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Leonardo DiCaprio’s Latest Film Shot Only With Natural Light | Foolhardy or Impressive?

By Kishore Sawh on December 23rd 2015

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An expletive and an eye roll may be the kind of response when someone in the room declares themselves to be a ‘natural light’ photographer. Actually, that’s what you might hear, but what’s often felt inside is often a bit harsher, a bit more crass, a bit worse. The sentiment held by many of a technical persuasion is that one only shoots natural light if the concepts of artificial set lighting, isn’t understood – as if implementing strobes and other artificial lighting is the signature imprimaturs of a good and capable photographer. Rubbish, I say. Utter rubbish.

Of course there are are hordes of photographers for whom this is true, who shoot available light whilst hiding our Lighting 101 under their mattress, and one need only glance through Flickr to see them – but they do not define the type. Some of the work held in the highest regard by critics the world over, done by the names you’ve come to associate with legend have been shot with only available light, and once we understand that, hopefully, we can accept that there is value in the genre.

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That said, it’s not exactly easy, and part of being a creative is to create a scene that may exist only in your head until you materialize it with tools and execution. In many ways then, shooting this way is extremely difficult and perhaps why we see fewer of these especially in feature films. So it may come much to your surprise that the newest Leonardo DiCaprio flick (which is a signature imprimatur of feature films in its own right) was shot entirely with natural light. In fact, in the entirety of ‘The Revenant’, only a single scene was padded with artificial light, and that was to substitute a fire’s light that was flickering in the wind.

According to Variety, the film’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, known for his Academy Award-winning work on Gravity and Birdman, wanted to shoot the film on, well, film. It was, apparently, the draw of high ISO performance in digital that drew him away, and this is probably more of an issue because he decided to shoot natural light. Either way, even from the trailer the work looks gritty, visceral, and engrossing. It isn’t always the most beautiful, but you just kind of are unable to look away.

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I think, however, one thing should be addressed here, and that’s post processing. Shooting natural light now, doesn’t mean the final image is quite what it looked like SOOC, and that’s fine. Post processing is allowing us to shoot without as many peripheral lighting accessories at times simply because post processing allows us to bring back and hide details on a computer.

You can check out the trailer below, and even if you’ve seen it already, maybe see it again with fresh eyes and fresh appreciation.

Source: Popular Photography, Variety

About

Kishore is, among other things, the Editor-In-Chief at SLR Lounge. A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dave Haynie

    I’m a natural light fan… I can get good result with artificial light, I have decent strobes and studio lights, but I’ll take natural light (ok, with the occasional reflector) any day. The look of the film is beautiful — makes me want to see in the theater.

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  2. Wedding Photographers

    The requirements of the client need to be taken into consideration so that the end result is perfect. Be sure to explain the kind of photography you are looking for, so that they understand your point of view and provide with the kind of images you anticipated. Spending a huge sum on photography can be difficult, so do negotiate the prices before agreeing to the services of a wedding photographers.

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  3. Jason Chambers

    Wow, just wow. To me Leonardo DiCaprio has become a ridiculously great actor. I’d heard of this film but finally watched the trailer…I’ll be getting in line to see this one on the big screen. As a fan of Robert Redford’s film “Jeremiah Johnson” (a similar genre to “The Revenant”) seeing the outdoor cinematography on a huge screen will be fun.

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  4. Yadira Hdez

    Oh, what a wonderful surprise! I’ve heard about the movie but didn’t have a chance to watch the trailer yet. Now, I can’t wait to watch it! I mean, looking at that river and torch scene … simply breathtaking. I wonder if Game of Thrones has also used natural lighting in some of their episodes … ツ

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  5. Joshua parker

    i cant wait to see this. hopefully an Oscar win this time around

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  6. Kyle Farris

    Wow, that looks incredible. Very impressive that they shot this with ZERO artificial lights. I assume they’re still using reflectors and such–I think that’s acceptable since the light is still coming from the sun, moon, or fire.

    On top of that, the movie looks like it could be pretty good too.

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  7. Paul Robinson

    You just can’t beat natural light. I think it’s brilliant!

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  8. David De Fotograaf

    It looks beautiful. The whole look of the film reminds me of some Instagram filter. Weird.
    Natural light is good, it can create some spectacular highlights you can’t get with any other light source. It can add an overlay to things that can’t be achieved trough other lights.
    You just have to know when and how to use it. To many people shoot with artificial light, only to edit them with a preset in Lightroom to make it look more… natural. -_-

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    • Lauchlan Toal

      Exactly. Sometimes the ambient lighting is perfect for what you’re trying to achieve, and other times you could do better with supplementary lighting. If you understand what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter where the light comes from as long as it works. Using only artificial light is limiting, just as using only natural light is. Strobes really are challenging to use properly, so if you’re unable to make good use of them stick to what you know – the light you’ve lived with for years.

      Though if you can use strobes properly, you have way more freedom to achieve things quicker, more consistently, and with more control.

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  9. Stephen Jennings

    Umm.. that looks awesome!

    I shoot mostly natural light because.. well, it just looks more real to me. I think it gets a bad rap because beginners, novices and such don’t know it at first.. so there’s an absolute ton of horrid natural light photos out there. While lights and excessive dodge and burning comes off as polished and professional.. to me it looks fake and unrealistic. But natural light done right .. well, that’s a beautiful thing in my opinion. Like this movie.

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