Shooting outdoors brings a series of unique challenges with it, whether you’re making a short video for YouTube or shooting a scene for your next movie. Outdoor environments cannot be controlled or altered as easily as studio setups, so you have to think on your feet and solve potential problems before they interfere with your shots.
Whether you’re a total novice to filmmaking or have been making your own movies for a while, mastering outdoor cinematography is a highly valuable skill. Learn the dos and don’ts of shooting in the great outdoors, and experiment with equipment that will enhance your scenes.
Do: Venture Out During the Magic Hour
Lighting your scene adequately is one of the biggest hurdles you’ll face when shooting outdoors. The movement of the sun is outside your control, but you can use its light to your advantage as long as you get the timing right.
Many filmmakers opt to limit their outdoor shooting schedules to a window they often call the “magic hour.” The term actually refers to two different times of day—the hours directly after sunrise and right before sunset. Aim to get your outdoor scenes shot between seven o’clock and nine o’clock in the morning, or between four o’clock and seven o’clock in the evening.
Good To Know:
The reasoning behind the “magic hour” guideline is that when the sun is too high in the sky, it creates awkward shadows that can be difficult to shoot around. Even in indoor studios, many filmmakers avoid direct overhead light. Shooting your outdoor scenes when the sun is lower in the sky makes for more flattering lighting.
Don’t: Seek Out Shadowy Areas
Because you have limited control over the position and brightness of the sun, steer clear of outdoor settings that are likely to throw shadows. A forest full of tall, bare trees will create a crisscross of shadows across your actors’ faces and interfere with the integrity of your shots. Even standing in the shade of a single tree can muddy your picture.
That being said, stark shadows can create an interesting visual effect if used purposefully. If your character is running through a forest to escape an antagonistic figure, those shadows moving across their face can add to that frenetic, uncertain vibe.
Do: Take Advantage of Cloudy Days
If your shooting schedule has limited time for you to film scenes during the magic hour, try a midday shoot on a cloudy day. A sky full of clouds acts as a natural diffuser for the bright light of the sun, so harsh shadows won’t be as much of a problem while you shoot.
Is the sky’s overhead light still too bright for the scene you want to shoot? Soften natural light even further by setting up a butterfly scrim over the spot where you want to set your scene. A scrim is a large sheet of translucent nylon silk that diffuses the light that passes through it, minimizing shadows and turning down the sun’s natural brightness.
Don’t: Rely on Autofocus
The great outdoors is full of natural set pieces that you can use to your advantage, like trees, boulders, and other elements of the landscape. However, if you want your camera to stay focused on the actors in your scene, turn off the autofocus on your camera.
When you leave autofocus on, your camera may get confused by all the different objects in your scene and end up focusing on the trees in the background. Keep your camera on task by using manual focus to stay centered on the characters driving your scene.
Do: Use Microphones
Have you ever shot an impromptu video outdoors and found that the audio was garbled and indecipherable? The sound quality of outdoor scenes is often affected by factors like wind, noise from wildlife, and even the conversations of random passersby. High-quality microphones can help your production overcome this common hurdle.
The two most common microphones used in outdoor settings are lavalier mics and boom mics. Lavalier, or clip, microphones attach directly to the actors’ clothing, usually on or near a lapel, to pick up their voices as clearly as possible. Meanwhile, a boom mic requires a crew member to hold the mic above the actors, out of the camera’s field of view, to capture the conversation.
Don’t: Get Caught Unprepared
As you and your production crew create your shooting schedule, check the weather forecast for your intended shooting location. You’ve probably realized by now that filming equipment can get expensive, and you don’t want that equipment ruined by a surprise thunderstorm or snow shower. Get acquainted with the weather app on your phone and schedule outdoor shoots for temperate, cloudy days if at all possible.
Just in case a storm does move into town while you’re shooting, keep umbrellas and ponchos on hand, as well as waterproof rain sleeves for your camera and other equipment. If bad weather does cut your outdoor shoot short, don’t get discouraged; you can always go back later to finish your scene.
Do: Remember Your Go-To Locations
The more experience you gain with outdoor shoots, the more locations you’ll visit—and you’ll notice that some are more camera-friendly than others. Did you recently shoot an outdoor scene with a perfect combination of natural light, ambient sound, and stunning backgrounds? Don’t hesitate to return to that location for future shoots.
By that same token, if you captured some really terrible footage from a particular location, check it off your list and don’t visit that place again. Some outdoor areas simply aren’t suited for striking cinematography, and there’s a limited amount you can do to alter it.
Don’t: Shoot With Your Smartphone
While smartphone technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, your phone is not a reliable substitute for a more traditional shooting setup. Your phone’s built-in microphone won’t pick up crisp audio as well as a professional mic, and its manual focus is often inconsistent.
Save your smartphone for shooting short, casual videos, not feature films. If you want more control over your camera’s settings, use a DSLR camera that allows you to customize the aperture, focus, and shutter speed.
Are you ready to dive into the exciting world of outdoor cinematography? Embrace the spontaneity of an outdoor environment, and use changes in natural light to your advantage. Keep these dos and don’ts of outdoor cinematography in mind as you create your shooting schedule and gather all the filming equipment you need.