How to use windows as your background without turning subjects into silhouettes!

There’s one sentence every videographer dreads hearing: “Can I stand in front of the windows?”

From a layperson’s perspective, why shouldn’t you be able to do that? The inside walls are so boring! The studio’s getting old! And we pay so much for this nice view! Why can’t you just stand in front of the windows and use the view as a backdrop?

Of course, you know what’ll happen when you try to do that: your subject will be nothing but a silhouette.

Short of spending $20,000 on a RED, is there some way you can use the windows as a backdrop?

That’s what this video is all about.

 

Transcript

So the other day, your boss came up to you and said…

“Hey, so I know we’ve been shooting my weekly address in the studio, but next week, I’d like to do it in my office.”

And you said, “Hmm, okay, we could do that.”

And he said, “And, you know, we have such a nice view from our office. I’d like to be able to see the city in the background.”

And you said, “Okay… so, in other words… you want to be standing in front of the windows?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

[Tense music sting (dun dun duuuuun)!]

Problem is, even your parents told you to never stand in front of a window when you were having your picture taken. How the heck are you supposed to pull this off?
Let’s take a step back and examine the situation. What you’re really dealing with is a whole lot of light outside, and not very much light inside.

This isn’t a problem for our eyes, which can see the darkest darks and the brightest brights. But cameras just don’t have that much of a range.

When you stand in front of a window (and your camera is in automatic), your camera is really saying, “Oh, hey, there’s a lot of light right now. I better turn down the exposure so you can see it all.” And then it unwittingly turns humans into silhouettes.

We have three ways to solve this problem: add a lot more light inside, wait until there’s less light outside, or reduce the amount of light coming in.

Now, before we do anything, we need to switch our camera to manual. The rule of thumb in videography, at least for situations like this, is to expose for your subject. And then worry about the background second.

So, option one: adding light to the inside. Here’s the thing about that: on a bright, sunny day, you’re gonna need to add a lot of light. This might work if you put a bunch of really bright lights right in front of your subject’s face. But, naturally, this might not make your subject feel especially comfortable.

Option two: wait until the light outside matches the light inside. This’ll work, but there’s one big downside: if all you’re using is a couple of LED panels, you only have about five minutes where the light matches really well. You might get closer to 20 minutes if you use a really bright light.

In any case, you could find yourself waiting around pretty late into the evening, especially in the summer.

The final option will allow you to shoot pretty much any time you want: reduce the amount of light coming into the room. There are three common ways of doing this: ND gel, ND acrylic, and scrim.

As far as I’m concerned? Scrim is the best. Just go with scrim.

I’ve tried sticking rolls of ND gel to the windows. It’s tedious. The gel doesn’t want to stick to the windows. It’s liable to get scratched. And it’s gonna be tough to get rid of all those wrinkles.

How about ND acrylic? This is a Plexiglas-like material that would, really, be perfect if it weren’t so darn expensive. Oh, and you usually have to order it in packs of five, and pay insane shipping costs.

That’s why I recommend you just go with scrim.

It’s cheap, for one. Hop over to your local fabric store and buy the finest black net you can find. I’ve found that a fabric store is usually better than buying it online because you can make sure you’re getting the right stuff.

Layer it tightly over the windows, or even right behind your subject.

Be warned that your background might turn a bit hazy, but I, personally, think this looks kind of interesting.

The biggest downside of scrim is that it doesn’t cut quite as much light as you’d want it to. And if you layer scrim on top of itself, you might get a distracting moire pattern. But if you separate the layers of scrim by a few inches, it won’t be very noticeable.

So, there you have it. It’s not perfect, but it should be enough to make your boss say…

“Wow, this turned out great! I really love this new look. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to do this every week.”

[Dun dun dunnnnn!]

Oh god. Hanging scrim and/or gel and/or putting fluorescent lights in your boss’s face every week? There must be a way to streamline this process.

That’s the topic of Part Two of this episode. To be the first to know when it’s ready, sign up for our newsletter if you haven’t already. That’s all for now. Thanks for watching!

 

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One Comment on “How to use windows as your background without turning subjects into silhouettes!

  1. I live in a corner unit condo with floor to ceiling windows throughout. And I’ve got a nice view of downtown Toronto. So I’ve been thinking I should use my windows as a background for my livestreaming, instead of my white wall. But, unfortunately, from this video it sounds like a window background wouldn’t be a good idea.

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