GoPro Cameras: How to Use Available Light in Your Movies

By John Carucci

Because many action sequences take place outdoors, you need the sun for illumination. That big, flaming ball of fire in the sky offers bright, diverse, and complimentary illumination. It not only flatters the subject, but it’s also free.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a slight price to pay. It’s a passive light form that leaves you with no control over it, and you just have to accept its direction of light, the shadow it creates, or its light quality. Seems like a fair price to pay when you consider what you get in return.

One day, the light renders warmly against a rich blue sky, and the next day it’s completely different. Sometimes the background sky renders palely; other times it’s completely overcast. The sun is always in the sky, but that stuff in between — you know the clouds and haze — can affect what the sun can do on a predictable basis.

Consider the following:

  • Watch out for lens flare: Because the GoPro is so wide, there’s a greater possibility for lens flare. That means you need to be careful.

  • Try to use sunlight from a lower angle: This creates the most flattering illumination, and it’s generally warmer too.

  • Avoid overhead light: When the sun is beating straight down on the subject, it’s not flattering and creates harsh shadows.

  • Take advantage of an overcast day: Direct sunlight is sometimes harsh on the subject because it skims across the face and creates shadow and texture. Most people don’t like it. Clouds come between the sun and the subject and act as a diffuser, presenting the subject in a more flattering illumination. Just watch out for white patches of sky.

Use sunlight for your movies

Here are a few ways to make the most of sunlight:

  • Work the angles. This means catching sunlight from different angles.

  • Shoot early or late. Sunlight becomes more intense as the sun rises higher in the sky, and color temperature increases as the day goes on. A sunny-day color temperature is about 5500K when the sun reaches its highest point. The temperature gets warmer as dusk approaches.

  • Whenever possible, it’s best to shoot your movie early in the morning or late in the afternoon. At those times, the sun is at an angle that produces the most flattering illumination and the warmest tone (refer to this figure).

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  • Take advantage of clouds. Although it can be beautiful, direct sunlight can also produce harsh illumination. Most people don’t like being photographed in full sunlight. But cloud cover between the sun and the subject works like a giant diffuser, bathing subjects in more-flattering light.

  • Avoid shooting at noon. High Noon is a great title for a movie but not a great time to shoot it. When the sun is beating straight down on the subject, it’s not flattering and creates harsh shadows.

Manage artificial illumination

When the sun decides to call it a day, the nightscape comes to life, and individual forms of artificial lighting don’t play by the same set of rules as the sun. There are many types of artificial light, each with its own behavior. Here are a few potential problems of shooting under artificial light:

  • Annoying color casts: Not all light sources produce a full spectrum of color, especially HID lamps, which you’re likely to find on a city street or country road. Depending on the way the light source produces light, the scene can render with a yellowish or cyan tinge.

    The good news is that a meticulous white-balance setting can eliminate a color cast; the bad news is that it may deplete the scene of all color. HID lights produce a single color, so when you correct the bad color, no others are left.

  • Unpredictable results: Sometimes, you don’t notice the effect of color or contrast on your smartphone’s screen until it’s too late.

  • Harsh shadows: Contrasty, splotchy light creates shadows that can wreak havoc. When you adjust for these shadows, the highlights may be blown out. Fix the highlights, and the middle tones become shadowy.