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.
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.
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.