How Do I Film At Night?


How Do I Film at Night?

Filming at night is a skill in itself, if you want to achieve good results in often demanding conditions you need to be prepared ahead of time and carry the right tools for the job.

Night shoots can certainly add a real sense of ambience to what you’re shooting, are often integral to the story and with the right lighting, you can bring your scene to life vividly.

Here, we look into some equipment to help you shoot effectively at night, including camera, lenses, lighting and specialist full spectrum and infrared recording.

What are the Challenges of Night Filming?

The first, most obvious challenge is a lack of light.

If you don’t have the luxury of big lighting rigs, how do you ensure your images still look crisp and properly exposed?

  • Aim to create pools rather than blankets of light, to maintain a more natural, realistic appearance.
  • Shoot at a wide aperture, because the wider the iris, the more light will come into lens, capturing more light and detail.  Shooting at wide open apertures help capture as much light as available but it does reduce the depth of field, often you will see subjects go in and out of focus when it’s darker.
  • Shoot at a higher ISO, but don’t set it too high, or you risk having noisy, muddy images.
  • Control your ISO/Gain, because the more you introduce, the more you will lose colour in the scene, and adjusting it in production is not an ideal solution.
  • Use manual focus, as, in the dark, your camera’s auto-focus is likely to drift, looking for new targets to focus on.
  • If it is possible to film at either twilight or dusk, then seize the opportunity, as these times will still offer you some natural light and often help create stunning visuals.

Location is vital for night filming. Look for light sources that are already in place, such as street lighting, or storefronts. Consider things like reflections, and, if you can, take your camera to your location in advance of the shoot to experiment with ISO and wide open aperture settings.

Studio and lighting

The Right Camera

The majority of large sensor cameras now are also off the starting block more sensitive to light.  With large sensors the manufacturer can use larger pixels to collect light.  Most cameras now as a standard feature a base ISO of 800 at 0db gain which already is more sensitive to light than cameras of the past. 

We are also now seeing a growth in cameras that feature duel native ISO’s.  In a simple terms, two modes for the camera; either standard or low light mode. Operators can choose which mode suits the situation on a variety of cameras now including the RED Gemini, Sony Venice, Sony FX9 and cameras from Panasonic and ZCAM to name a few.

The Sony A7S series of cameras have been widely acclaimed known for their benefits in shooting in lowlight situations with low noise at high ISO’s.

Choosing the right camera can help capture more light before even arriving on location.

The Right Lens

As well as the right lens focal length for your shoot for filming in low light situations it’s especially important to pay close attention to the aperture of your lenses.

Prime lenses are ideal as they normally have a wider aperture than zooms, so more light on the sensor and less need to raise the ISO.  

The Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L series is a popular choice for its fast f-stop and flattering portrait focal length helping to create beautiful bokeh (out of focus background highlights).  

Sigma Cine FF primes feature a fast T1.5 stop across the 20mm to 105mm focal lengths with the 14mm and 135mm being a respective T2.

And the Canon Sumire lens set features T1.3 to T1.5 on focal lengths 20mm to 85mm whilst also providing a more vintage look. 

Zooms tend not let in as much light as primes, (a slower lens) as they are covering a wide range of focal lengths so if you must work with zooms, lenses featuring a T-stop of T2 or f1.8 is opportune.  

Angenieux’s new EZ lenses for Super35mm sensors 15-40mm and 30-90mm are both T2 and are available in PL and now EF. 

Sigma also offer zooms to complement their primes.  The Super35mm 18-35mm & 50-100mm are both T2 or f1.8 in there stills version with auto focus.

The Right Light

A choice of either lots of light to transform a night setup across a large area or subtle soft light so not to overpower the dark background.

The ARRI M-Series HMI’s boasts power and performance when you need high output over a large area.

Stella Pro 10000C LED provides a portable powerful battery-operated daylight LED if your moving through the streets and need a lightweight fixture. 

The Astera Titan Tubes 4ft and Helios 2ft tube are creative soft battery operated and app driven LED’s capable of a variety of colour and patterns as well as the standard colour temperature and dimming offering unique possibilities.

These include finding the right camera for the task and understanding infrared (IR) wavelengths.

When it comes to nature and documentary work, the standard set of tools may still not be enough.  This is when it may be important to start exploring UV, IR and Full Spectrum recording.

Lighting equipment

IR Wavelengths

The electromagnetic spectrum covers a wide range of wavelengths, including radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, ultra violet, visible and infrared light.

Infrared light is all around us, but we cannot see it. Infrared radiation is invisible to the human eye, but we can detect it as warmth on our skin.  IR radiation has its own spectrum, ranging from near infrared waves to longer, far infrared waves. Near infrared waves are the closest to visible light.

Cameras and filters have been specially developed to capture these wavelengths enabling us to see in the dark.

What is a Full Spectrum Camera?

Visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can visualise, which we see as different colours.

The eye only detects three of these wavelengths: red, green and blue. The brain combines these three signals to create millions of colours.

A video camera replicates our vision by working in a similar way. It has an opening through which light enters, a lens for focusing, and at the back is a light-sensor.

To mimic how the human eye’s cornea offers protection from harmful UV and infrared (IR) light, cameras can feature special dichroic filters to absorb or reflect UV and IR wavelengths.

A full spectrum video camera captures more light than an ordinary camera, by replacing this filter with a component that will allow UV and IR light to pass through, as well as visible light.  This makes it ideal for night filming.


Seeing in the Dark Without IR

Even in an age of advanced, dynamic IR and full spectrum cameras, there is filming equipment that can improve on these night filming capabilities.

The Canon ME20F-SH camera enables you to capture HD footage in full colour, offering significant low light capability for high quality filming at night.

This makes it ideal for specialist applications such as night filming, surveillance, filming nocturnal wildlife, cave and deep sea exploration.

The ME20F-SH has an impressive maximum ISO of over four million, at 4560000. This is an extremely sensitive camera, which can see in the dark without infrared lighting.

This acute sensitivity to low light comes from a 20 x 36mm full frame CMOS sensor, which has enough resolution to produce video at 1080p, with very large individual pixels that are 19 microns in dimension.

Each of these extra-large pixels will absorb light extremely efficiently. An advanced processor and Canon’s own noise-reduction technologies bolster this absorption capability.

The extreme low-light sensitivity results are impressive, producing very clean images at high ISO levels.  Even where noise becomes more prominent, the camera will still deliver plenty of image detail and colour.

Another advantage is that the camera will shoot just as well in daylight, with two built-in neutral density filters and a removable IR filter. This blocks unwanted infrared light in the daytime, preventing IR pollution.

There are a range of steps and solutions you can take when shooting at night.  Preparing in advance, researching location and using the correct equipment will all help you tell the story.