I recently picked up a copy of 'Masters of Light' (1984), a collection of interviews with famed 70s and 80s cinematographers compiled by Larry Salvato and Dennis Schaefer. Many of these great cameramen came from documentary backgrounds, and preferred shooting with little to no artificial light. Here are the biggest tips I picked up from their conversations.
Location: choose locations that light themselves, even if you are planning on having some artificial light to complement the location. This means looking at floor space for the scene to play out and crew to move around, as well as windows (if any) and fixtures that can be switched out such as overhead lights. Colour temperature is important as well - does the space give off a cooler or warmer hue?
Practicals: (i.e. light sources that are in the frame) are very useful. These could include bedroom lamps, a fireplace, corridor lights or anything that is already in the space that you could either use as a reference for light direction, or switch out to change the hue or strength.
Reflectors: more often than not, you can get away with minimal lighting if you remember to bring along reflective surfaces that can create a fill light or eliminate a shadow. These are extremely useful to create depth in your composition, as amateur films are often spotted a mile away with very flat lighting and unwanted shadows.
Blue Hour and Magic Hour: Blue Hour is the short window of time after the sun goes down (or before it comes up) where the sky is still colorful, but the sun is not visible. And Magic Hour of course, is the hour leading up to sunset or just after sunrise. Terrence Malick’s movies, for example, are almost exclusively shot during these hours with no supplemental lighting.
Contrast: one of the most important aspects of a composition is balance. Moving objects around in the frame and adding/subtracting small elements of a set can make a huge difference in terms of adding colour to a shot, or vice versa. These can help play off elements of a frame that are too present or not present enough, such as a painted wall or an actor’s costume.
The Godfather look: contrary to popular belief, Gordon Willis did not under-light the Godfather movies in their famous ‘silhouette’ scenes. Instead, he lit subjects using practicals and his usual setup, but under-exposed his film slightly to give an illusion of darkness and silhouette. This means he retained contrast between the subject and his environment, but also made it look darker than it actually was.