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How to Shoot Interior Locations with Limited Lighting

Lewis McGregor

Do you need to shoot an interior location without any lighting equipment? No problem. Here’s how you pull it off.

Filming an interior location without lighting equipment is a difficult task. This is a common challenge for for low- or no-budget productions. (Or rogue filmmakers without permission to shoot — come on, we’ve all done it.) Let’s have a look at how you can make the most of your interior location, and walk away with great looking images.

Know Your Limits

First and foremost, you have to acknowledge that you won’t be able to finish the day with shots that look like the work of a twenty-person crew. It’s undoable, and you will only set yourself up for disappointment if you aim to pull off a shot like the still below.

How to Shoot Interior Locations Without Film Lighting — Hannibal
Image via NBC.

Acknowledge that you have no lighting and lighting accessories, and work within those confines. More importantly, keep a visual reference guide of films that have opted for a more natural approach to lighting. While this style of cinematography is prevalent in campaigns and short films on Vimeo, you can also find inspiration in feature films. For example, take note of the stills below from Arrival, photographed by Bradford Young.

How to Shoot Interior Locations Without Film Lighting — Arrival

While I cannot completely confirm that these shots were photographed with only available and practical light, judging from the behind-the-scenes featurette, it’s more than likely.

How to Shoot Interior Locations Without Film Lighting — Arrival Lighting

Go Low Contrast

We’ve covered the concept of tonal contrast before. Now it’s time to deploy that knowledge. If we convert the Arrival still into a grayscale image and then measure the tonal values, you can see that the range is quite limited.

How to Shoot Interior Locations Without Film Lighting — Low Contrast

Keeping in mind what you can and cannot pull off without lighting equipment, capturing a high-contrast image will be complicated. Without grip gear, it’s going to be difficult dropping areas into complete darkness, and without lights, it’s going to be hard to illuminate your subject brightly.

Window Lighting

Windows are going to play a crucial role in lighting your interior location, especially if you’re shooting during the day. A common way to get good results is to shoot facing away from the window and position your actors in the spill of the natural light. (Diffuse the window with netting if you need to.) This produces a soft, natural light, which is suitable for most projects in any location.

How to Shoot Interior Locations Without Film Lighting — Window Lighting

However, what if you exposed for the exterior instead, leaving your subject silhouetted in the window? This won’t work well if you’re filming during standard daylight (unless that’s the look you want), but if you adjust your filming schedule for blue hour or golden hour, you get beautiful colors and soft light to work with.

How to Shoot Interior Locations Without Film Lighting — Blue Hour
Image via Salomon Lightelm.

The one drawback to this approach is that its uses are somewhat restricted. While I imagine the audience would be okay with transitional moments or scenes of reflective thought and short conversations, dialogue-heavy scenes may be too dreary get through when you can barely make out the actor’s facial features.

Don’t Use All The Practicals

If your location is a hotel room, you’ll likely have an abundance of different practical lights at your disposal. Hotel rooms often have various wall lamps with independent controls, ceiling lights divided into two areas, and table or bedside lamps. That’s a lot of practical lighting to work with.

How to Shoot Interior Locations Without Film Lighting — Practical Lighting

However, instead of turning on several of the lights to fully illuminate the room, situate your talent near just one practical light source and work with a low-key setup. There are two reasons for this. First, it correlates with working with low contrast. A single lamp isn’t going to brighten every inch of the room, but it will illuminate objects nearby, and the light falloff will travel across the room, slightly bringing the shadows away from complete darkness.  To some extent, using the example still above, it mimics what the light is doing in the Arrival still.

Secondly, by using just one practical light, you create compositional space and prevent the scene from looking flat. Paradoxically, you usually achieve this with extra lights, not without them. But we don’t have a fresnel to use as a rim light, nor an additional lamp to place on the shelf behind. If we were to switch all lights on, while it would fully illuminate the room, the composition would become very flat.

Minimize Grading

All these tips restrict the ability to manipulate the color of your image. Low contrast and a lack of light will likely result in a desaturated color pallet. You’re just not going to be able to work with an abundance of color data. Therefore, put on your Roger Deakins cap, and try to capture the colors you want in-camera.

Use your white balance to warm or cool the shot, rather than relying on the process in the edit suite, as the image may break down. Of course, this is entirely dependent on the camera system you are using. An 8-bit DSLR image will struggle when trying to isolate and manipulate dark and desaturated areas.

Filming an interior location without any lighting equipment is not a situation many filmmakers want to find themselves in, but by using your disadvantage as a creative motivator, you can capture some unique shots.

Looking for more on lighting? Check out these resources:

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