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I didn’t make this light, but I noticed it. There are three distinctly different kinds of light here – all from the same source, in the same place, at the same time.

This is not exactly a rare occurrence. It happens every day, all around us. The light hitting the wall on the left is direct sunlight. The light we see through the windows is diffused light, reflecting the sky, bouncing from snow. The light on the right wall is sunlight reflecting from a pane of glass outside the door and is going exactly opposite the direct light. Anytime there is direct light in a modern environment there are opposing reflections. They are most obvious in the early morning or late afternoon because the angles are shallow but in the right circumstances they can happen any time of day.

This is an example of what I call ‘natural light’ – light as it actually happens in the real world. It’s complex, contradictory and multi-layered. It’s not just key and fill, or even key, fill and kicker and certainly not just big soft diffusion. It reads early morning at a glance. It implies the world outside the room and expands the narrative world beyond the frame. Most importantly, it ignores simplistic rules about ‘motivation’ and consistency.

On nearly every set I have ever been on there would only have been two light sources in this scene – the direct light on the left and the diffused light through the windows – and the direct light would have both been ‘corrected’ to match. It would look something like this – not nearly as interesting or as ‘real’:

There are a number of reasons we don’t attempt more of the complexity of real light and unsurprisingly they all boil down to money. That’s completely understandable: there’s no time to experiment on set and not many people have the opportunity to fool around with this kind of thing on their own. Lighting is very often treated as the rote application of a set of understood rules and not just in commercial work. But that is a great loss. We have overly simplified light. We’ve actually made light boring. This simplification is not endemic to film itself, but it is to American film. If you want to see complex, nuanced light in American film you have to watch documentaries.

Here’s another example, shot later the same morning in a coffee shop. The basic lighting situation is exactly the same as in the picture above, even though it appears to be different. Note the shadows from the tree on the right. The light throwing those shadows is bouncing from the back of a sign just visible at the top of the frame. The sharpness of those shadows anchors that side of the frame and when the sign moves in the wind, the shadows move as well and they tell us what is happening in the world outside.

Here’s a different kind of example:

The camera is facing directly towards the sun – easily seen in the far background.That’s direct sunlight on the floor. The reflections on the ceiling are produced by a car parked on the street behind us, bouncing through the front windows. The reflections take on the wavy characteristics of the window glass but note how little enlargement of the shadows happens. Compare with the shadows of the window panes in the photo at the top of this post. This is because the surface reflecting the sun is convex and depth of field is enhanced (see the posts on convex mirrors).

There’s not a simple formula to be derived here. In the last photo note that the reflections are on the ceiling. That implies elevation and tells us something about where we are. We know there is a world outside – we have evidence of it. We actually see what is behind us, compressing more of our world into the frame. We know we are at some height above the outside level. We know it’s morning from the color of the light. Viewers will read all this context subliminally, unaware they are absorbing it.

You can use these principles to put a basement room on the top floor of a building. You can enlarge a room, turn a country house into an urban apartment or visa versa, all to say nothing of controlling time of day, even time of year. You can add layers of complexity and meaning to environment and character and tell much of the story without a word of dialogue, but it takes a great deal of planning and attention to pre-production.


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