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Lighting 201 Part 2: Negative Light

Using natural light on a cloudy day By Stephen Schleicher
As luck would have it, every single day I have had a chance to go outside and shoot it has been a cloudy day. Previously I had said this lesson would cover lighting the subject outdoors. Without the Sun, what kind of lesson can we have? Put away those negative thoughts, because this is the perfect opportunity to discuss Negative Lights.

What exactly is a Negative Light? Is it a light that has a bad outlook on life? Some magical device used by secret government organizations for their Black Op projects? Or is it some great sucking machine? The answer is of course, No, No, and sort of.

You see black objects dont reflect any light, they absorb light from the surroundings. With this basic understanding you can use black objects in the same manner as bounce cards to remove light from your subject. Lets take a look at how that is done in the following situation.

It seems that as soon as October hits Kansas the skies grow gray and we dont see the Sun until mid November. With gray skies, instead of direct light from the Sun, a very diffuse omni directional light is generated. Now there are some obvious advantages to this you dont have a lot of hard shadows, so this smoothes out imperfections in objects, your talent doesnt have to squint like they might in direct Sun, and you dont have to worry about your exposure getting screwed up every time the Sun goes behind a cloud.

There are however some real disadvantages of an overcast day. First, even though the Sun is hidden, the color temperature and overall brightness of the surrounding area is quite high. Dont be surprised if you have to use your ND2 filter to get proper exposure. The second and bigger problem, is that you need some shadows to give depth to your subject to keep them from looking two dimensional on the television screen.

In the first image, our subject is standing outside on a cloudy day. While the subject is pretty, it would be nice to try and control the light and add some shadow to one side of her face for more depth.

Enter a large piece of black foam core. If you havent used foam core before, you should get yourself down to your local art supply store and invest a small amount of money in several large sheets. Get both white and black boards, and even get some in varying sizes. I use large boards for bounce and flagging purposes, and use smaller boards (2 feet x 2 feet) for gobos.

Attach the sheet of black foam core to a C-stand and position it on one side of your subject. (What? You dont have C-stands? Shame on you. Spend some more of your money on a collection of them. Make sure you get arms with them as well.)

The final configuration of all elements used in this shot

Depending on the size of the foam core, you may have to get the sheet closer or further away from your subject. On large productions, it is not uncommon to see 12 ft. x 12 ft. (or larger) black screens suspended to absorb light.

In this image you can see the results of our Negative Light. The differences may seem slight, but the subject now has more depth and thus looks more dramatic and aesthetically pleasing.

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