12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

I joined this social media platform last summer, after hearing DP Ed Moore say in an interview that his Instagram feed helps him get work. I can’t say that’s happened for me yet, but an attractive Instagram feed can’t do any creative freelancer any harm. And for photographers and cinematographers, it’s a great way to practice our skills.

The tips below are primarily aimed at people who are using a phone camera to take their pictures, but many of them will apply to all types of photography.

The particular challenge with Instagram images is that they’re usually viewed on a phone screen; they’re small, so they have to be easy for the brain to decipher. That means reducing clutter, keeping things bold and simple.

Here are twelve tips for putting this philosophy into practice. The examples are all taken from my own feed, and were taken with an iPhone 5, almost always using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode to get the best tonal range.

 

1. choose your background carefully

The biggest challenge I find in taking snaps with my phone is the huge depth of field. This makes it critical to have a suitable, non-distracting background, because it can’t be thrown out of focus. In the pub photo below, I chose to shoot against the blank pillar rather than against the racks of drinks behind the bar, so that the beer and lens mug would stand out clearly. For the Lego photo, I moved the model away from a messy table covered in multi-coloured blocks to use a red-only tray as a background instead.

 

2. Find Frames within frames

The Instagram filters all have a frame option which can be activated to give your image a white border, or a fake 35mm negative surround, and so on. An improvement on this is to compose your image so that it has a built-in frame. (I discussed frames within frames in a number of my recent posts on composition.)

 

3. try symmetrical composition

To my eye, the square aspect ratio of Instagram is not wide enough for The Rule of Thirds to be useful in most cases. Instead, I find the most arresting compositions are central, symmetrical ones.

 

4. Consider Shooting flat on

In cinematography, an impression of depth is usually desirable, but in a little Instagram image I find that two-dimensionality can sometimes work better. Such photos take on a graphical quality, like icons, which I find really interesting. The key thing is that 2D pictures are easier for your brain to interpret when they’re small, or when they’re flashing past as you scroll.

 

5. Look for shapes

Finding common shapes in a structure or natural environment can be a good way to make your photo catch the eye. In these examples I spotted an ‘S’ shape in the clouds and footpath, and an ‘A’ shape in the architecture.

 

6. Look for textures

Textures can add interest to your image. Remember the golden rule of avoiding clutter though. Often textures will look best if they’re very bold, like the branches of the tree against the misty sky here, or if they’re very close-up, like this cathedral door.

 

7. Shoot into the light

Most of you will not be lighting your Instagram pics artificially, so you need to be aware of the existing light falling on your subject. Often the strongest look is achieved by shooting towards the light. In certain situations this can create interesting silhouettes, but often there are enough reflective surfaces around to fill in the shadows so you can get the beauty of the backlight and still see the detail in your subject. You definitely need to be in HDR mode for this.

 

8. Look for interesting light

It’s also worth looking out for interesting light which may make a dull subject into something worth capturing. Nature provides interesting light every day at sunrise and sunset, so these are good times to keep an eye out for photo ops.

 

9. Use lens flare for interest

Photographers have been using lens flare to add an extra something to their pictures for decades, and certain science fiction movies have also been known to use (ahem) one or two. To avoid a flare being too overpowering, position your camera so as to hide part of the sun behind a foreground object. To get that anamorphic cinema look, wipe your finger vertically across your camera lens. The natural oils on your skin will cause a flare at 90° to the direction you wiped in. (Best not try this with that rented set of Master Primes though.)

 

10. Control your palette

Nothing gives an image a sense of unity and professionalism as quickly as a controlled colour palette. You can do this in-camera, like I did below by choosing the purple cushion to photograph the book on, or by adjusting the saturation and colour cast in the Photos app, as I did with the Canary Wharf image. For another example, see the Lego shot under point 3.

 

11. Wait for the right moment

Any good photographer knows that patience is a virtue. Waiting for pedestrians or vehicles to reach just the right spot in your composition before tapping the shutter can make the difference between a bold, eye-catching photo and a cluttered mess. In the below examples, I waited until the pedestrians (left) and the rowing boat and swans (right) were best placed against the background for contrast and composition before taking the shot.

 

12. Quality control

One final thing to consider: is the photo you’ve just taken worthy of your Instagram profile, or is it going to drag down the quality of your feed? If it’s not good, maybe you should keep it to yourself.

Check out my Instagram feed to see if you think I’ve broken this rule!

12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

9 Fun Photic Facts from a 70-year-old Book

Shortly before Christmas, while browsing the secondhand books in the corner of an obscure Herefordshire garden centre, I came across a small blue hardback called The Tricks of Light and Colour by Herbert McKay. Published in 1947, the book covered almost every aspect of light you could think of, from the inverse square law to camouflage and optical illusions. What self-respecting bibliophile cinematographer could pass that up?

Here are some quite-interesting things about light which the book describes…

  

1. SPHERES ARE THE KEY to understandING the inverse square law.

Any cinematographer worth their salt will know that doubling a subject’s distance from a lamp will quarter their brightness; tripling their distance will cut their brightness to a ninth; and so on.  This, of course, is the inverse square law. If you struggle to visualise this law and why it works the way it does, The Tricks of Light and Colour offers a good explanation.

[Think] of light being radiated from… a mere point. Light and heat are radiated in straight lines and in all directions [from this point]. At a distance of one foot from the glowing centre the whole quantity of light and heat is spread out over the surface of a sphere with a radius of one foot. At a distance of two feet from the centre it is spread over the surface of a sphere of radius two feet. Now to find an area we multiply two lengths; in the case of a sphere both lengths are the radius of the sphere. As both lengths are doubled the area is four times as great… We have the same amounts of light and heat spread over a sphere four times as great, and so the illumination and heating effect are reduced to a quarter as great.

 

2. MIRAGES ARE DUE TO Total internal reflection.

This is one of the things I dimly remember being taught in school, which this book has considerably refreshed me on. When light travels from one transparent substance to another, less dense, transparent substance, it bends towards the surface. This is called refraction, and it’s the reason that, for example, streams look shallower than they really are, when viewed from the bank. If the first substance is very dense, or the light ray is approaching the surface at a glancing angle, the ray might not escape at all, instead bouncing back down. This is called total internal reflection, and it’s the science behind mirages.

The heated sand heats the air above it, and so we get an inversion of the density gradient: low density along the heated surface, higher density in the cooler air above. Light rays are turned down, and then up, so that the scorched and weary traveller sees an image of the sky, and the images looks like a pool of cool water on the face of the desert.

 

3. Pinhole images pop up in unexpected places.

Most of us have made a pinhole camera at some point in our childhood, creating an upside-down image on a tissue paper screen by admitting light rays through a tiny opening. Make the opening bigger and the image becomes a blur, unless you have a lens to focus the light, as in a “proper” camera or indeed our eyes. But the pinhole imaging effect can occur naturally too. I’ve sometimes lain in bed in the morning, watching images of passing traffic or flapping laundry on a line projected onto my bedroom ceiling through the little gap where the curtains meet at the top. McKay describes another example:

One of the prettiest examples of the effect may be seen under trees when the sun shines brightly. The ground beneath a tree may be dappled with circles of light, some of them quite bright… When we look up through the leaves towards the sun we may see the origin of the circles of light. We can see points of light where the sun shines through small gaps between the leaves. Each of these gaps acts in the same way as a pinhole: it lets through rays from the sun which produce an image of the sun on the ground below.

 

4. The sun isn’t a point source.

“Shadows are exciting,” McKay enthuses as he opens chapter VI. They certainly are to a cinematographer. And this cinematographer was excited to learn something about the sun and its shadow which is really quite obvious, but I had never considered before.

Look at the shadow of a wall. Near the base, where the shadow begins, the edge of the shadow is straight and sharp… Farther out, the edge of the shadow gets more and more fuzzy… The reason lies of course in the great sun itself. The sun is not a mere point of light, but a globe of considerable angular width.

The accompanying illustration shows how you would see all, part or none of the sun if you stood in a slightly different position relative to the hypothetical wall. The area where none of the sun is visible is of course in full shadow (umbra), and the area where the sun is partially visible is the fuzzy penumbra (the “almost shadow”).

  

5. Gravity bends LIGHT.

Einstein hypothesised that gravity could bend light rays, and observations during solar eclipses proved him right. Stars near to the eclipsed sun were seen to be slightly out of place, due to the huge gravitational attraction of the sun.

The effect is very small; it is too small to be observed when the rays pass a comparatively small body like the moon. We need a body like the sun, at whose surface gravity is 160 or 170 times as great as at the surface of the moon, to give an observable deviation…. The amount of shift depends on the apparent nearness of a star to the sun, that is, the closeness with which the rays of light from the star graze the sun. The effect of gravity fades out rapidly, according to the inverse square law, so that it is only near the sun that the effects can be observed.

 

6. Light helped us discover helium.

Sodium street-lamps are not the most pleasant of sources, because hot sodium vapour emits light in only two wave-lengths, rather than a continuous spectrum. Interestingly, cooler sodium vapour absorbs the same two wave-lengths. The same is true of other elements: they  emit certain wave-lengths when very hot, and absorb the same wave-lengths when less hot. This little bit of science led to a major discovery.

The sun is an extremely hot body surrounded by an atmosphere of less highly heated vapours. White light from the sun’s surfaces passes through these heated vapours before it reaches us; many wave-lengths are absorbed by the sun’s atmosphere, and there is a dark line in the spectrum for each wave-length that has been absorbed. The thrilling thing is that these dark lines tell us which elements are present in the sun’s atmosphere. It turned out that the lines in the sun’s spectrum represented elements already known on the earth, except for one small group of lines which were ascribed to a hitherto undetected element. This element was called helium (from helios, the sun).

 

7. Moonlight is slightly too dim for colours.

Our retinas are populated by two different types of photoreceptors: rods and cones. Rods are much more sensitive than cones, and enable us to see in very dim light once they’ve had some time to adjust. But rods cannot see colours. This is why our vision is almost monochrome in dark conditions, even under the light of a full moon… though only just…

The light of the full moon is just about the threshold, as we say, of colour vision; a little lighter and we should see colours.

 

8. MAGIC HOUR can be longer than an hour.

We cinematographers often think of magic “hour” as being much shorter than an hour. When prepping for a dusk-for-night scene on The Little Mermaid, I used my light meter to measure the length of shootable twilight. The result was 20 minutes; after that, the light was too dim for our Alexas at 800 ISO and our Cooke S4 glass at T2. But how long after sunset is it until there is literally no light left from the sun, regardless of how sensitive your camera is? McKay has this to say…

Twilight is partly explained as an effect of diffusion. When the sun is below the horizon it still illuminates particles of dust and moisture in the air. Some of the scattered light is thrown down to the earth’s surface… Twilight ends when the sun is 17° or 18° below the horizon. At the equator [for example] the sun sinks vertically at the equinoxes, 15° per hour; so it sinks 17° in 1 hour 8 minutes.

 

9. Why isn’t Green a primary colour in paint?

And finally, the answer to something that bugged me during my childhood. When I was a small child, daubing crude paintings of stick figures under cheerful suns, I was taught that the primary colours are red, blue and yellow. Later I learnt that the true primary colours, the additive colours of light, are red, blue and green. So why is it that green, a colour that cannot be created by mixing two other colours of light, can be created by mixing blue and yellow paints?

When white light falls on a blue pigment, the pigment absorbs reds and yellows; it reflects blue and also some green. A yellow pigment absorbs blue and violet; it reflects yellow, and also some red and green which are the colours nearest to it in the spectrum. When the two pigments are mixed it may be seen that all the colours are absorbed by one or other of the components except green.

 

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of The Tricks of Light and Colour yourself, there is one on Amazon at the time of writing, but it will set you back £35. Note that Herbert McKay is not to be confused with Herbert C. McKay, an American author who was writing books about stereoscopic photography at around the same time.

9 Fun Photic Facts from a 70-year-old Book

24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

img_1220Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.

  • Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.

Getting Work

  • You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
  • Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
  • Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)

Prep

  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
  • Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
  • Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
  • Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)

Equipment

  • On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
  • Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
  • Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
  • Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
  • Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.

On Set

  • You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
  • Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
  • On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
  • Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.

Lighting

  • Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
  • Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
  • Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
  • Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
  • Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
  • It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

4 Reasons to Use a Light Meter

lightmeterIn the celluloid era, light meters were essential to ensure proper exposure of the film negative. In today’s digital world, where you can immediately see your images on a monitor, it may seem like light meters are obsolete.

But these devices still have their place in modern cinematography. On a bigger production, when you may not be at the camera the whole time, they can be very useful. Interrupting your ACs (as they set up the sticks, swing the lens, put on the eyepiece extension, balance the fluid head, run cables to the monitors, etc.) in order to see if your image is correctly exposed on camera can be inefficient.

And having the reliable, hard number a light meter gives you can be more reassuring than judging false colours or histograms.

Here are four ways in which I used my brand new light meter on my last production, The Little Mermaid:

  1. To call ND filters. When shooting outdoors, I would take light readings in the sun and in the shade, and when then the sun was in, to understand the range of light levels I was dealing with. I could then pick an ND filter that would put me at a stop at where I would still have the room to adjust the iris a little either way if the light got brighter or darker. This was particularly important when we were shooting on water in a splash bag, when changing NDs or even just adjusting the iris was a longer process. (In my next post I’ll look deeper into stop maths and ND filters to demonstrate exactly how to select an ND filter based on a light reading.)
  2. To measure contrast ratios. The Alexa can handle up to seven stops of over-exposure and eight stops of under-exposure. Knowing this, I could use my meter to see if certain areas were going to blow out or crush, before the camera was even set up. I could also measure how many stops the key side of an actor’s face was above the fill side, and thus work out the key-to-fill ratio. At present this is still something I judge by eye on the monitor, but the more I get to know the numbers, the more I suspect I will start determining it in advance.
  3. To check green-screens are properly lit. The visual effects supervisor, Jafar, told me that green-screens should be exposed at key, or up to half a stop over key. So if I was shooting at T4, I would walk along the green-screen and take readings at various points to make sure the meter was generally giving me between f4 and f4½.
  4. To schedule a dusk shot. For a twilight scene on a beach, I needed to know in advance exactly what our window of opportunity was. Looking up the sunset time is all well and good, but it doesn’t help you figure out how long afterwards there will be enough ambient light left to shoot with. So while at location the day before, I went out onto the beach and took light readings every few minutes after sundown. These told me I had 20 minutes from sunset until the ambient light dropped below what the lenses could expose.

Do you use a light meter? And if so, how?

4 Reasons to Use a Light Meter

10 Things to Look for in a Schedule

scheduleThe director of photography is one of the crew members who has the greatest influence over the pace of a shoot. How long you take to light each set-up has a huge impact on how much gets done in a day. So it’s only natural that you are usually consulted on the shooting schedule during preproduction. More often than not, your pleas for more shooting days will be ignored because there simply isn’t the money. Nonetheless, it’s your duty to feedback on the schedule, and if you can be specific about your concerns then you may occasionally succeed in getting tweaks made. And if not, at least you can say, “I told you so.”

Here are some things I’m looking for when I assess a schedule.

  1. Length of shoot. Are there enough days? Is there a second unit to mop up up anything you drop, or do you have to cover everything on every day yourself?
  2. Turnarounds. Is there a full day of daylight exterior immediately after a night shoot, for example?
  3. Night scenes scheduled during daylight hours. Is the AD expecting you to black out windows, or is this a mistake? I hate blacking out windows; it robs the visuals of depth.
  4. Stunts, VFX, make-up gags etc. Has the AD factored in the extra set-up time that comes with these things? Again, if there’s a second unit for this stuff then it may not affect you.
  5. Nightmare shots. Has adequate time been allowed for any special, fancy shots that might take longer than usual to set up?
  6. Location moves. Are there any location moves during the day, even just between rooms in the same house? Has time been allowed for these moves? Has extra time been allowed for the first scene in each location, to allow it to be lit properly? This may be less of an issue if you have a pre-rig crew.
  7. Easing into it. Does the shoot start off a little easier to give the crew time to get into the swing of things?
  8. Movie star shots. Are there any big heroic or romantic moments late in the schedule? Towards the end of the shoot, everyone will be tired, and this will show on the actors’ faces. Try to have key close-ups brought forward in the schedule, or warn the AD that lighting and make-up will take longer than normal.
  9. Seasonal variations. On long shoots, there may be noticeable changes in season (trees in leaf/not in leaf, for examples) during production, and the available hours of daylight may change. Has this been taken into consideration?
  10. Cover sets. Has the AD got contingency plans if the weather is bad?

A good 1st AD should have thought of most if not all of these things, but it never hurts to check them out yourself.

Want to learn more about scheduling? Check out my posts on scheduling my feature film Soul Searcher and my short film Stop/Eject.

production-schedule

10 Things to Look for in a Schedule

10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

My camera and lighting crew for last year's feature
My camera and lighting crew for last year’s feature

I’ve been working in the film business for 16 years now, but until very recently I hadn’t really worked on a ‘proper’ production, one that had a budget above five figures. Here are some differences I noticed stepping up from micro-budget to low budget…

  1. Formal crew structure. There is a proper separation between departments, even between camera and lighting (which is quite strange for the DP, in charge of both). Woe betide anyone who moves set dressing without asking the art department, or who plugs something in without checking with the sparks, or who stores equipment in a room without asking locations.
  2. Proper production and locations departments. The feature I worked on last year had two producers, a line producer, a production manager and a production co-ordinator, plus a locations department. I’m used to productions where one person does all those jobs, and often directs as well. Figuring out which person to approach about any given issue was fun! (Creative Skillset’s website is a good place to check if you’re not sure who does what.)
  3. Advance prep. With a large crew, time cannot be wasted waiting for things that could have been pre-rigged. Heads of department are expected to think ahead and splinter their crew if necessary to be ready for things coming later in the day or week. For a DP this most commonly means pre-rigging distro and/or lighting.
  4. Delegation. Aside from operating the camera, I did little hands-on work on the recent feature shoot. Lens changes, grip rigging and lighting set-ups are all handled by other people on the instructions of me, and of the gaffer and the 1st AC. Sometimes this means the DP can go and have a cup of tea, but often it provides important thinking and planning time – an opportunity to reccie the next set and design the lighting, or to review footage in the edit room, or reccie a possible location with other HoDs, or discuss the afternoon’s shots with the director. It’s impossible to do this sort of forward planning if you’re changing your own lenses and setting your own lamps up.
  5. Hard wrap times. On micro-budget shoots the wrap time is a theoretical concept, with no more relevance to reality than an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. On a bigger production, you wrap at wrap time, because if you don’t then the gaffer might pull the plug. Occasionally the crew will be asked if they are willing to go over by half an hour, say, in order to complete a scene. But everyone must agree, and that half hour must be deducted from the next day.
  6. Lunch break, not just lunch. In micro-budget land, getting lunch at all is not a given. But when you do get it, you’re often expected to eat as quickly as possible and get straight back to work. On a bigger production you get your hour lunch break come hell or high water. And there’s proper catering. With desserts!
  7. Reliance on the crew. If you’re working with a small camera and mains power, you can stay late with the director and steal a few extra shots, if necessary. But when everything’s run off a generator, which only the gaffer is qualified to operate, and your camera package is almost too heavy to lift onto your own shoulder, and you have no idea how half the bits and bobs connected to it work because your ACs always deal with it, you really can’t do anything on your own.
  8. Permissions and qualifications. For insurance reasons you must have qualified people overseeing the electrics and the rigging. You must also check with the locations department before using any space or equipment or filming in any area that was not discussed and signed off in preproduction.
  9. Paperwork. Most HoDs seem to have some kind of daily paperwork to do on a larger production.The DP happily escapes this (the ACs handle the camera reports), though they do have to complete a risk assessment before shooting commences.
  10. People management. Because of the size of the team under you, people management becomes a major part of an HoD’s job. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.
10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

5 Things Directors Should Know About Cinematography

IMG_4793_2watermark-1000pxAny director worth their salt will be skilled in telling a story with the camera. But, quite understandably, they’re not familiar with the key concepts of cinematography – particularly the lighting side of cinematography – which a DP employs every day to create images that have impact, mood and production value. For the most part, directors don’t need to know these things – after all, that’s what the DP’s there for – but understanding a few of the basic concepts can help set up your film for visual excellence before the DP even gets involved.

1. We don’t light from the front.

It is logical to assume that light coming from behind the camera will give the best illumination to a scene. And on a purely cold, scientific level, it’s true. But on an aesthetic level, it couldn’t be more wrong. Quite apart from the practical issues of boom shadows and actors squinting in the sun, frontlight gives a flat, depthless image similar to a photo taken with flash.

Lighting from behind. Gotta love it.
Lighting from behind. Gotta love it.

Similarly, anyone who has taken photos with a camera in automatic mode will have been told – or quickly learnt – that shooting towards the sun, or when indoors, towards a window, is a bad idea, resulting in silhouettes and/or blown-out skies. So directors are often surprised when towards the sun (or a window) is EXACTLY the direction I want to shoot in, because it supplies beautiful backlight and allows me to fill in the shadow side – the side towards camera – as I see fit. No, it’s not going to be a silhouette (unless that’s what we’re going for) because I have a lamps and I have manual control of my iris.

2. Dark scenes do not require a camera with good low light sensitivity.

It depends what you mean by dark. A scene that is dark as a creative decision won’t actually be dark in reality because it will still be lit, perhaps highly lit, to create a moody, contrasty look. Therefore the camera’s sensitivity is not much of an issue.

A scene that is dark because you don’t have the budget to light it properly – yes, that’s going to need a sensitive camera if you’re going to see anything but noise.

3. You can’t fix everything in the grade.

It is truly amazing what can be done with today’s colour correction software, but there are two things it can’t do: it can’t save an image that was seriously underlit or underexposed, and it can’t change the angle or quality of light. Colour and intensity, yes. Angle and quality (soft/hard), no. And since these are the main things a DP determines, grading can never replace a good cinematographer. If it doesn’t look good on the monitor on the day, it will probably never look good.

4. We can’t light without seeing the blocking.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned up on set and asked to see the blocking, and been told no because the actors actors are in make-up, “but they’re going to stand kind of here.” In most circumstances, the first scene of the day should be blocked BEFORE the actors go to make-up. That way the DP can be lighting while the cast is getting made up, which is much more time efficient. Otherwise the DP tinkers about trying to light the space and looking at their watch, then when the talent comes out everyone is kept waiting while the DP changes all the lighting. Because inevitably the actors will want to do something different than what the director had in mind, or the director forgot to mention that one of the actors has to be seen coming through the door at the start, etc, etc. Blocking can also throw up problems with the scene which can be solved by various other departments while make-up is going on.

Great costume - check. Great location - check. (Photo from The First Musketeer by Jessica Ozlo)
Great costume – check. Great location – check. (Photo from The First Musketeer by Jessica Ozlo)

5. A good camera and a good DP are not substitutes for good design.

Light and lensing can only do so much. If what’s put in front of the camera doesn’t look good to start with, there’s very little I can do about it. Get an art director. Please, please, please, get an art director. They will do much more for the look of your film than I can. I don’t care if it’s a futuristic sci-fi movie or a gritty drama shot in a student flat, you need an experienced person with an artistic eye adding character to the sets and locations, developing a palette and composing everything beautifully for the camera.

5 Things Directors Should Know About Cinematography

9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject
Colin Smith slates a shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

While syncing sound in an edit recently I came across a number of little mistakes that cost me time, so I decided to put together some on-set and off-set tips for smooth sound syncing.

On set: tips for the 2nd AC

  1. Get the slate and take number on the slate right. This means a dedicated 2nd AC (this American term seems to have supplanted the more traditional British clapper-loader), not just any old crew member grabbing the slate at the last minute.
  2. Get the date on the slate right. This can be very helpful for starting to match up sound and picture in a large project if other methods fail.
  3. Hold the slate so that your fingers are not covering any of the info on it.
  4. Make MOS (mute) shots very clear by holding the sticks with your fingers through them.
  5. Make sure the rest of the cast and crew appreciate the importance of being quiet while the slate and take number are read out. It’s a real pain for the editing department if the numbers can’t be heard over chit-chat and last-minute notes from the director.
  6. Speak clearly and differentiate any numbers that could be misheard, e.g. “slate one three” and “slate three zero” instead of the similar-sounding “slate thirteen” and “slate thirty”.
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall
Rick Goldsmith slates a steadicam shot on Stop/Eject. Photo: Paul Bednall

For more on best slating practice, see my Slating 101 blog post.

Off set: tips for the DIT and assistant editor

  1. I recommend renaming both sound and video files to contain the slate and take number, but be sure to do this immediately after ingesting the material and on all copies of it. There is nothing worse than having copies of the same file with different names floating around.
  2. This should be obvious, but please, please, please sync your sound BEFORE starting to edit or I will hunt you down and kill you. No excuses.
  3. An esoteric one for any dinosaurs like me still using Final Cut 7: make sure you’ve set your project’s frame rate correctly (in Easy Setup) before importing your audio rushes. Otherwise FCP will assign them timecodes based on the wrong rate, leading to errors and sound falling out of sync if you ever need to relink your project’s media.

Follow these guidelines and dual system sound will be painless – well, as painless as it can ever be!

9 Tips for Easier Sound Syncing

5 Tips for Successful Pick-ups

Discussing the next set-up on the Ren pick-ups shoot with director Kate Madison. Photo: Michael Hudson
Discussing the next set-up on the Ren pick-ups shoot with director Kate Madison. Photo: Michael Hudson

Recently I’ve been involved in pick-ups shoots for a couple of projects I lensed last year: action-comedy feature The Gong Fu Connection and fantasy series Ren. Both pick-up shoots were strange experiences, featuring some very familiar aspects of the original shoot – locations, sets, costumes – but noticeably lacking others – certain actors, crew members and so on. The Ren pick-ups in particular were like re-living principal photography in microcosm, with stressful crowd shoots followed by more relaxed, smaller scenes and finally night shots with flaming arrows again!

A CTB-gelled Arrilite 1000 stands in for the 2.5K we used for backlight during principal photography on Ren! Photo: Michael Hudson
A CTB-gelled Arrilite 1000 stands in for the 2.5K HMI used for backlight during principal photography on Ren! Photo: Michael Hudson

I’ve blogged previously about how a director/producer can prepare for pick-ups – by keeping certain key props and costumes, for example – but today I have a few thoughts from a DP’s perspective.

1. Keep a record of lighting plans. I have a pretty good memory for my lighting set-ups, but not everyone does, so keeping notes is a good idea. Your gaffer may even do this for you. I frequently use this blog as a means of recording lighting set-ups, and indeed tried to access it during the Ren pick-ups shoot but was foiled by dodgy wifi.

2. Keep camera logs. On a properly crewed shoot this will be the 2nd AC’s job. The logs should include at least the following info for each slate: lens, aperture, ASA, white balance and shutter angle. This can be useful in principal photography too, for example if you shoot the two parts of a shot-reverse at different ends of the day or different days all together, and need to make sure you use the same lens.

Production assistant Claire Finn tends the brazier which provides smoke in the absence of the Artem smoke gun we used during principal photography. Photo: Michael Hudson
Production assistant Claire Finn tends the brazier which provides smoke in the absence of the Artem smoke gun used during principal photography. Photo: Michael Hudson

3. Have the original scene handy when you shoot the pick-ups. Load the edit onto a laptop or tablet so that you can compare it on set to the new material you’re framing up.

4. Own a bit of lighting kit if you can. In the shed I have some battered old Arrilites and a few other bits and pieces of gear that has seen better days. On a proper shoot I would leave this at home and have the production hire much better kit. But for pick-ups, when there’s often no money left, this stuff can come in handy.

5. Keep gels. If you employ an unusual colour of gel during principal photography, try to keep a piece of it in case you need to revisit that lighting set-up in pick-ups. Production will have to pay for the gel once it’s been used anyway. On the Ren pick-ups shoot, after pulling all of my gels out of the plastic kitchen bin I keep them in, I was relieved to find that I still had two pieces of the Urban Sodium gel I used in the flaming arrows scene the first time around.

Urban Sodium gel provides the grungy orange light for the flaming arrows scene, just as it did last November. Photo: Hermes Contreras
Urban Sodium gel provides the grungy orange light for the flaming arrows scene, just as it did last November. Photo: Hermes Contreras
5 Tips for Successful Pick-ups

Giving Yourself Somewhere to Go

On the recce for The Second Shepherd's Play. Photo: Douglas Morse
On the recce for The Second Shepherd’s Play. Photo: Douglas Morse

As a cinematographer, it can often be tempting to make your shots look as slick and beautiful as possible. But that’s not always right for the story. And sometimes it can leave you nowhere to go.

Currently I’m shooting The Second Shepherds’ Play, a medieval comedy adaptation, for director Douglas Morse. The story starts in the mud and drizzle of three shepherds’ daily drudge, and in a Python-esque twist ends up in the nativity. The titular trio develop from a base, selfish, almost animalistic state to something much more divine.

So, much as my instincts filming the opening scenes yesterday were to have a shallow depth of field and bounce boards everywhere to put a sparkle in the shepherds’ eyes, this wouldn’t have been right for this stage of the film. We had to have somewhere to go, so I shot at around f9 all day with unmodified natural, overcast light. As we get towards the end of the story – we’re shooting roughly in story order – I’ll start to use eyelight and more sculpted illumination and reduce the depth of field, as well as switching from handheld to sticks.

Grading episode one of Ren
Grading episode one of Ren

Similarly, grading episode one of Ren the other day, it was important to keep things bright and cheerful, so that later episodes could be colder and darker by comparison when things go wrong for our heroes. And playing the long game, I lit Ren herself with soft, shadowless light for most of the first season, so that as she develops from innocence to more of an action heroine in later seasons, her lighting can get harder and moodier.

Like all heads of department on a production, DPs are storytellers, and it all comes down to doing what’s right for the story, and what’s right for that moment in the story.

Giving Yourself Somewhere to Go