Lighting In The Digital Age
Back In The Day…
Because cameras, lenses and film-stocks used to have pitifully slow EI (exposure indices, ASAs, ISOs) it used to be necessary to add a lot of light to a motion picture shot just to get an exposure. Imagine those huge shots on massive sound-stages in the 1930s and 40s, of a thousand dancers moving through massive sets. The film stocks were rated at 8 and 16 ASA and a fast lens was a F4. Those pioneering cinematographers really earned their money and reputations.
One of the greatest challenges those cinematographers faced, other than just getting an image on the film, was to create a natural and pleasing look with massive amounts of light being shone onto every nook and cranny of the set.
It took real cajones for those guys to let characters move into darkness in those “film noir” masterpieces because the studios fired cameramen if the image got too dark.
When I started in the business the Kodak color film stock 5251 ISO 50 ASA Tungsten and 32 ASA Daylight with an 85 (orange for daylight) filter was the stock of choice for motion pictures. When 5254 came out and doubled those numbers it was a complete game changer for DPs. Suddenly we could shoot dusk sequences outside, we could shoot small location interiors because there was physically enough room to use small lights and get an exposure inside these small spaces.
The Modern Film & Digital Age
As cameras/film-stocks/lenses became faster and faster, we started to use less and less light. Now that we have digital cameras that have ISOs in the 20000 range, there is a MASSIVE MISCONCEPTION circulating that we don’t need lights at all any more. THIS COULDN’T BE MORE UNTRUE. This erroneous concept is lowering the standards of cinematography and movie making throughout the known universe.
I have always believed that to draw an audience into a story we must create an image that is naturalistic and doesn’t draw attention to itself by looking artificially lit. So all the lighting I do is designed to “look” like it is not lit.
But This Does Not Mean I Can Walk Into A Naturally Lit Location And Start Shooting
On very rare occasions, I can. All the stars align and I get lucky. I walk into the location, the scene happens to be blocked so all the actors end up in front of the windows and everything is just the way I want it to look. But this doesn’t happen very often.
Even though you own a fast digital camera and you are able to get an exposure, it doesn’t mean the image looks good. Unless you are going for an ugly documentary look, you need to control the lighting. You want to sculpt the actors’ face with light, you want distracting objects in the room to fall into the shadows, you want the mood of the lighting to enhance the story.
Because the latest generation of digital cameras are so fast, very often I will take light away from a scene using flags and black duvetyn cloth. In this way I will create the molding on the actors face using grip equipment instead of lights. But the whole process is still called “lighting.”
The Issue Of Ambient Light
One of the other factors which come into play with very fast cameras is “ambient light.” The old studio cameramen had to light everything that they wanted to see. If they were lighting a face, they would place a “key-light” (the brightestlight in the scene) shining at the actor. Then they would set a separate “fill light” to illuminate (to a lesser valve) the unlit side of the face. But when we are lighting at very low light levels with fast cameras it is very often unnecessary to add fill light because the “ambient light” in the location is doing this for us. This remains true even on sound stages where there are no windows. In this case the “key light” falls not only on the actor’s face but on other objects in the room. These lit objects and walls then bounce back into the set creating “ambient light.”
So how do I control the ratios between “key-light” and “fill-light’ and all the other areas in the set? That used to be the most difficult part of being a DP. It was the “black art-form” that separated the men from the boys: the ability to see lighting ratios and foresee how they would be reproduced on film. It was a test of the stamina of the most hardened DP to see what kind of a night’s sleep he could get while his film was being developed. It’s why he would get up and go to the lab at 5am to make sure he had gotten it right. Or give him enough time to come up with a story or “an artistic interpretation” of what went wrong. Or sometime getting the lab to reprint the material to compensate for any errors he might have made.
This particular skillset is now obsolete. My prerequisite for digital photography is a production monitor and a wave-form. The monitor must set to default setting, and you must have a strong signal on the waveform and feed it a REC709 signal even if you are shooting in Log or Raw. Given that, if the image looks good, you don’t have to pre-visualize anything. WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET.
But don’t get me wrong, these tools won’t make you a great DP. You need: experience, good taste, visual imagination, the ability to tell stories with pictures, a thorough and complete knowledge of lighting and grip work, an innate sense of timing, an intuitive grasp of spatial relationships, and most important of all, the ability to PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS.
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