Natural Light: A Filmmakers Most Unpredictable Tool

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Kubrick filming Barry Lyndon(1975)

Anyone who has been behind a camera knows how difficult it can be to get the perfect lighting for a shot. To get light there are two options, natural light and artificial light. Artificial light would mean bringing in lighting equipment to highlight the subject, possibly using bounce boards of some sort to direct the light. Natural light is basically using the sun, moon, or fire to light a shot. The latter is most definitely the tougher option. Weather can be harsh and unpredictable; even something as simple as a cloud in the way can change the lighting entirely. The cameras have to be able to let in a large amount of light to compensate as well, which can push costs higher, not to mention the cost that patience brings. Time is money and using natural light takes a bit more time and planning but when done right, it produces images more pure than anything Hollywood can recreate.

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Wild(2014) is a film based on a memoir of the same name by Cheryl Strayed. A woman falters from her true self after the death of her mother and decides to hike a thousand miles on the Pacific Coast Trail to find herself again. A gorgeous tale that is a love story between a mother and daughter and how the bond remains strong, if not stronger, after death. Starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl and Laura Dern as her mother. The director (Jean-Marc Vallée) and director of photography (Yves Belanger) had the idea to do a film in mostly natural light since working together on Dallas Buyers Club in 2013 but couldn’t carry it out fully for lack of budget. A year later they got together for Wild, and with a bigger budget and a very outdoor scene heavy story that almost screamed for natural light use they took another shot at it. According to the DP, 95 percent of the light in the film was natural, no bounce boards or silk either. In a film about hiking, in order to get the right shots, the crew had to hike as well. There was some difficulty with over exposure in the snow scenes but they found that it was fine to let the faces go a little dark and fix them in post but leave some of that brightness for realism.

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The Tree of Life(2011)

When seeing a Terrence Malik film, you know that there is going to be some dense, visual material with endings you may or may not have to google later to fully understand. In his film The Tree of Life(2011) he tells the story of Jack from his childhood to adulthood as he tries to grasp the meaning of life. He paired up with Emmanuel Lubezki, a cinematographer twice on this list which just shows his experience and talent in harnessing the powers of nature for cinematic gain. “We used real light, and the sun, wind and rain and other elements that came our way became part of the story.” Lubezki spoke on the reasoning. ”A very important theme in the movie is the constant passing of things, the changes and flow that are part of life. By not imposing yourself on nature, you are able to catch these very fleeting, ephemeral moments. That theme had a parallel in our approach to the filmmaking.” The movie was also shot on film rather than digital, and used a clip of an eclipse that Malik had been saving for twenty-five years just for The Tree of Life.

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Barry Lyndon(1975)

Whenever you mention natural light on film, and especially candle lit scenes, Barry Lyndon will most likely come up. A Stanley Kubrick masterpiece from 1975, an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”. The goal was to use as much natural lighting as possible to give off an authentic feel of the time period. The story follows a young Irishman and his trials and tribulations in the Victorian era. All of the sets and locations were found, nothing built. This proved difficult as most of the locations found were open to the public and shooting was forced to maneuver around them. All of the light was of course meant to look natural but when actual natural light wasn’t used they stuck to mini brutes and Lowel lights to recreate what they couldn’t harness. The most talked about scenes of the film are the ones done in all candlelight, a goal that Kubrick had for quite some time as told by his DP, John Alcott; “Stanley Kubrick and I had been discussing this possibility for years, but had not been able to find sufficiently fast lenses to do it. Stanley finally discovered three 50mm t/0.7 Zeiss still-camera lenses which were left over from a batch made for use by NASA in their Apollo moon-landing program.” There is a conspiracy that Kubrick had actually secretly filmed the moon landing and was given the lenses as a reward but that’s a story for another article.

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The Revenant(2015)

The Revenant, aka the film that finally got Leonardo Dicaprio the Oscar he has deserved since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (in my humbly correct opinion), is based on the true story of Hugh Glass who was left stranded in the winter forest after his group was attacked. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off their Oscar winning film Birdman the two decided to tackle a naturally lit film. It would be an easier challenge for lbezki who had done the work on The Tree of Life previously. The film was shot in Canada and Argentina in difficult snowy weather conditions that were essential to the film’s winter survival story. “The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening.” The only outside light used was for a campfire scene where the flames were giving off a pulsing effect, they had to cushion the light with light bulbs around the fire. Like Wild, the landscape of the shooting locations proved more physically demanding as opposed to a classic film set.





ASC. “Flashback: Barry Lyndon.” An International Publication of the ASC, The American Society of Cinematographers, 26 May 2018,

“Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC / The Tree of Life.” British Cinematographer, 15 Aug. 2017,

Gonzalez Inarritu, Alejandro, director. The Revenant. 20th Century Fox, 2015.

Kubrick, Stanley, director. Barry Lyndon. Hawk Films, 1975.

Malick, Terrence, director. The Tree of Life. River Road Entertainment, 2011.

Riley, Jenelle. “’Revenant’ Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Used Only Natural Light.” Variety, 16 Dec. 2015,

Vallee, Jean-Marc, director. Wild. Pacific Standard, 2014.



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