Lighting Without Lights

Pictured above: Michelle Acuna (Em) in Independent Western, “Bounty” (2009)
Bounty (2009), HVX100 with Red Rock Adapter. Chocolate Filter in front of lens. Lit with the sun and a bounce board about 50 feet from the actress, wearing dirt FX make up, to give an edge light on her left cheek. Colored by Allen Kelly at Filmlook Media & Post.

Lighting Without Lights

Lighting Without Lights

By Jared Isham

One of the most common complaints or excuses I hear from filmmakers is that they don’t have the right gear to make something. To be honest, I’ve made that excuse a few times and it is likely the easiest cop out for actually getting anything done. Fortunately for you, I’m not writing this to motivate you into taking initiative and telling you to just do the work. That kind of information is oftentimes pointless without any kind of solution presented. I want to give you practical tools that can help you achieve success when the lack of gear seems to be what stands in the way of you making a film.

My first assumption is that you, as a filmmaker, have a camera. Be it an Alexa, RED, URSA, Canon of any flavor, GoPro or even your cell phone, they all capture images that are viable quality for theatrical viewing. The next biggest thing on movie sets, though, is the lighting. Lighting can get expensive and cumbersome extremely quickly and with today’s technology is also one of the first things you could probably ditch when making a movie. Lighting is one of my favorite parts of cinematography, but the big set ups are not always conducive to indie or micro budgets, especially if you are bootstrapping your experimental indie film.

When an entire Grip & Electric package and crew are not feasible, the next best thing is to rely on the free rental that is hanging in the sky from dawn to dusk. I’m talking about how you can best leverage the use of natural light, or the sun, to make amazing images to help better tell your story.

A large part in maximizing your use of natural light is in where you choose to shoot. I would maybe suggest you rethink your strategy if you are choosing a location that is in a basement with no windows or no electricity. When you are wanting to light a scene, you need to have a source of light, so where you shoot is key. For the sake of ease, I am going to say that natural light encompasses two types of light, one being actual natural light and the other typically classified as practical lighting or available light. Both are powerful tools that are relatively inexpensive, if not free.

Scene at Pacific Plate Brewing Co. from Documentary Series, "Art of the Brew"Scene at Pacific Plate Brewing Co. from Documentary Series, “Art of the Brew”
 Art of the Brew (2020) BMPCC 4K BRAW 8:1 UHD 35mm f2.3 ISO 400. Available light only, tinted glass doors providing sunlight. Light color grade applied in Premiere Pro.

Bar Stool Scene at Pacific Plate Brewing Co. from "Art of the Brew"Bar Stool Scene at Pacific Plate Brewing Co. from “Art of the Brew”
 Art of the Brew (2020) BMPCC 4K BRAW 8:1 UHD 35mm f2.3 ISO 400. Available light only, tinted glass doors providing sunlight. Light color grade applied in Premiere Pro.

When choosing your locations, the obvious things to look for are windows and electrical outlets or practical lighting. Bring your camera and take a few quick pictures to see how it looks. I will use an app called, “Sun Position, Sunrise and Sunset,” by Stonekick, that lets you track the position of the sun over the course of the day. An often-overlooked location element to look for is the bounce. How does the light reflect around the room? What permanent fixtures in the location that have highly reflective surfaces and what parts of your location absorb light? How wide are the light sources? Are there any beams or shafts of light? You’ll be able to use these to help “light” your scene. The same goes for practicals. How much light do the preexisting light fixtures produce? Adjust your blocking and camera placements to maximize those location features.

Speaking of blocking, this is something that not only will maximize the use of what is available on set but also may create some genius directing that helps you to stand out as a filmmaker. A technique that I have gotten in the habit of doing when shooting on a tight schedule is to move the actors and not the camera.  Move your actors to the light instead of attempting to get the light to get to your actors. This also goes for the camera. Move the actors before moving the camera. Be unique, get your coverage and save set-up time all without needing to move lights or your camera.

Shadows are not your enemy. When shooting with natural light, embrace the shadows, don’t hide from them. A sure way to make your available light movie “not look” professional is to always have your actors washed out by staying out of the shadows and perfectly placed in the light without any dynamics. How often do you stand in perfect lighting when in conversation with someone? My thoughts are always to look at the obstacles that stand in my way and see how I can use them to help me tell a better story.

The best part about filmmaking today is the technology we have at our disposal. Cameras today can see in the dark at the cost it would take to purchase, expose and develop about 30 mins of 35mm film. Don’t let your lack of gear prevent you from making a film. Terrence Malik, in 2005, shot with natural light on 35mm film with his movie, The New World. Steven Soderberg shot his movie, Unsane in 2018, on an iPhone. Everything you need is either illuminating the world around you or currently in your pocket. Next time when that excuse arises in the back of your mind, instead of giving in to it, use the obstacles that are in front of you to tell your story. Who needs a 10K Light and light grid anyway, right? Lighting Without Lights

(Production stills photo courtesy of Stage Ham Entertainment.)

Lighting Without Lights

Jared IshamJared Isham (Bounty 2009, Turn Around Jake 2015)  is an independent filmmaker and head of motion pictures at Stage Ham Entertainment (  He also create videos focused on helping filmmakers to make better films on a micro-budget (




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