How to Shoot Great Exteriors

Shooting exteriors can be tricky because sunlight is constantly changing, and it can be difficult to control the light falling onto your scene if you aren't prepared. It would be nice to have access to a grip truck with shiny boards, silks, butterflies, and HMI’s, but you won't always have the budget to afford them. However, even without a wide array of lighting control accessories, you can still capture some great exteriors with a few basic tips:

  1. Always know where the sun is and where it's going to be throughout the day.  This will require extensive location scouting, ideally at the same time you plan to shoot. Smartphone apps like Helios, Sun Seeker, and Sun Surveyor can help you track the sun's position at any point during the day, and will also include sunrise and sunset times (Also check out the 50+ best apps for sun position). Shooting in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky is ideal for exteriors. Conversely, shooting at mid-day when the sun is at its highest will produce unwanted shadows and contrast on your subject.
  2. Invest in Lens Filters. Filters are great additions to your camera package and give you a little more control over the way your exteriors look. Definite must-haves, in my opinion, are a circular polarizer filter, an ND filter, and a graduated ND filter. Polarizers are beneficial by...
  • Increasing the saturation of blue skies. You’ve probably seen video footage shot outdoors where the sky looks gray or even white. Adding a polarizer to your lens will block out the haziness of the sky and will intensify the blues, giving the sky a rich, natural look. You can rotate the polarizer to adjust the intesity of the color. This also works on cloudy days to preserve some of the details in the clouds.
  • Reducing glare. If you’re on location at a lake, river, or ocean, a polarizer will cut down on the amount of sunlight that's reflecting off the water, reducing intense highlights within the scene.
  • Eliminating reflection. If you’re shooting through a window, or a car windshield, a polarizer will reduce reflection off the glass, allowing you to see through the window.

3. Use Reflectors. Even if you can’t purchase large shiny boards or flex fills, sturdy foam core will do the trick. You can use the boards to reflect sunlight back toward your subject. And to demonstrate the incredible ways in which you can control sunlight with reflectors, watch the following video on how you can use multiple reflectors to bring light into a cave.   

Take a location that's been well-scouted, add in a shoot that's been scheduled for the right time of day, mix in some well-placed reflectors, and sprinkle with lens filters and you will walk away with fantastic exterior footage, regardless of what the sun is doing.

As always, leave your tips in the Comments section below.