Regardless of wether you are a filmmaker or a videographer- chances are, you are going to be tasked with the challenge of filming outdoors at night. Low light video shoots can be tricky, and if done improperly, your footage can be rendered useless, and marred with the signs of a poorly planned evening shoot – poor color, tons of noise and an overall lack of detail.
Although high-end cameras, an army of lights and a ton of time are a surefire fix to the common problems of low light video shoots – chances are you are working on an efficient budget, and won’t have any of those tools at your disposal; but have no fear – because what you do have is Broken’ Slates Guide to Mastering Low Light Video Shoots. We’ve mapped out the process from pre-production to post on how to get the most out of your camera, and how you can make shooting at night time an illuminating experience.
Night shoots CAN be work! Above, the short SciFi thriller Refuge – lit entirely by moonlight and shot at 51,200 ISO.
A solid game-plan will help you succeed at capturing great low light footage. Here are a few things you can do before hitting record to increase your odds of getting great low light footage.
Scout Locations with Lots of Lights:
If you find yourself having to shoot at night, the best option is to scout locations in high density urban areas with ample light. Wether you are at a train station, near an entertainment complex or in a city’s downtown core – open areas with lots of streetlights and billboards can be your saving grace.
Scout Locations with Even Lighting:
Unless you are shooting HDR Video chances are that you will be fighting the classic battle we all have at one point in our lives … a massive amount of dynamic range in frame … so much that you have to balance between having certain areas of your frame underexposed and other areas blow completely out. By choosing an area with with even lighting, you’ll be able to find a better middle ground of exposure; meaning you don’t have to blow out the street lights, or have your actor lurking in the shadows.
Draw Up a Lighting Plan:
Visit your location during the day, know where natural (or street) light will come from and plan out where to hide lights on-set. This is NOT something you want to be doing the day-of, in the dark. Wether it is behind a car or just out of frame – every bit of extra light counts. You don’t need the expensive 5k’s used in film either, a couple of work lights or a cheap red head amazon kit will help immensely. Just make sure that the light does not detract from your scene’s focal point or look unrealistic.
Plan for Less Action
You’ll be shooting with a wide aperture and a slow shutter speed to get the best low light video shot from your camera – but the downside is that the images you capture will often be more blurry and harder to pull focus. By planning shots with less movement – you’ll maximize your chances of capturing good clean footage.
Be a Werewolf
When possible, plan to shoot during a full moon. The moon reflects light from the sun and works as a natural bounce for your film. The fuller the moon – the more light you’ll get, even a 5% difference in illumination can be the difference between clean and ultra-noisy footage.
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Use Battery Operated Lights/Get a Generator
There have been many times we’ve shown up on set with a solid lighting plan, only to find out that there was nowhere to plug in our lights. Thanks to battery powered LED lights, that is no longer a huge problem – but you’ll still need to throw some batteries on charge. Regardless of the lighting you choose, it’s always a good idea to have a gas powered generator on hand in case there are no available outlets to plug in to.
So you’ve planned your shoot and now it’s time to press record. Here’s how to make the best of low light scenes when on-set.
Shoot with a Wide Aperture
The first thing you should do is open your aperture as wide as your lens will permit. The wider your aperture, the more light that hits the sensor. F1.4 or 2.8 is preferrable, if you have the proper lenses.
Shoot at a Higher ISO
Shoot your scene at higher ISOs. The downside to this is that you’ll get more noise in your footage as you dial up the gain. A good rule of thumb is to avoid going higher than 1600 ISO to get the lowest amount of gain possible, but do lots of research on your camera to see how far others have pushed their cameras without noticeable quality loss.
Use a Slower Shutter Speed
The slower your shutter speed, the more light that will reach your sensor , giving you a better image during a low light video shoot. The downside is that movement in the frame will appear much more blurry and lights will begin to flicker the lower you go – so be careful with how much you apply this technique.
Shoot Everything on Manual
Your camera may be a technological wonder, but it will still have hard time metering dark scenes and finding objects to focus on – so the best way to ensure you get usable footage is to ensure you shoot everything manually.Auto-focus, auto gain control, auto-white balance – they’re mostly pretty terrible during the day, and at night they’re even worse. (Note: Never shoot manual unless you absolutely have to!)
Shoot in the Highest Quality Possible
Shoot at the highest quality possible, preferrably RAW or in 4:4:4 format. These are high-data formats that retain alot more information of the colour and details in a scene, increasing your the odds that you will have of correcting some of the dark areas of your frame in the edit suite.
Lower the Contrast in Your Camera Settings
The higher the contrast – the darker your blacks appear to be. Lowering contrast raises the black levels in your image, giving your frame more detail and less shadows. If shooting on a lower end camera, be aware of your dynamic range.
Shoot in HDR or Cinestyle Mode:
We won’t break down why … but check out our super awesome article on HDR Video and why it could help you in a situation like night shooting! Believe – it can be a lifesaver.
Reduce the Frame Rate to let More Light In:
The fewer frames you shoot per second, the more light each frame will receive. Shooting your video at 24fps will produce a brighter, better exposed than 30 or 60 frames per second … and 24fps is a golden standard for that cinematic look!
If you’ve followed the steps above, chances are you have some pretty good footage – but even with the best case scenarios – there are things you can do in post to make your low light video footage even better. Here are a few tips:
Noise Reduction Software
Tools like Neat Video do a great job at softening your frame and reducing the amount of noise in your shot that can happen during a low light video shoot.
Raise the Blacks
Thankfully blacks retain a ton of information that can be pulled by raising the black levels in your edit. You don’t need expensive programs like Davinci Resolve to do a great color correction on the footage – tools like Premiere’s Lumeteri panel have ample settings to clean up your footage and get to an acceptable exposure level.
When all else fails … make your footage Black and White:
Just kidding … but seriously … maybe that’s your only option? Follow the guide above and you should be able to avoid this dreaded final footage bandaid …
What are your tips and tricks for shooting in low light? Leave your ideas in the comment section below!