Location Lighting Tips: Faking the Sun

As a director of photography I often find myself in circumstances that are not always in my control, and yet with issues that I am required to solve. You have to think on your feet while the crew, client, and director are looking to you for a solution. Here is one example.

We were shooting a series of tourism commercials for Fayetteville Arkansas. This particular shooting day was essentiall lightweight b-roll and lifestyle footage. The director had pre-scouted the hotel location for a sunrise scene. The hotel room had an east-facing balcony on the 20th floor, and the weather forecast looked good. All we really needed was the sun to rise, and maybe some bounce light for fill. Easy peasy, right?

We arrived well before sunrise to art direct the room, rehearse with the actors, and setup camera on a Dana Dolly. Everything was in place, and we were ready to roll at sunrise. Unfortunately, the sun never rose. We had unexpected foggy cloud cover that obsured the sun entirely…the sky was an awful low-contrast soupy mess. And there I stand with nothing to my name but a few small LED panels, some bounce boards, and a few tungsten lights. Not a good situation to be in.

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So we did what any good crew would do…we faked it. We basically had three shots to capture in this space; one wide master establishing our talent in the space, one medium shot of the woman in a chair near the window, and one medium shot of the man looking out into the (nonexistent) sun. There were a few closeup coverage moments to snag as well, but those were not my initial concern…closeups are easy to fake. That wide master was killing me. I quickly talked the director and the client out of the wide master, and turned it into a medium shot instead. Then I started hiding lights.

locationlighting2 widebts

Without a wide master that showed the world, it allowed me to hide an 1K ARRI tungsten light out on the balcony, with the stand hidden just behind the seam of the sliding glass window. The light head was about a foot or so from the glass, and flooded wide. We left the white balance of the camera set to daylight, and I used two daylight Flex LED panels into a homemade 4×4 bounce to fill talent faces (one of the LED panels had a full CTO on it, to feather in the color of the “sun” coming through the window).

locationlighting2 overcast

For the shot of the woman in the chair, we just panned the 1K over a little and adjusted the height to flatter her face. The window curtain acted nicely as a layer of diffusion, and even created a unique shutter pattern on the wall and across the talent’s face, breaking up the beam. For the shot of the man walking up to the window, we had him walk directly up to the 1K light. As I dollied camera right, our little 1K sun flared the lens realistically and really sold the effect. I also used a 650w light positioned on the balcony to the right, to wrap the our fake sun around his cheek a little.

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locationlighting2 chair

As you can see, it’s a surprisingly effective trick. Even more surprising given how simple it was. Certainly not an optimal scenario if I had my choice of fixtures, but it totally worked. Sometimes you don’t need a ton of wattage to get the job done.

Matt Jeppsen is a working DP with over a decade of experience in commercials, music videos, and documentary films. You can view Matt’s cinematography reel and contact info at www.mattjeppsen.com and a editorial ethics statement at provideocoalition.com/ethics-statement

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Matt Jeppsen is a DoP based in Sydney. Reel and contact info at www.mattjeppsen.com