A couple of weeks ago I shared my thoughts about whether a director of photography should own equipment. My conclusion was that it can be useful early in your career, when you’re shooting corporates or tiny films with no hire budget. So what is the best camera for indie cinematography?
I’m not going to answer that, but I will tell you what to look for when investing in a camera. Hopefully these tips will help you choose the one that’s right for you from the huge and ever-changing array of professional cameras on the market, from the humble DSLR to the ubiquitous Reds and everything in between.
1. Image quality
The quality of the image is of course the most imporant attribute of any camera. Rather than any technical specifications, I’m talking about the aesthetic quality here: how does it feel? Does it have that elusive “cinematic” quality? Is it “filmic”? Does it remind you of certain kinds of movies?
A good place to start is to look up sample footage on YouTube, or better still Vimeo for less compression muddying the issue. If you can borrow the camera and try it out before you buy, even better. Take away some test footage and try grading it too.
Resolution, the sheer number of pixels a camera can record, is part of image quality, but I include it as a separate point because I see it as more of a technical consideration than an aesthetic one. You should ask yourself what longevity you require from your films – will people still be watching them, say two or three years from now, and if so what sort of resolution might be the norm by then?
Also consider your delivery platform. If everything you shoot is going on YouTube, perhaps you don’t need more than 1080P (standard HD).
3. Dynamic Range
Dynamic range is a measure of how much contrast a camera can handle. Too small a dynamic range and you will frequently struggle with bright areas “clipping” – i.e. losing details – or dark areas getting lost in the image noise. Also, the wider the dynamic range, the more flexibility you will have in grading.
For a cinematic image, 12 stops of dynamic range is the absolute minimum, with 14 or more being ideal.
4. Maximum ISO
The ISO (International Standards Organisation) scale rates the light sensitivity of a camera. The most important thing is the native ISO, the one at which the camera is optimised to give the cleanest image with the most detail. On some cameras, setting an ISO other than the native one reduces the image quality considerably.
The higher the ISO, the less light will be required to expose an image correctly. 800 is typical these days, but many cameras go much higher than that. It is worth thinking about spending more money to get a camera with a higher native ISO, because you may save a lot of money on lighting.
5. Lens Mount
This is crucial because you may already have a collection of lenses, or you may intend to hire certain lenses, and you need to be sure that they will fit your new camera’s mount.
The Canon EF mount is extremely common and will open up a huge range of options for stills glass as well as some low-end cinema glass. The smaller MFT (micro four-thirds) mount also has a wide range of lenses.
Top-end cameras have PL mounts which take all the beautiful cinema lenses used on big movies, but only choose this route if you are willing to part with a lot of cash!
6. Form Factor
When I started in the industry, cameras were all ergonomically designed to sit on your shoulder, with a nice handgrip to the right of the lens and an EVF (electronic viewfinder) to provide a third point of stabilising contact. Nowadays cameras tend to be boxy, heavy and uncomfortable to hold without additional accessories (see below).
Again, try to gets your hands on the camera in a shop and see how it feels before you purchase. As well as handheld shooting, consider how easy it will be to rig onto dollies, sliders, gimbals, etc.
7. Required Accessories
Buying the camera body itself is unlikely to be the end of your expenditure. You will need lenses, batteries, a battery charger, cards, a card reader and almost certainly some kind of stabilising system, be it a simple shoulder rig or an electronic gimbal.
You may also want an EVF, a tripod, matte box, follow focus – the list can seem endless! Be careful to budget your essential accessories before buying the camera. Some cameras seem like bargains until you add up all the extras. Pay particular attention to the media, and to exactly what speed of media you need in order to shoot at the resolution and frame rate that you require, as this can get very expensive.
What file type and codec does the camera shoot? Does your editing system support that format? If not, how time-consuming will it be to convert everything?
What compression ratios does the camera support? How much hard drive space will you need to store an hour of footage at that ratio? What about ten hours, plus back-ups? Often there is a trade-off between a highly compressed format like H.264 which is light on disc space but may need converting before you can edit it, and a lightly compressed format like ProRes which burns through disc space but can be dropped straight into most editing software.
Two years ago I made Stasis, a series of photographs that explored the confluence of time, space and light. Ever since then I’ve been meaning to follow it up with another photography project along similar lines, but haven’t got around to it. Well, with Covid-19 there’s not much excuse for not getting around to things any more.
So I’ve decided to make a zoetrope – a Victorian optical device which produces animation inside a spinning drum. The user looks through slits in the side of the drum to one of a series of images around the inside. When the drum is set spinning – usually by hand – the images appear to become one single moving picture. The slits passing rapidly through the user’s vision serve the same purpose as a shutter in a film projector, intermittently blanking out the image so that the persistence of vision effect kicks in.
Typically zoetropes contain drawn images, but they have been known to contain photographed images too. Eadward Muybridge, the father of cinema, reanimated some of his groundbreaking image series using zoetropes (though he favoured his proprietary zoopraxiscope) in the late nineteenth century. The device is thus rich with history and a direct antecedent of all movie projectors and the myriad devices capable of displaying moving images today.
This history, its relevance to my profession, and the looping nature of the animation all struck a chord with me. Stasis was to some extent about history repeating, so a zoetrope project seemed like it would sit well alongside it. Here though, history would repeat on a very small scale. Such a time loop, in which nothing can ever progress, feels very relevant under Covid-19 lockdown!
With that in mind, I decided that the first sequence I would shoot for the zoetrope would be a time-lapse of the cherry tree outside my window. I chose a camera position at the opposite end of the garden, looking back at my window and front door – my lockdown “prison” – through the branches of the tree. (The tree was just about to start blooming.)
The plan is to shoot one exposure every day for at least the next 18 days, maybe more if necessary to capture the full life of the blossom. Ideally I want to record the blossom falling so that my sequence will loop neatly, although the emergence of leaves may interfere with that.
To make the whole thing a little more fun and primitive, I decided to shoot using the pinhole I made a couple of years ago. Since I plan to mount contact prints inside the zoetrope rather than enlargements, that’ll mean I’ve created and exhibited a motion picture without ever once putting the image through a lens.
I’m shooting on Ilford HP5+, a black-and-white stock with a published ISO of 400. My girlfriend bought me five roles for Christmas, which means I can potentially make ten 18-frame zoetrope inserts. I won’t be able to develop or print any of them until the lockdown ends, but that’s okay.
My first image was shot last Wednesday, a sunny day. The Sunny 16 rule tells me that at f/16 on a sunny day, my exposure should be equal to my ISO, i.e. 1/400th of a second for ISO 400. My pinhole has an aperture of f/365, which I calculated when I made it, so it’s about nine stops slower than f/16. Therefore I need to multiply that 1/400th of a second exposure time by two to the power of nine, which is 1.28 – call it one second for simplicity. ( I used my Sekonic incidence/reflectance meter to check the exposure, because it’s always wise to be sure when you haven’t got the fall-back of a digital monitor.)
One second is the longest exposure my Pentax P30t can shoot without switching to Bulb mode and timing it manually. It’s also about the longest exposure that HP5+ can do without the dreaded reciprocity failure kicking in. So all round, one second was a good exposure time to aim for.
The camera is facing roughly south, meaning that the tree is backlit and the wall of the house (which fills the background) is in shadow. This should make the tree stand out nicely. Every day may not be as sunny as today, so the light will inevitably change from frame to frame of the animation. I figured that maintaining a consistent exposure on the background wall would make the changes less jarring than trying to keep the tree’s exposure consistent.
I’ve been taking spot readings every day, and keeping the wall three-and-a-half stops under key, while the blossoms are about one stop over. I may well push the film – i.e. give it extra development time – if I end up with a lot of cloudy days where the blossoms are under key, but so far I’ve managed to catch the sun every time.
All this exposure stuff is great practice for the day when I finally get to shoot real motion picture film, should that day ever come, and it’s pretty useful for digital cinematography too.
Meanwhile, I’ve also made a rough prototype of the zoetrope itself, but more on that in a future post. Watch this space.
Last autumn, after a few years away from it, I got back into 35mm stills photography. I’ve been reading a lot of books about photography: the art of it, the science and the history too. I’ve even taken a darkroom course to learn how to process and print my own black and white photos.
Shooting stills in my spare time gives me more opportunities to develop my eye for composition, my exposure-judging skills and my appreciation of natural light. Beyond that, I’ve discovered interesting parallels between electronic and photochemical imaging which enhance my understanding of both.
For example, I used to think of changing the ISO on a digital camera as analogous to loading a different film stock into a traditional camera. However, I’ve come to realise it’s more like changing the development time – it’s an after-the-fact adjustment to an already-captured (latent) image. There’s more detail on this analogy in my ISO article at Red Shark News.
The importance of rating an entire roll of film at the same exposure index, as it must all be developed for the same length of time, also has resonance in the digital world. Maintaining a consistency of exposure (or the same LUT) throughout a scene or sequence is important in digital filmmaking because it makes the dailies more watchable and reduces the amount of micro-correction which the colourist has to do down the line.
Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of explaining why I decided to make a pinhole attachment for my SLR this week. It’s partly curiosity, partly to increase my understanding of image-making from first principles.
The pinhole camera is the simplest image-making device possible. Because light rays travel in straight lines, when they pass through a very small hole they emerge from the opposite side in exactly the same arrangement, only upside-down, and thus form an image on a flat surface on the other side. Make that flat surface a sheet of film or a digital sensor and you can capture this image.
How to make a pinhole attachment
I used Experimental Filmmaking: Break the Machine by Kathryn Ramey as my guide, but it’s really pretty straightforward.
You will need:
an extra body cap for your camera,
a small piece of smooth, non-crumpled black wrap, or kitchen foil painted black,
gaffer tape (of course), and
a needle or pin.
Drill a hole in the centre of the body cap. The size of the hole is unimportant.
Use the pin or needle to pierce a hole in the black wrap, at least a couple of centimetres from the edge.
Cut out a rough circle of the black wrap, with the pinhole in the middle. This circle needs to fit on the inside of the body cap, with the pinhole in the centre of the drilled hole.
Use the gaffer tape to fix the black wrap tightly to the inside of the body cap.
Fit the body cap to your camera.
The smaller the pinhole is, the sharper the image will be, but the darker too. The first pinhole I made was about 0.1-0.2mm in diameter, but when I fitted it to my camera and looked through the viewfinder I could hardly make anything out at all. So I made a second one, this time pushing the pin properly through the black wrap, rather than just pricking it with the tip. (Minds out of the gutter, please.) The new hole was about 0.7mm but still produced an incredibly dark image in the viewfinder.
Exposing a pinhole image
If you’re using a digital camera, you can of course judge your exposure off the live-view screen. Things are a little more complicated if, like me, you’re shooting on film.
In theory the TTL (through the lens) light meter should give me just as reliable a reading as it would with a lens. The problem is that, even with the shutter set to 1 second, and ISO 400 Fujifilm Super X-tra loaded, the meter tells me I’m underexposed. Admittedly the weather has been overcast since I made the pinhole yesterday, so I may get a useful reading when the sun decides to come out again.
Failing that, I can use my handheld incident-light meter to determine the exposure…. once I’ve worked out what the f-stop of my pinhole is.
As I described in my article on aperture settings, the definition of an f-stop is: the ratio of the focal length to the aperture diameter. We’re all used to using lenses that have a clearly defined and marked focal length, but what is the focal length in a pinhole system?
The definition of focal length is the distance between the point where the light rays focus (i.e. converge to a point) and the image plane. So the focal length of a pinhole camera is very simply the distance from the pinhole itself to the film or digital sensor. Since my pinhole is more or less level with the top of the lens mount, the focal length is going to be approximately equal to the camera’s flange focal distance (defined as the distance between the lens mount and the image plane). According to Wikipedia, the flange focal distance for a Pentax K-mount camera is 45.46mm.
So the f-stop of my 0.7mm pinhole is f/64, because 45.64 ÷ 0.7 ≈ 64. Conveniently, f/64 is the highest stop my light meter will handle.
The website Mr Pinhole has a calculator to help you figure this sort of stuff out, and it even tells you the optimal pinhole diameter for your focal length. Apparently this is 0.284mm in my case, so my images are likely to be quite soft.
Anyway, when the sun comes out I’ll take some pictures and let you know how I get on!
This is the second part of my report from my time at Camerimage, the Polish film festival focused on cinematography. Read part one here.
Panavision: The BEauty of 8K Large Format
It was a chilly but bright morning as I strolled into Bydgoszcz and made straight for the MCK Orzeł, where I planned to spend most of the day. With only a few minutes to go until the scheduled start time, the queue for Panavision’s large format seminar had spilt out onto the street. The tickets ran out before I reached the desk, but there was a live video feed in the cinema’s bar. In many ways this was better than going into the auditorium – sitting in a comfy chair with the bar close at hand, and a table to make notes on.
My article for Red Shark News about the future of large format cinematography has been surprisingly popular, and it contains plenty of detail about this Panavision seminar, so I won’t repeated myself here. I will say that it converted me from a high resolution sceptic to a believer, because the speakers demonstrated that footage acquired in high rez – even when downscaled – retain much of its smoothness, high bit depth and dynamic range. “More resolution evokes the imagination of the brain,” was how colourist Ian Vertovec summed it up.
At the end of the session, Red Shark’s David Shapton and Matt Gregory emerged from the auditorium and joined me for lunch at the bar. We had all found the seminar very interesting, and Matt was quick to get us all tickets to the Panasonic 4K seminar coming up later in the day. The pair then went off to other things, while I headed to the kiosk to get a ticket for the imminent John Toll seminar. But of course I’d left it too late, they were all gone, and so I returned to my comfy chair in the bar to watch via video feed again.
Panavision workshops: A conversation with John Toll, ASC
John Toll, ASC was the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at Camerimage, and this seminar was an epic journey through this career. He explained how he learnt his craft as a camera operator for the late great Conrad Hall, ASC and Jordan Cronenweth, ASC.
The talk then focused on some of Toll’s biggest movies, beginning with the period drama Legends of the Fall starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. The movie was largely daylight exterior (something that was to become a theme across Toll’s work) so the cinematographer insisted on twelve weeks of prep, the same as the production designer. This allowed him to be part of selecting locations and choosing orientations for the buildings to get the optimal sun path. Toll said he was lucky that the 1st AD was willing to be flexible with the schedule, observing the mood of the weather each day and shooting scenes that matched that mood.
Gaffer Jim Plannette joined Toll on the stage to discuss the huge night exterior battle sequence. This employed three Musco lights (a Musco being fifteen 6K pars on a 100ft boom arm) which three-quarter-backlit every angle. To get crisp, grain-free blacks, Toll overexposed and printed down.
Braveheart was covered next, with 1st AC Graham Hall joining the panel. Hall had a difficult time with the film’s battle scenes, featuring as they did so much movement, improv and slo-mo. Toll revealed how the immersive style of the action was based on a sixties TV documentary about Culloden that coincidentally both he and director Mel Gibson had seen. A lot of colour timing was required to give consistency to the battles, which were shot over weeks, at all times of day.
The discussion then turned to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. The Australian locations featured very difficult, uneven terrain, so Toll used an Akela Crane. The crane’s arm was so long (75ft) that the arc of its movement couldn’t be detected on camera. Its use had to be carefully planned though, because each time it needed to be moved it had to be disassembled and reassembled on a special platform. 80% of the filmwas actually handheld, and Toll operated himself so as to respond to the spontaneity and improv which Malick encourage from his cast.
Toll told a funny story about a shot of shadows moving across long grass which was praised by critics. It was inserted to cover a continuity error, the build-up to the battle having been shot in heavy cloud, while the battle itself was shot in full sun. A happy accident!
Time was running short, so the moderator powered through Almost Famous (where parallels were drawn between the explosive battle scenes of Toll’s earlier movies and the crowd scenes at the rock concerts, punctuated by flashing cameras), Vanilla Sky and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. This latter film, directed by Ang Lee, is notable for its acquisition in 120fps 4K stereo. You can read more about it on the British Cinematographer website.
Panasonic Seminar: Varicam Experience
I remained at the MCK and, meeting up with Dave and Matt again, finally got into the auditorium, for the Panasonic seminar. Moderated by British Cinematographer‘s Ronnie Prince, the panel brought together a trio of DPs who shoot Netflix shows on the Varicam: Bobby Shore, CSC (Anne with an E), Pepe Avila del Pino (Ozark) and Patrick Alexander Stewart (Arrested Development).
Both Shore and del Pino admitted that they were most comfortable with the Arri Alexa, but due to Netflix’s strict rules on 4K acquisition (the Alexa tops out at 3.2K) they had to find another camera. They plumped for the Panasonic Varicam, a 4K camera best known for having dual native ISOs: 800, in common with the Alexa, Red and many others, and 5000, two and two-thirds stops faster. Being native, both ISOs have the same dynamic range, the same log curve and in theory are equally clean.
Panasonic, I think, were keen to push ISO 5000 in this seminar, but unfortunately Shore and del Pino shot almost exclusively at 800. Stewart did shoot Arrested Development at 5000, interiors and night scenes at least, but down-rated it to 2500. Otherwise, he said, the sets would have been too dark for the actors to feel like they were in a believable daytime environment. I think that’s a fascinating, unexpected side effect of low light sensitivity! Stewart lit the stages with large Quasar softboxes and paired the Varicam with Fujinon zooms and occasional Xeen primes.
Del Pino chose Zeiss Super Speeds for night scenes and Hawk V anamorphics for day scenes on Ozark. He liked the claustrophobia of cropping the anamorphic images to 2:1, the show’s delivery ratio, while the Super Speeds produced a creaminess he found appealing. He also mentioned that the Varicam’s sensor handled greens very well, which was important for him, given how much of Ozark takes places in woods.
Anne with an E was lensed on vintage Panavision Standard and Super Speeds – “the oldest, craziest lenses we could find,” says Bobby Shore. He liked their low resolving power, their weird flares and how they fell apart when wide open. Part of the show’s signature look are ECUs of the freckled title character, which were captured on a 27mm Primo for a more detailed, tactile image.
Inspired by the work of Robbie Ryan, BSC (Wuthering Heights), Shore kept the lighting naturalistic, mixing tungsten and HMI sources on a set that was treated like a location. He also shot through a Panaflasher, a special lens filter with built-in lighting which reduces contrast and adds a colour tint of your choice, but this effect was dialled out in post. Indeed, Shore raised the issue of DPs’ images being altered after the fact, an issue I explore fully in another Red Shark article.
By the way, I’ve been watching Anne with an E since the festival and I can thoroughly recommend it.
When the seminar was over, I went for dinner with Dave, Matt and Chris Bouchard, at a very nice (but once again cheap) Asian fusion restaurant. Then we met up for drinks with some of the reps from Red, and I got talking to a DP who had shot squid from a submarine for an episode of Blue Planet. After another drink or two with Chris at the Cheat bar, I called it a night.
Tune in next week for the final part of my Camerimage blog.
This week I attended Camerimage for the first time. Centred around the Opera Nova theatre beside the river Brda in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Camerimage is an international film festival celebrating the art of cinematography. It’s a bit like Cannes for DPs, but colder. This is the first part of my account of my three days at the annual hub of motion picture imaging.
The Ryanair flight was dirt cheap but trouble free, and at 9:50am I found myself on the tarmac of Bydgoszcz airport. There I met David Shapton and Matt Gregory, founders of Red Shark News, for the first time. I’ve been contributing articles to Red Shark for a few months so it was nice to finally meet these gentlemen in person.
A taxi (also dirt cheap) dropped me at the Opera Nova – only about three miles from the airport – where I picked up my pass and goodie bag. Bizarrely, said goodies included an Ikea catalogue. How did they know that us DPs love flat-pack furniture so much?
Canon Workshop: Stephen Goldblatt
From the Opera Nova I hurried to a college across the river, where the sports hall formed the venue for a Canon workshop run by Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, the man behind the lens for the likes of Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman Forever. The blurb for this workshop described Goldblatt as “a master of low light shooting”, and it was certainly pitch black when I walked in a few minutes late, and gingerly picked my way around to the far side of the hall to find a seat.
On a purpose-built bedroom set, Goldblatt was recreating lighting from the Robert Redford / Jane Fonda romantic drama Our Souls at Night, shot on the Sony F55 and Canon C300 Mark II. To practical lamps on either side of the bed he added egg-crated tungsten soft-boxes to beef up each one. He simulated moonlight through an imagined off-camera window by placing a lace curtain in front of a blue-gelled lamp and blowing it gently with a fan. An additional egg-crated soft-box provided a low level of blue toplight.
As he worked, Goldblatt revealed how he doesn’t miss ceulloid, loving how relatively easy it is now to light night exteriors or moving car scenes. “But just because you don’t need much light,” he cautioned, “it doesn’t mean you don’t want to control it.” Other developments coming down the pipe do not inspire him so much; he feels that high resolutions and HDR are unnecessary, pushed by marketing people rather than creatives.
He placed great emphasis on the importance of the eyes. “A common failing of newer DPs is that they worry more about the set than the eyes,” he said, before explaining how he will often walk beside the handheld camera with a torch, providing eye-light. He also stressed the importance of eye-lines. Although in any one shot it’s not that important how wide or tight the eye-line is, or how high or low, across the two hours of a feature film the decisions have a cumulative effect.
Goldblatt no longer uses a light meter. “Trust your eye, develop your eye,” he advised, adding that you must have a strong voice to remain in control of the images through postproduction.
After grabbing lunch, I returned to the Opera Nova to browse the exhibition hall. This closely resembled a mini BSC Expo or Media Production Show, with all the major camera and lens manufacturers displaying their wares, along with several lighting companies. I had a play with some of the cameras, including the actual Alexa 65 used on Rogue One.
Then I met up with Chris Bouchard, one of The Little Mermaid‘s two directors, who had arrived in Poland the previous day. We sauntered over to another venue, the MCK Orzeł, an independent cinema with a nice, chilled, film-buff-friendly atmosphere. The auditorium itself was packed though as we settled in for a seminar on “The Future of Digital Formats”.
Red Seminar: The Future of Digital Formats
Promoting Red’s Monstro sensor, the session was mostly about the benefits of shooting in high resolutions, and giving yourself the maximum flexibility in post. You can read my thoughts on both of those topics in upcoming Red Shark articles.
One of the speakers, Christopher Probst, ASC (DP of Mindhunter and technical editor of American Cinematographer magazine) made some interesting points about ISO. “Traditionally, low ISOs were used for bright scenes like day exteriors, and high ISOs were used for darker scenes like night exteriors,” he explained. “That was based on reducing the grain, getting the cleanest possible image on film.” He advised the opposite for digital capture. “Use a low ISO for nights to get more shadow detail, and a high ISO for days to get more highlight detail [in the sky, for example].”
Another interesting nugget came from Markus Förderer, BVK. On Independence Day: Resurgence he switched between spherical, 1.3x anamorphic and 2x anamorphic lenses depending on the situation. For example, flatter lenses were better for wide shots – where anamorphics would distort straight lines – and for VFX work.
Hawk Vantage Seminar: Top cinematographers tell their Hawk stories
I ducked out of the Red session early so that I could pop back to the Opera Nova for the Hawk Vantage seminar, bumping into my Perplexed Music gaffer Sam Meyer on the way. Hawk were launching three new sets of lenses: MiniHawk (T1.7 hybrid anamorphics), Hawk Class-X (T2.2 2x anamorphics) and Hawk65 (T2.2).
The MiniHawks in particular seem very exciting. Daniel Pearl, ASC showed us some stunning frame grabs from the upcoming Dennis Quaid vehicle Motivated Seller, shot using these lenses on Alexa Mini. Whilst having key advantages of spherical lenses (speed, small size, low weight, extremely close focus) the MiniHawks have a unique and beautiful cigar-shaped bokeh.
While Pearl had used the latest Hawks, Magdalena Górka, PSC had shot with some old ones, the C series, for Brad Silberling’s drama An Ordinary Man. “I had to frame everything centrally because that’s the only place that was sharp!” she laughed. Also addressing focus fall-off, Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC (Speed, The Devil’s Advocate) stated, “I like anamorphic because the shallow depth of field allows you to direct the viewer’s eye more.”
Stuart Dryburgh, ASC (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Bridget Jones’s Diary) talked about shooting 1.3x anamorphic. He has done this on three-perf 35mm (to achieve a Scope aspect ratio), on an Alexa in 16:9 mode (again for 2.39:1) and on an Alexa in 4:3 mode (to get 1.85:1). He also recommended shooting on Super-16 with 1.3x glass, citing the example of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” video, which Pearl shot.
Peter Flinckenberg, FCK (Upswing, Concrete Night) noted that, with the shift to digital acquisition, the DP is no longer a magician, “but you can bring back that magic with lighting and glass that has character.”
CW Sonderoptic: Exploring Large format cinematography & Leica lenses
I took my leave, dashing back to the MCK Orzeł for another lens-themed seminar, this time by CWSonderoptic, the makers of Leica. The first half of this panel revolved around a short film shot by Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC (Seven, Delicatessen) on an Alexa 65 with the new Leica Thalias.
The second half was all about Tod Campbell, DP of Stranger Things and Mr. Robot, focusing on the latter show. The second season of Mr. Robot was shot on Leica Summicrons after Campbell found that the Cookes used on season one distorted the many straight lines which became such a key part of the show’s unique look. “I look at season two as kind of the birth of the photography for the show,” he said. With a laugh he added: “Sorry that the lighting looks like shit in season one. I was learning!” (See my spherical lens tests for my own thoughts on Cookes and Leicas.)
Campbell revealed that season three of Mr. Robot has a different look again, using much more camera movement and “twice as much atmos”. For this season he paired Canon K35 glass with an 8K camera, but due to the Canons’ low resolution he employed Leica Summiluxes for the wide shots.
He also shared some interesting information about his testing process, admitting that he doesn’t really know how other DPs test. He doesn’t use charts, he just makes it up. He always includes a candle, a practical lamp, some kind of highlight in the background, and random foreground objects (as background bokeh can differ from foreground bokeh).
Christopher Doyle Seminar
When the Leica seminar ended I went back to the Opera Nova, where Chris and I had dinner at the nice (and once again cheap – are you detecting a theme?) restaurant. Despite having got up at 4am (3am local time) I wasn’t feeling too tired, so we headed upstairs to the 10pm seminar by Christopher Doyle, HKSC (Hero, Lady in the Water). Many people were nursing beers, including Doyle himself, and the lecture theatre was dimly illuminated by mood lighting. Clearly this session was not going to be like the daytime ones.
“We’re going to fuck things up,” Doyle began, dispelling all doubts. He proceeded to talk disjointedly but entertainingly about his work on The White Girl and what I think was a separate film about a camera obscura. His oratory was liberally sprinkled with great one-liners, a few of which I reproduce here for your edification:
There are only three people in filmmaking: the actor, the audience and the cinematographer in between them.
If actors don’t feel loved, the performance will not come across on camera.
Give the idea the image it deserves.
[Vittorio] Storaro [legendary DP of Apocalypse Now amongst others] can’t tell you how to do it. You have to find it for yourself.
People in space – that’s what cinematography’s about.
The location is very important. It gives the energy, it imposes the style.
The lens doesn’t matter; it’s what it shows that’s important.
You never sleep because you care too much – that’s what filmmaking is.
Doyle also picked up on a piece of dialogue from a clip he screened: “What is it?” / “I don’t know yet.” It was a great summation of finding the essence of a shot, he said.
Having had our fill of aphorisms, Chris Bouchard and I slipped out to get a drink. The Cheat, the pop-up bar across the road, was absolutely packed, and my early morning was finally catching up with me, so I called it a night. The highstreet of Bydgoszcz was quiet and chilly as I walked briskly to my hotel, curiously located down a service road behind the city’s football stadium, reflecting on all that I had learnt that day.
Tune in next week for tales from my second day at Camerimage.
This year I’ve shot a couple of productions on the Sony FS7, a camera I’ve been very impressed by. Its most interesting feature is its high native ISO of 2000, which makes quite an impact on how you go about lighting. The light shed by practicals is often enough to illuminate a scene, or a large part of it, and sometimes you need to take existing practicals away in order to maintain contrast and shape, similar to how you take ambient light away (negative fill) when shooting exteriors.
It’s a strange thing about being a DP that, yes, sometimes you’re required to plan a mammoth lighting set-up using tens of kilowatts of power, but other times it’s just a case of saying, “Take the bulb out of that sconce.” You’re working to exactly the same principles, using your creative eye just as much in both scenarios.
Let’s look at some examples from a promotional film I shot with director Oliver Park for Closer Each Day, an improvised stage soap.
Our location was a pub, which had a large number of existing practicals: mainly wall sconces, but some overheads above the bar and in the corridors too. The film had to be shot in a single night, entirely on Steadicam, with some shots revealing almost the whole room, and to further complicate matters I was a last-minute hire due to another DP having to step down. Keeping the lighting simple, and avoiding putting any “film lights” on the floor where the roving camera might see them, was clearly the way to go.
I identified the darker areas of the room and added a few extra sources: two blue-gelled 800s outside the windows, an orange-gelled 1×1′ LED panel in the wood-burner, an LED reporter light in one key corner, and a small tungsten fresnel toplight onto a key table, firing down from the mezzanine so it would never be in shot. Other than those, and a low level of fill bounced off the ceiling, we relied exclusively on the existing practicals. (They were mainly fluorescent, and ideally we would have reglobed these all with tungsten, but it wasn’t possible.)
So, that’s the “positive” lighting. Here are three examples of “negative” lighting in the film…
When Big Dick Johnson (yep, that’s the character’s name) first enters the pub, I put a piece of tape over a little halogen spotlight just above his point of entry. This was partly because it was very bright and I didn’t want him to blow out as he walked under it, but it also made for a much better sense of depth in the overall shot. As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, the best depth in an image is usually achieved by having the foreground dark, the mid-ground at key and the background bright. Killing the halogen spotlight helped create this progression of brightness and therefore depth. It’s also just nice in a shot like this to come out of darkness into the light, enhancing the reveal of the new space to the viewers.
When Billy De Burgh scrambles to buy a ticket at the box office, there are two practicals just above his head. Depending on which way we were shooting, I de-globed one of the fixtures – always the one closest to camera. This ensured that Billy always had backlight, and never had a really hot, toppy front-light shining harshly down on him.
On a side note, the blue light inside the box office was existing – I guess they were using cool white LED bulbs in there – and I really like the way it differentiates the spaces on camera. It puts the bored ticket-seller in a cold, detached world very separate to Billy’s warmer, more urgent world.
This doorway where Big Dick ends the film had sconces on both sides. It’s never very interesting to have an actor evenly lit on both sides of their face, and especially as Dick is such a tough, unpleasant character, I felt that more contrast was required. I chose to remove the globe from the righthand sconce, so that when he turns camera left to look at the sign he turns into the remaining sconce, his key-light. We filled in the other side of his face a tiny touch with a reflector.
I would love to have been able to exercise the same control over the street-lamps in the opening scene of the film – some of them are quite flat and frontal – but unfortunately time, budget and permissions made that impossible. We would have needed huge flags, or a council-approved electrician to switch the lamps off.
That’s all for today. Next time you’re in Bristol, check out Closer Each Day. I didn’t get chance to see it, but I hear it’s brilliant.
In June I was recommended by a mutual friend to shoot a short drama called Perplexed Music, inspired by the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet of the same name. It’s a passion project from writer-director Mark McGann, with his brother Paul McGann (Doctor Who, Alien 3, Withnail &I) in the lead role of a man grieving for his deceased partner.
Mark was keen from the outset to shoot on an Alexa, and I was quick to agree. Arri Rental very kindly gave us an amazing deal on an Alexa Classic and a set of Ultra Primes. As on Above the Clouds, we used a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera as a B-cam, capturing two specific angles that were impossible on the Alexa with our limited grip budget.
Throughout July, Mark and I had a very satisfying creative dialogue about the cinematic techniques we would use to tell the story of Paul’s character, The Man, who never speaks. I had been watching a lot of Mr. Robot, and was keen to use unusual compositions as that show does. The visual grammar that we ultimately developed eschewed The Rule of Thirds, either squeezing The Man right into the side of frame – at times when things are too much for him – or placing him dead centre for moments of clarity and acceptance, and for flashbacks to when his partner was alive.
While testing lenses at Arri Rental a few weeks prior to the shoot, I took the opportunity to shoot some frame-rate tests between 24 and 48fps. Since the film has so little dialogue, I figured there was nothing to stop us using a lot of slow motion if we wanted to. I didn’t want it to look like a music video though. I thought perhaps a very subtle over-cranking, creating languid blinks and slightly heavier movement, would add to the burden of The Man’s grief. Mark agreed as soon as he saw the tests, and we ended up shooting a number of set-ups at 28 and 30fps, plus 40fps for a pivotal sequence.
I also tested various ISO settings on the Alexa (click here for full details, stills and video from this test). Based on these, I decided to use ISO 1600 for the majority of the film, partly for the extra latitude in the highlights, and partly to add grittiness to The Man’s grief-stricken world, in the form of a little picture noise. When we started shooting the flashbacks, on the spur of the moment I decided to switch to ISO 400 for these. A few years back I shot the music video below on a Red Epic and, for reasons I forget, one set-up was done at a lower ISO than the rest. I remember the feeling this gave, when I saw the final edit, of everything suddenly being smooth and hyper-real. I thought that would be a great feeling to give to the flashbacks.
Much of Perplexed Music was day exterior, but a couple of sequences required lighting. In the opening café scene, I fired HMIs through two windows, but kept their light away from The Man, keying him with a practical to put him in his own little world. Meanwhile, a happy couple he’s watching are bathed in sunlight (sometimes real, sometimes not) warmed up with a quarter CTO, and bouncing beautifully off their table to give them a healthy glow.
For night interiors at The Man’s home, I was keen to rely on practicals as much as possible. Firstly there wasn’t much space in the little cottage, secondly I didn’t want the hassle of having to shift them around to keep them out of frame when we changed angle, and thirdly it just looks more natural. So aside from a tungsten bounce in a corner of the living room we knew would never be seen, I stuck to practical table lamps and exterior lighting.
I had planned to use direct HMI sources for moonlight through the windows, but my gaffer Sam suggested going softer so that we wouldn’t have hard shadows inside which would need filling. I saw that he was right, so we used a kino through one window and a 2.5K HMI bounced into poly through another (pictured at left).
Perplexed Music was shot over five days in Frome in Somerset and Rame in Cornwall. The latter provided us with a spectacular cliff-top and the isolated St. Michael’s Chapel on the peak of the headland. Here we employed the services of The Fly Company, who captured two dramatic, sweeping shots on their DJI Inspire 2 drone. We were all extremely impressed by what they were able to achieve, especially as it was done in very windy conditions, in between rain showers.
We completed the final set-ups of the schedule as the winds began gusting up to 60mph, and poor Paul could barely stand upright! I was certainly glad we picked the Alexa to shoot on, because anything lighter would probably have shaken during takes, if not blown over!
I had a fantastic time working with Mark and Paul, and the whole cast and crew. We were sad to part ways at the end of the week, and we all look forward to seeing the finished film soon. And at this point, dear reader, I ask for your help. Currently a Kickstarter campaign is underway for postproduction. It’s well over 50% funded at the time of writing, but every little helps in our quest to reach the finishing line. Rewards for backers include thank you video messages from Paul and Mark, and tickets to a private screening in December. Even if you can’t contribute, please consider sharing the page on social media. Thanks!
I’ve shot three features on Arri Alexas, but I’ve never moved the ISO away from its native setting of 800 for fear of noise and general image degradation. Recently I read an article about the cinematography of My Cousin Rachel, in which DP Mike Eley mentioned shooting the night scenes at ISO 1600. I deliberately set off for the cinema in order to analyse the image quality of this ISO on the big screen. Undoubtedly I’ve unwittingly seen many things that were shot on an Alexa at ISO 1600 over the past few years, but this was the first time I’d given it any real thought.
To my eye, My Cousin Rachel looked great. So when I was at Arri Rental the other week testing some lenses, I decided to shoot a quick ISO test to see exactly what would happen when I moved away from the native 800.
But before we get to the test footage, for those of you unsure exactly what ISO is, here’s an introduction. The more experienced amongst you may wish to skip down to the video and analysis.
What is ISO?
ISO is a measure of a camera’s light sensitivity; the higher the ISO, the less light it requires to expose an image.
The acronym actually stands for International Organization for Standardization [sic], the body which in 1974 combined the old ASA (American Standards Association) units of film speed with the German DIN standard. That’s why you’ll often hear the terms ISO and ASA used interchangeably. On some cameras, like the Alexa, you’ll see it called EI (Exposure Index) in the menus.
A common ISO to shoot at today is 800. One way of defining ISO 800 is that it’s the sensitivity required to correctly expose a key-light of 3 foot-candles with a lens of T-stop 1.4 and a 180° shutter at 24fps, as we saw in my Barry Lyndon blog.
If we double the ISO we double the effective sensitivity of the camera, or halve the amount of light it requires. So at ISO 1600 we would only need 1.5 foot-candles of light (all the other settings being the same), and at ISO 3200 we would need just 0.75 foot-candles. Conversely, at ISO 400 we would need 6 foot-candles, or 12 at ISO 200. Check out this exposure chart if it’s still unclear.
Just as altering the shutter angle (exposure time) has the side effect of changing the amount of motion blur, and altering the aperture affects the depth of field, so ISO has its own side effect: noise. Increase the ISO and you increase the electronic noise in the picture.
This is because turning the ISO up causes the camera to electronically boost the signals it’s receiving from the sensor. It’s exactly the same as turning up the volume on an amplifier; you hear more hiss because the noise floor is being boosted along with the signal itself.
I remember the days of Mini-DV cameras, which instead of ISO had gain; my Canon XL1 had gain settings of -3dB, +6dB and +12dB. It was the exact same thing, just with a different name. What the XL1 called 0dB of gain was what today we call the native ISO. It’s the ISO at which the camera is designed to give the best images.
ISO and Dynamic Range
The Alexa has a dynamic range of 14 stops. That means it can simultaneously record detail in an area of brightness x and an area of brightness x times 2 to the power 14. At its native ISO of 800, those 14 stops of dynamic range are equally distributed above and below “correct” exposure (known as middle grey), so you can overexpose by up to 7 stops, and underexpose by up to 7 stops, without losing detail.
If you increase the ISO, those limits of under- and overexposure still apply, but they’re effectively shifted around middle grey, as the graphic to the left illustrates. (The Pro Video Coalition post this graphic comes from is a great read if you want more detail.) You will see the effects of this shifting of dynamic range very clearly in the test video and images below.
In principle, shooting at ISO 1600 is the same as shooting at ISO 800, underexposing by a stop (giving you more highlight detail) and then bringing it back up a stop in post. The boosting of the signal in that case would come right at the end of the image path instead of near the beginning, so the results would never be identical, but they’d be close. If you were on a bigger project with a DIT, you could create a LUT to bring the exposure up a stop which again would achieve much the same thing.
All of the above assumes you’re shooting log ProRes. If you’re shooting Raw then everything is simply recorded at the native ISO and any other ISO you select is merely metadata. But again, assuming you exposed for that other ISO (in terms of iris, shutter and ND filters), you will effectively get that same dynamic range shift, just further along the pipeline.
If this all got a bit too technical for you, don’t worry. Just remember:
Doubling the ISO
increases overall exposure by one stop,
gives you one more stop of detail in the highlights,
gives you one less stop of detail in the shadows, and
increases picture noise.
Halving the ISO
decreases overall exposure by one stop,
gives you one less stop of detail in the highlights,
gives you one more stop of detail in the shadows, and
decreases picture noise.
I lit the subject, Rupert “Are You Ready?” Peddle, with a 650W tungsten fresnel bounced off poly, and placed a 40W candle globe and some LED fairy lights in the background to show highlight clipping. We shot the tests in ProRes 4444 XQ on an Alexa XT Plus with a 32mm Cooke S4, altering the shutter angle to compensate for the changing ISOs. At ISO 400 the shutter angle was maxed out, so we opened the lens a stop for ISO 200.
We tested five settings, the ones corresponding to a series of stops (i.e. doublings or halvings of sensitivity): 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200. I have presented the tests in the video both as recorded in the original log C, and with a standard Rec.709 LUT.
You’ll need to watch the video at full-screen at 1080P to have any chance of seeing the differences, and even then you might see the compression artefacts caused by the noise more than the noise itself. Check out the stills below for a clearer picture of what’s going on. (Click on them for full resolution.)
To me, the most important thing with every test is how skin tones are rendered. Looking at the original ProRes of these comparisons I think I see a little more life and vibrance in the skin tones at lower ISOs, but it’s extremely subtle. More noticeable is a magenta shift at the lower ISOs versus a green shift at higher ones. The contrast also increases with the ISO, as you can see most clearly in the log images.
At the lower ISOs you are not really aware of any noise in the picture. It’s only at ISO 1600 that it becomes noticeable, but I have to say that I really liked this level of noise; it gives the image a texture reminiscent of film grain. At ISO 3200 the noise is quite significant, and would probably be unacceptable to many people.
The really interesting thing for me was the shifting of the dynamic range. In the above comparison image, look at the globe in log – see how it starts off as one big white blob at ISO 200 and becomes more detailed as the ISO rises? Now look at the dark wall around the globe, both here and in the previous image – see how it subtly and smoothly graduates into darkness at the lower ISOs, but becomes a grainy mess at the higher ones?
I can see an immediate benefit to shooting at ISO 1600 in scenes lit predominantly with practicals. Such scenes tend to have a low overall level of illumination, while the practicals themselves often blow out on camera. Going to ISO 1600 would give me extra exposure and extra detail in the practicals. I would be sacrificing shadow detail, so I would have to be a little more careful not to underexpose any faces or other important elements of the frame, but I can deal with that. In fact, I often find myself determining my exposure in these types of scenes by how blown out the practicals are, wishing I could open up a little more to see the faces better but not wanting to turn the lamps into big white blobs. Increasing the ISO would be the perfect solution, so I’m very glad I did this test to alleviate my ungrounded fears.
What about scenarios in which a lower-than-native ISO would be useful? Perhaps a scene outside a building with an open door, where the dark interior is visible in the background and more detail is required in it. Or maybe one of those night scenes which in reality would be pitch black but for movie purposes have a low level of ambient light with no highlights.
Thanks to Rupert Peddle, awesome steadicam op and focus puller – check out his site at pedhead.net – for appearing in front of the lens. Thanks also to Bex Clives, who was busy wrangling data from the lens tests while we were shooting these ISO tests, and of course Arri Rental UK.