The Light Outside

7 minute read

by Jon

September 12, 2016

The key task of a director of photography is controlling light. As the trend toward smaller and smaller crews continues, I’m finding myself on sets with just one or two grips, gaffers, or production assistants. Updated lighting technology and more sensitive cameras have reduced the bulkiness of indoor lighting. But outdoors, most cinematographers are using the same tools Hollywood did almost a century ago. I’ve been looking for new ways to creatively manage lighting for video outdoors. Here’s how I’ve been managing light outside on shoots with small crews this summer.

Photek Sunbuster

When it comes out: Sunny and partly sunny days.

Where I use it: Usually as diffusion for the sun as a key light, occasionally to cut the intensity and hardness of back/edge light. Also occasionally as a quick solid overhead, more often for myself than the subject.

photek sunbuster

The Photek Sunbuster 84″ umbrella really softens harsh light, even at a distance.

The Photek Sunbuster looks a lot like a picnic table umbrella. It was designed for still photographers. Since photographers are the original one-man-band crew, it makes sense that they’d have some practical methods for controlling sunlight without huge overhead frames. I usually use the 84″ umbrella as a silk. It also has a solid black option for use as negative fill, and a silver option that is probably only of use to photographers using strobes.

It comes with a mounting bracket and the center arm tilts, making it easy to position wherever you need it. It can be mounted on a C-stand, although I usually use a combo stand to give it a little more bulk. Bring a few sandbags, too. In moderate winds, it can surprise you if not weighted down properly.

1.2K HMI Par or Arri M18

When it comes out: Cloudy days when I’m near power. Also partly cloudy days when consistency is needed.

Where I use it: On cloudy days, it’s usually an edge light, warmed up slightly with a 1/4 CTO gel. On partly cloudy days it can be diffused for a pleasant key in place of the sun.

The lighting world is getting better at making energy efficient powerful lights, but really nothing in LED has caught up with HMI yet, in terms of competing with sunlight outside (at least in a dollars & photons comparison). HMIs may be heavy and draw a lot of power, but if you have a 20A circuit nearby, you can really get a lot of punch.  The Arri M18 is the holy grail of small outdoor lighting, but you can get a no-name 1200 watt PAR on eBay for under $1000.

Westcott 72″x72″ Scrim Jim

When it comes out: Any time I’m outside and not in a huge rush, especially if I’m working with more than one person on camera at once.

Where I use it: Usually softening sunlight from the front, or above and behind to manage backlight. Less frequently as an overhead solid. Occasionally in frame, with either the net or the light silk used as an effect behind the subject.

The light silk included with the scrim jim is subtle but effective.Westcott’s 72″x72″ Scrim Jim is basically a 6’x6′ frame system updated for the 21st century. While more expensive (and probably less durable) than classic 6’x6′ overheads, it’s lighter, easier to set up, safer, and modular. Other companies including Chimera make a similar kit, but I find the square tubes are safer than the round variety. The frame is the perfect size for shaping light on a family interview, or when you want to set up and not adjust your equipment for a few hours.

You can use Westcott’s (relatively expensive) modifiers, or find any 6’x6′ rag/butterfly/overhead on eBay and save a few bucks. Definitely get a heavier silk than the one that comes with the kit, which is very light.

Bead board

When it comes out: Sunny and mostly sunny days.

Where I use it: Bouncing light from the front, especially when we’re working around pools and bodies of water.


Bead board has been around for a long time, but I think it doesn’t get enough love. Usually you can find a 4’x8′ sheet at your local home improvement store for under $10. The quality of scattered light from the foam beads is much more flattering than foam core, but the real advantage is how it handles water. If you get lucky you can sometimes find a version with foil backing, making it even more versatile. It’s mountable with quacker clamps on C-stands, but usually ends up being held by a grip since it is easy to carry but can catch the wind easily.

Flexible Reflectors

When it comes out: Pretty much always.

Where I use it: Key, fill, back/edge light, negative fill, there’s hardly ever an outdoor shoot that I don’t take one out.


A gold and silver zebra reflector makes a huge difference when used just out of frame on an overcast day.

There are many kinds of flexible reflectors. The most popular is the 5-in-1 variety, with a silk wrapped inside a black, silver, white, and gold cover. If you get one that’s 40″ x 60″, you can get a whole lot of use from it. In my experience, the gold side is usually much too warm, though. That’s why I bring a smaller 36″ circle with a gold/silver zebra pattern. This makes a huge difference on overcast days when everything starts to feel flat and gray.

I usually mount the flexible reflectors on a C-stand with an arm. Bringing a few 2″ clamps can help position the reflector exactly where I need it.

What tools do you use to modify light outside? Sound off in the comments.