Using Available Light for Documentary Filming

I’ve done a number of videos for Wild Dunes Resort, and most of them have showcased all the great things to do on the beach where the resort is located.

For this project, however, the assignment was quite different: follow around a group of guys who were at Wild Dunes for a men’s golf getaway, including the activities they did off the resort. Since it was a documentary-style shoot, I couldn’t interfere with what was going on, and I couldn’t set up lighting gear, so it turned into an interesting exercise in utilizing available light.

Since I was a crew of one, I shot the interview segments with my Panasonic AF100 (to simplify the audio process). For the b-roll, I used my Canon 5D Mark II, with three lenses: a 20mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.4,  and a 24-70mm f/2.8.

I didn’t use any artificial lighting for the interviews. I set up a reflector on a C-stand just out of frame on camera left, and bounced the sunlight back onto the subject’s face. This looks quite natural, and gave me enough light intensity to be able to close the aperture enough to see detail in the beach behind the interview subjects.

On the golf course, I worked primarily hand-held, using the 20mm lens. On a full-frame camera, the 20mm wide enough to absorb a lot of handling motion without looking bad.

At the restaurant the guys went for cocktails, I worked off a tripod, and shot primarily with the 24-70. When we arrived at the location, I asked the hostess to seat the group on the balcony, instead of inside, so that I could take advantage of the beautiful golden sunset. I kept the subjects backlit by the sun, for aesthetic effect, and I used a fairly wide aperture, both in order to keep the viewer’s focus on the group, and to minimize recognizable faces in the background. If you don’t have permission to photograph people, you really should try to keep them out of your shots.

For the poker night and fancy dinner, I had no choice but to use the 50mm f/1.4. It’s the fastest lens I have for the 5D, and I was shooting wide open, because those locations were VERY dark! The challenge with that type of lens is maintaining focus. I wasn’t using a field monitor, since I wanted to be as light and mobile as possible, so I had to continually stop recording to check and double-check my focus.

I color graded all the footage with Colorista II. Most of the footage already looked pretty good, but the exposure on the fancy dinner shots had to be brought up quite a bit. Actually, though, I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail the camera was able to capture in an environment lit by nothing more than a few small candles.

Being able to use lights is a great tool, but it can become a crutch. Going out and making the most of whatever is available is very liberating, and can be a great exercise to sharpen all kinds of documentary-shooting skills.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *