or closes around your camera’s lens. It’s measured in f-stop values, which has an inverse relationship with the amount of light your camera lets in. In other words, the lower the f-stop value, the bigger the opening around your camera’s lens, and the more exposure to light it will have.

If you’re unsure what f-stop value to use for natural light, try something between f/2.8 and f/1.8 to let in the right amount of natural light. Alternatively, if your camera has aperture priority mode (usually marked by “A” or “AV” on your camera), you can experiment with that as well. Aperture priority mode means that your camera’s shutter speed will automatically adjust with your aperture. 

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed measures how long the shutter stays open while the camera sensor is exposed to light. If you’re working with bright lights indoors, try using a shutter speed of about 1/100 to make the most of the light exposure. On the other hand, a slow shutter speed might look better on video if you’re working with low light. 

ISO

ISO measures your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive to light your camera is.

If you’re working with low light (like on cloudy days, for example), you may want to raise your camera’s ISO. But if you’re shooting on bright days when there’s adequate light, you can have an ISO that falls between 50 and 100. 

When it comes to natural light, feel free to experiment with any combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You can always adjust the settings if you over- or under-expose your subject. 

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6. Use 3-Point Lighting to Your Advantage

When you’re working with any kind of light — natural or otherwise — it’s not just the amount of light you need to consider. You also need to think about where the light is.

Imagine your subject inside a triangle, facing one of the flat edges. The three points on that triangle represent the key light, fill light, and backlight.

Key Light

The key light is the brightest of the three lights. As the name implies, it’s where most of the light shining on your subject comes from. You don’t place it directly in front of your subject because that would cause overexposure. Instead, you put it in the northwest direction facing your subject. If you’re filming near a window, and it’s a sunny day, the window would be the source of your key light. 

Fill Light

The thing about key light is, by itself, it makes your subject look unbalanced. If a light is shone on the left side of your subject, and the right side has little to no light, unsightly shadows will show up on film.

That’s where the fill light comes in. The fill light is usually half as bright as and is placed in a direction opposite to the key light. For example, if the key light is at 4 o’clock of your subject, the fill light should be at 8 o’clock. The fill light’s purpose is to balance out the lighting in front of your subject and eliminate shadows beside your subject.

If you’re filming with natural light and your key light is from the window, you can use a reflector as your source of fill light. We’ll talk more about reflectors in the next section. 

Backlight

If you only have the key light and fill light, your subject is going to look flat. To prevent that, you also need a backlight. As its name implies, the backlight is placed behind your subject and somewhere between the key light and fill light. It’s sometimes called the “hair light” because if your subject is a person, the backlight will illuminate, well, their hair.

Going back to the example earlier (where the key light is from the window, and the fill light is from your reflector), you can use a plain white background as the backlight. That’s because the white color reflects the surrounding light, including that from the key and fill lights. 

Combined, the key light, fill light, and backlight will make your subject pop on screen, minus any distracting shadows or uneven lighting.

7. Use Reflectors

As noted earlier, you can use reflectors as fill light or just to even out the lighting on your subject. 

If you don’t mind investing in quality reflectors, buy something like the Phottix Premium Reflector from Amazon.com. It’s a quality reflector that works well under most lighting conditions and may even have extra handles for better mobility. 

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But if your budget is limited, no worries. You can use a white-colored umbrella as a makeshift reflector, with the handle facing your subject. If you’re comfortable with DIY stuff, you can make a reflector in 5 minutes for $1.50 as follows:

  1. Cut out a piece of cardboard to the size you want.
  2. Cut out a piece of tin foil/aluminum foil to a size that’s large enough for the edges to fold around your cardboard.
  3. Tape or clip the foil to your cardboard. Voila! Instant reflector.

8. Use Diffusers

If you’re filming on a bright sunny day, the light shining on your subject may be too harsh. In that case, use a light diffuser.

You can buy ready-made diffusers from Amazon.com, like the Altura Photo Flash Diffuser Light Softbox. These tools can soften light no matter where it’s from and can be tucked away in a safe place when not in use.

Flash Diffuser Light Softbox 9x7” by Altura Photo (Universal, Collapsible with Storage Pouch) for Canon, Yongnuo and Nikon Speedlight
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Alternatively, you can use what’s already in your house — or even your natural environment! A frosted shower curtain can soften the light coming into your filming location. The same goes for clouds in the sky since they cover the sun somewhat. 

9. Move Your Subject About a Couple of Feet From the Light

Do you know what else you can control, aside from the source and intensity of the light shining on your subject? That’s right: the subject itself!

Specifically, you don’t want your subject to be too close to any light source. Otherwise, your subject will either be overexposed or have shadows everywhere. 

For example, if you’re using a plain white background, you’ll notice that your subject will have shadows if too close to the background. But if you put about two or three feet between your subject and the backlight, the shadows disappear.  

10. If All Else Fails, Get Help From Artificial Light Sources

Okay, I’ll admit it: This part is kind of a cop-out. But if you’ve been doing all of the above with only natural light, and you’re still not getting the results you want, it won’t hurt to use artificial light.

The best part is you don’t even have to spend a fortune on artificial light. You can buy a Bayco SL-300 Clamp Light from Amazon.com and use it to light up any underexposed parts of your subject. 

Bayco SL-300 8.5 Inch Clamp Light with Aluminum Reflector
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Bayco SL-300 8.5 Inch Clamp Light with Aluminum Reflector
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Bear in mind, however, that your artificial light should complement your natural light, not clash with it. If the artificial light is too bright, you can adjust its intensity using any built-in controls it has or cover it with diffusing materials like the ones I just talked about before. 

Final Thoughts

Even for experienced filmmakers, working with natural light can be a challenge. The slightest change can ruin even the most carefully crafted shot. But if you know how to use natural light to your advantage, how to work around its weaknesses, and how to make the most of what you have, the results can be satisfying. If nothing else, you can always iron out the kinks of your film in post-production. 

Sources 

Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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