On my second micro-budget feature film – Frettin’ – I tackled a technique I had never tried before: day-for-night shooting. With the low light capability of the latest DSLR cameras (like the Sony A7), you CAN shoot at night with minimal light. But, if you don’t want the inconvenience of a night time shoot, or you don’t have the latest low-light camera, day-for-night could be the way to go.
I’m not a trained lighting cameraman, just a micro-budget filmmaker who does what he can with the camera to tell my stories. So, on my second micro-budget feature Frettin’, I researched day-for-night techniques and then shot those ‘night’ scenes in the day on a Canon 60D. Here are some tips for getting convincing day-for-night set-ups:
1. On the camera settings dial the colour temperature to the lowest Kelvin setting (around 2500). This will give you an instant blue hue straight out of the camera. Less post-production grading means less opportunity for the picture to start falling apart at the edit stage.
2. As we can’t change the shutter (this must be at 50 degrees to give us that slightly blurred film look) use a variable neutral density filter to cut out more daylight. Remember, we’re trying to mimic how we would shoot at night: so that means aperture wide open (or close to wide open), hence a shallow depth of field. The variable ND filter helps us to get there.
3. Underexpose by a couple of stops – make the shadows darker. Don’t just expose normally and then think you can crush the blacks in post-production. Best to darken the image in-camera so your images don’t break apart in the edit. I guess this applies to those shooting 1080p. If you’re shooting 4K RAW, you can push the image further in post. But, how many micro-budget filmmakers are shooting 4K RAW right now? I had to get my head around this fact: YOU HAVE TO LOSE SOME DETAILS IN THE SHADOWS if you want the night-time effect. I had to tame the perfectionist in me. So, you might as well bite the bullet and lose some shadow detail right there and then while you’re on location shooting. Perfectionism? Pah. Let it go, let it go! Unless you’re an owl or Riddick, you’re not going to see all the shadow detail; a glimpse of detail, yes, maybe a glint in the eye, but you need to let shadows be shadows.
4. This next one is counter-intuitive, but it can work: the sun is your friend! Shoot with the sun on your actor’s face. When the shot is graded, the sunlight highlights can look fantastic, like subdued moonlight. If you shoot in the shade, the final graded shot can look flat and muddy, with no ‘moonlight’ highlights. It sounds counter-intuitive, but shooting day-for-night in the sun can work wonders.
A variant on this is to shoot under some foliage, like tree canopies, so you have a dappled light source – some highlights, some shadows. This can work out really well. What doesn’t work is NO sunlight at all. When a shot with NO direct sunlight is graded, it can look muddy and flat.
One last point on shooting day-for-night and using the sun as your friend – block your action so the sun is behind your actors, so they have a back light. This back light will help separate them from the background. Back lighting is key for any kind of shooting, and can particularly help in day-for-night shooting.
Final word on using the sun as a light source – as with normal daytime photography, shooting at midday with the sun right overhead will not produce great results. Shooting close to the golden hours could also help you to sell the day-for-night gag better, too.
5. Most birds don’t fly at night, so be very careful when you’re framing shots with the sky in the background.
6. Add a practical light source within the frame to sell the gag – car headlights, a house light, a candle. Be wary of getting passing cars or streetlamps in shot, too. In reality, at night, they would emit an artificial light source.
7. Finally, add post production grading. Crush the blacks even more with your exposure control. Add more blue hue with the colour wheel to supplement the blue colour cast you’ve already got by dialing down the Kelvin setting. De-saturate the colours. If you need extra help, the artificial graduated filter vignettes can help darken areas where there’s too much sunlight spill, or where you have a lot of sky that’s not selling the effect.
8. Oh, and a second ‘finally’ – in the edit, sell the scene with your audio: night time ambiance (city nightclub/owl in rural areas etc).
9. Oh, oh. A third ‘finally’ – sometimes, you just have to accept that you can’t fake a day-for-night sequence. On my third feature, Slasher, I wanted to shoot my main character following some other actors around a town at night, and also inside a moving car at night. The street lights, the shop windows, the passing cars would ALL have light sources (window displays/headlights etc). In this instance, the audience would see the deception, as no practical light sources would be in the frame. In this instance, I had to actually shoot at night; I used my fastest lens, portable lighting and a camera that gives good results in low light conditions.
10. Oh, oh, oh. A fourth finally – don’t trust your editing set-up’s computer monitor. Export the day-for-night scene and see how it plays on a TV screen. And also please do this – export and see how it plays on a tablet and laptop screen. There can be a huge disparity between how day-for-night scenes play on different playback devices. You have to grade the final scene for the weakest link in the ‘viewing chain’; in my experience, a tablet screen. You have to think: where will my film most likely be viewed?
In conclusion, you can successfully shoot day-for-night on a 1080p DSLR camera for about a tenner – the price of a cheap variable neutral density filter. It worked for me on my second feature film Frettin’, and it could work on your project, too.
The trailer for Lee’s second feature film Frettin’, where these day-for-night techniques were employed, can be found here.