Modifying Direct Window Light for HD Videos

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Many of us would like to use natural light for our indoor photography to get the soft look of the traditional 1900 north light studio. But what if we only have south-facing windows with harsh direct sunlight? Should we abandon our goals? Absolutely not! This approach to natural light is something that anyone with a window can achieve.

Topics Covered:

  • The Concept
Shooting for Simplicity

  • Modifying South-facing Window Light
  • Adding Rim Lights

  • The Video

The Concept

I recently acquired the new Olympus E-5 SLR, which has HD video capability, and wanted to use it to capture my 15 month-old daughter, Nola, in some sort of activity where she wouldn’t be overly aware of the camera. I wanted to keep the camera mounted to a tripod to prevent the footage from being too jittery (I don’t yet have a camera stabilizing system for the camera), which meant that the activity needed to take place at the dining room table with Nola confined to her high chair. In the end, my wife Tamara and I decided that finger painting would be a good activity.

Shooting for Simplicity

I wanted the attention to be focused mainly on Nola, rather than the painting, so I kept it simple and shot in black and white, one of many modes for shooting video (and stills) in the E-5. This would render everything in tones, rather than color, and help to enhance the simplicity I was going for.

I also knew that my window for tolerance would be small, so I decided to work backward in a sense by setting up all of my lighting up first, shooting the video footage, and then taking setup and result shots as I took lighting elements away. What follows here is a reverse order of the actual shooting, but it will give you a sense of what the light modifiers were providing. At the end of this lesson is a link to the complied video footage, which Tamara and I made in iMovie.

Modifying South-facing Window Light

The curtain-less windows in our dining room face South, which means that on cloudless days, it receives direct sunlight for most of the day. This day was no exception. Here, you can see the high-contrast effect of direct sunlight on this scene.

Here are my camera settings, which remained constant throughout the shoot:

• Exposure Mode: Manual
• Shutter speed: 1/160th of a second
• Aperture: f/3.6
• ISO: 100
• Focal length: 30mm
• File Format: Raw

To diffuse this direct sunlight, I set up a Photoflex 77x77” LitePanel frame and attached a Translucent fabric to it. Then I simply leaned it against the windows. Although it wasn’t necessary here, I could have raised the LitePanel up with some LiteStands, GripSwivels and GripJaw Clamps if I’d needed the frame to be positioned higher.

Even in this setup shot, you can see the difference the LitePanel made. Rather than simply block the sunlight, the Translucent fabric transformed it into bright, almost shadow-less light. Here’s a result from that setup.

Adding Rim Lights

I wanted to create a little rim lighting for Nola’s hair and shirt on either side, so I set up two StarLite® OctoDome® nxt: 3 foot kits, each with a 1000-watt StarLite® lamp, and positioned them against the back wall angled toward Nola’s chair. To achieve a little more contrast, I removed the front diffusion face on each soft box and just used the interior baffle to diffuse the light from the StarLite heads.

Here’s a shot with these lights turned on, but with the camera set to color mode, rather than black and white.

As you can see, the color version is interesting, and would probably be the better choice for stills, but I decided to keep with the simplicity of black and white for the video. Here’s another version with the camera set to black and white mode.

In the result, notice how much brighter Nola’s hair is, as well as the tone and detail on her shirt. Below, you can see a side-by-side comparison of all the still results taken. [figure 12]

The Video

With nice, broad catch-lights in the eyes and subtle rim-lighting in place, I was ready for video. Here’s a fun little piece that Tamara and I put together to illustrate how well good lighting and HD video functionality can work together. Enjoy!


Written, photographed, and videoed by Benjamin Clay.