So, you want to leave the comfortable confines of the studio and head out into the wild to shoot photos or videos for your next project? It makes sense. Shooting outdoors is the difference between having your scene look like the campy set of Gilligan’s Island or the gritty realism of Predator. This is a challenge, but not an impossible one. Here are nine things you need to keep in mind to make sure you get the results you want when shooting photos or video outdoors.
The major difference between shooting indoors and outdoors is that you now have a single light source: a constantly-moving gigantic ball of exploding hydrogen gas also known as the sun. You cannot control it or adjust it. You cannot dim it or make it brighter. You cannot change its color or position. We are at its mercy.
The type of content you are capturing will determine the scope of the challenge. If you are shooting a vlog, the conditions are less important as you are probably going for a more organic feel. If you are shooting photos, it’s a little more difficult because of the restrictive lighting conditions, but the right tools mitigate this factor. Narrative film projects are most difficult of all because lighting is the main means to visually convey story, emotion, and theme. How can we do that if we are at the mercy of the sun’s light?
The bright side is that the sun is predictable. On any given day, we know exactly where it’s going to be, when it will rise, and when it will set, just like clockwork. So, while we can’t adjust the sun itself per se, we can adapt to it to achieve the results we want. Over time, photographers and filmmakers have developed all kinds of tools and techniques to adapt to sunlight’s unchanging properties and take advantage of the benefits.
Planning ahead is the best way to deal with the uncertainty of outdoor shoots. And the most important planning step you can take is location scouting. Whether you are shooting photos or video, checking out where you will be ahead of time will eliminate most of the unforeseen problems.
For example, you will know if there is water nearby that might throw unwanted glare into your shot. Or maybe a nearby hill is going to prematurely block your light as the sun sets. Or maybe there is a nest of fire ants right where you want to shoot those picnic photos. Any of these things could ruin a day of shooting, but all can be mitigated with a little scouting.
Another thing to keep in mind is that photographers and filmmakers shooting outdoors live and die by the clock. The sun follows its path through the sky, and it won’t wait for you to be ready. You can’t yell at it to hurry up and you can’t slow it down. This means you need to plan everything in advance, so you’re ready to go when the sun is in the right position.
One example is trying to shoot during the time period known as “golden hour.” This occurs around sunrise and sunset when light from the sun travels through the atmosphere at an angle, producing a soft, reddish-gold glow. It’s a classic look that you can only capture with real sunlight.
However, if you are late setting up or your talent isn’t ready, you can easily miss the moment and be forced to come back in the evening or the next day. Precious time and money wasted. The key to avoiding this mistake is to create a schedule and stick to it so you’re ready to capture those magic moments with time to spare.
Anyone who has ever watched TV news knows predicting weather is an imperfect art at best. At worst, it’s basically random. For someone planning an outdoor shoot, you cannot depend on weather predictions. Instead, you need to be ready for anything. Rain, overcast, sun, wind, hail, snow, tornados… you get the picture.
The bottom line is weather is almost unpredictable and can change at any moment. When you consider that outdoor lighting conditions change constantly anyway, factoring in weather makes outdoor shooting a very difficult task – but not impossible.
From a general logistics point of view, all your gear needs protective equipment. That means waterproof boxes and bags that can be accessed quickly and easily. Remember Murphy’s Law: What can go wrong, will go wrong. Don’t make it too easy for Mr. Murphy to ruin your shoot.
From a technical point of view, you have to be ready to adapt from shot to shot, mostly due to shifting cloud cover. On a clear day, you just need to deal with a moving sun, but on a cloudy day, you have to be ready to adjust to whatever lighting conditions the clouds allow in any given moment.
Lens filters do all kinds of things to adjust your image, but in this case, we’ll be talking about filters that help deal with some of the harsh effects of sunlight.
Remember, the soft light of magic hour only pops up twice a day. The rest of the time you have total darkness or blinding light. Even if your lens is stopped down as far as it will go, the scene might still be too bright. This is why you need a variable neutral-density (VND) filter.
The VND filter gives you extra f-stops to block more light so you can keep shooting on a sunny day without blowing out all your highlights. The “variable” here refers to the fact that you can vary the f-stop to fine-tune the filtering effect. It doesn’t do anything about the light angle, but it does help with overall brightness.
Another problem you might face outdoors is unwanted glare off shiny surfaces like water, glass, or metal. Luckily, a circular polarizing/linear (CPL) filter can help. This little gem helps reduce glare off shiny surfaces without otherwise disrupting your shot. If you want the glare, then don’t worry about it. However, unwanted glare can ruin a perfect setup. The CPL filter gives you some control over the situation.
To be most flexible and adaptable to changing conditions, we recommend you get a dual VND + CPL filter in a single unit so it’s just one less thing to mess with.
Diffuser fabric is another tool photographers and filmmakers can use to reduce brightness in an outdoor scene. Diffuser fabric is basically a semi-transparent screen that can be hung over a scene to cut out some sunlight. It doesn’t totally block the light; it just reduces it. It’s kind of like a giant VND filter suspended above your setup.
As the name suggests, reflectors are used to bounce light to fill in dark areas. In the studio, you might have a main (key) light illuminating your subject and a fill light to “fill in” some of the shadows. Outdoors, your key light is the sun, and your fill light is sunlight reflected into the shadows with a shiny reflector or even just a simple white board. This helps reduce some of the harsh contrast and shadow angles typically created by sunlight.
The matte box is a tool that helps prevent a phenomenon known as light leaks, which is where bright sunlight may “leak” into the camera and affect the sensor in strange ways. Sometimes the effect is beautiful, and you may want to keep it for artistic reasons. However, if you want to avoid it, you can use a matte box on your lens to help reduce the effect. Again, the key is being aware of these effects and the tools available to control them. Make sure what you capture is exactly what you want.
Another powerful trick filmmakers and photographers can use outdoors is backlighting. By positioning your subject between the sun and the lens, the subject will seem to glow with a backlit halo of light. This process also tends to create interesting visual cues such as lens flares. While not necessarily a good strategy for vlogs, a backlit subject can have a powerful effect on a narrative scene or artistic photos.
Shooting outdoors adds a level of realism and authenticity that is difficult to match shooting inside. The process presents many challenges, but generations of photographers and filmmakers have discovered many tools, tips, and tricks to minimize the effects of mother nature’s power. By keeping these nine factors in mind and adjusting accordingly, you can make the most of your outdoor shoot. You will be an expert in no time!
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