The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

It is night. We Steadicam into a moonlit bedroom, drifting across a window – where a raven is visible on the outside ledge, tapping at the glass with its beak – and land on a sleeping couple. The woman, Annabel, wakes up and goes to the window, causing the bird to flee. Crossing over to her far shoulder, we rest on Annabel’s reflection for a moment, before racking focus to another woman outside, maybe 200ft away, running towards a cliff. All in one shot.

Such was the action required in a scene from Annabel Lee, the most ambitious short I’ve ever been involved with. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the film was the brainchild of actor Angel Parker, who plays the titular character. It was directed by Amy Coop, who had already to decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini with Cooke Anamorphics before I was even hired.

Working with animals has its own difficulties, but for me as director of photography the challenges of this particular shot were:

  1. Making the bedroom appear moonlit by the single window, without any lamps being visible at any point in the Steadicam move.
  2. Lighting the view outside.
  3. Ensuring the live raven read on camera even though the shot was quite wide.
  4. Making Annabel bright enough that her reflection would read, without washing out the rest of the scene.
  5. Blocking the camera in concert with Annabel’s move so that its reflection would not be seen.

I left that last one in the capable hands of Steadicam op Rupert Peddle, along with Angel and Amy. What they ended up doing was timing Angel’s move so that she would block the window from camera at the moment that the camera’s reflection would have appeared.

Meanwhile, I put my head together with gaffer Bertil Mulvad to tackle the other four challenges. We arrived at a set-up using only three lights:

  1. A LiteMat 1 above the window (indoors) which served to light Annabel and her reflection, as well as reaching to the bed.
  2. Another LED source outside the window to one side, lighting the raven.
  3. A nine-light Maxibrute on a cherry-picker, side-lighting the woman outside and the cliffs. This was gelled with CTB to match the daylight LEDs.

Unfortunately the outside LED panel backlit the window glass, which was old and kept fogging up, obscuring the raven. With hindsight that panel might have been better on the other side of the window (left rather than right, but still outside), even though it would have created some spill problems inside. (To be honest, this would have made the lighting direction more consistent with the Maxibrute “moonlight” as well. It’s so easy to see this stuff after the fact!)

Everything else worked very well, but editor Jim Page did have to cut in a close-up of the raven, without which you’d never have known it was there.

The Hardest Shot I’ve Ever Done

Exposure Part 4: I.S.O.

So far in this series we have seen how we can adjust exposure using aperture, which affects depth of field, ND filters, which can help us retain the depth of field we want, and shutter angle, which affects motion blur and flickering of certain light sources. In this final part we’ll look at ISO, perhaps the most misunderstood element of exposure, if indeed we can technically classify it as part of exposure at all!

 

What is I.S.O.?

The acronym stands for International Organization for Standardization, 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.

Two different cameras filming the same scene with the same filters, aperture and shutter settings will not necessarily produce an image of equal brightness, because the ways that their electronics convert light into video signals are different. That is why we need ISO, which defines the relationship between the amount of light reaching the sensor (or film) and the brightness of the resulting image.

For example, a common ISO to shoot at today is 800. One way of defining ISO 800 is that it’s the setting required to correctly expose a key-light of 12 foot-candles with a lens set to T2.8 and a 180° shutter at 24fps (1/48th of a second).

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 6 foot-candles of light (all the other settings being the same), and at ISO 3200 we would need just 3 foot-candles. Conversely, at ISO 400 we would need about 25 foot-candles, or 50 at ISO 200.

 

A Flawed Analogy

Note that I said “effective” sensitivity. This is an important point. In the photochemical world, ISO indeed denotes the light sensitivity of the film stock. It is tempting to see digital ISO as representing the sensitivity of the sensor, and changing the ISO as analogous to loading a different film stock. But in reality the sensitivity of a digital sensor is fixed, and the ISO only determines the amount of gain applied to the sensor data before it is processed (which may happen in camera if you’re shooting linear or log, or in post if you’re shooting RAW).

So a better analogy is that altering the ISO is like altering how long the lab develops the exposed film negative for. This alters the film’s exposure index (EI), hence some digital cameras using the term EI in their menus instead of ISO or ASA.

We can take this analogy further. Film manufacturers specify a recommended development time, an arbitrary period designed to produce the optimal image. If you increase (push) or decrease (pull) the development time you will get a lighter or darker image respectively, but the quality of the image will be reduced in various ways. Similarly, digital camera manufacturers specify a native ISO, which is essentially the recommended amount of gain applied to the sensor data to produce what the manufacturer feels is the best image, and if you move away from that native ISO you’ll get a subjectively “lower quality” image.

Compare the graininess/smoothness of the blacks in these images from my 2017 tests. Click to enlarge.

The most obvious side effect of increasing the ISO is more noticeable noise in the image. 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 we call the native ISO today.

 

I.S.O. and Dynamic range

At this point we need to bring in the concept of dynamic range. Let’s take the Arri Alexa as an example. This camera has a dynamic range of 14 stops. 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 seven stops, and underexpose by up to seven stops, without losing detail.

If you change the Alexa’s ISO, those limits of under- and overexposure still apply, but they’re shifted around middle grey. For example, at 400 ISO you have eight stops of detail below middle grey, but only six above it. This means that, assuming you adjust your iris, shutter or filters to compensate for the change in ISO, you can trade-off highlight detail for shadow detail, or vice versa.

Imagine underexposing a shot by one stop and bringing it back up in post. You increase the highlight detail, because you’re letting half the light through to the sensor, reducing the risk of clipped whites, but you also increase the noise when you bring it up in post. This is basically what you’re doing when you increase your ISO, except that if you’re recording in linear or log then the restoration of brightness and increase in gain happen within the camera, rather than in post with RAW.

Note the increased detail in the bulb at higher ISOs. Click to enlarge..

We can summarise all this as follows:

Doubling the ISO…

  • increases overall brightness by one stop, and
  • increases picture noise.

Then adjusting the exposure to compensate (e.g. closing the iris one stop)…

  • restores overall brightness to its original value,
  • gives you one more stop of detail in the highlights, and
  • gives you one less stop of detail in the shadows.

Alternatively, halving the ISO…

  • decreases overall brightness by one stop, and
  • decreases picture noise.

Then adjusting the exposure to compensate (e.g. opening the iris one stop)…

  • restores overall brightness to its original value,
  • gives you one less stop of detail in the highlights, and
  • gives you one more stop of detail in the shadows.

 

Conclusion

This brings me to the end of my exposure series. We’ve seen that choosing the “correct” exposure is a balancing act, taking into account not just the intended brightness of the image but also the desired depth of field, bokeh, lens flares, motion blur, flicker prevention, noise and dynamic range. I hope this series has helped you to make the best creative decisions on your next production.

See also: “6 Ways to Judge Exposure”

Exposure Part 4: I.S.O.

Exposure Part 3: Shutter

In the first two parts of this series we saw how exposure can be controlled using the lens aperture – with side effects including changes to the depth of field – and neutral density (ND) filters. Today we will look at another means of exposure control: shutter angle.

 

The Physical Shutters of Film Cameras

As with aperture, an understanding of what’s going on under the hood is useful, and that begins with celluloid. Let’s imagine we’re shooting on film at 24fps, the most common frame rate. The film can’t move continuously through the gate (the opening behind the lens where the focused light strikes the film) or we would end up recording just a long vertical streak of light. The film must remain stationary long enough to expose an image, before being moved on by a distance of four perforations (the standard height of a 35mm film frame) so that the next frame can be exposed. Crucially, light must not hit the film while it is being moved, or vertical streaking will occur.

Joram van Hartingsveldt, CC BY-SA 3.0

This is where the shutter comes in. The shutter is a portion of a disc that spins in front of the gate. The standard shutter angle is 180°, meaning that the shutter is a semi-circle. We always describe shutter angles by the portion of the disc which is missing, so a 270° shutter (admitting 1.5x the light of a 180° shutter) is a quarter of a circle, and a 90° shutter (admitting half the light of a 180° shutter) is three-quarters.

The shutter spins continuously at the same speed as the frame rate – so at 24fps the shutter makes 24 revolutions per second. So with a 180° shutter, each 24th of a second is divided into two halves, i.e. 48ths of a second:

  • During one 48th of a second, the missing part of the shutter is over the gate, allowing the light to pass through and the stationary film to be exposed.
  • During the other 48th of a second, the shutter blocks the gate to prevent light hitting the film as it is advanced. The shutter has a mirrored surface so that light from the lens is reflected up the viewfinder, allowing the camera operator to see what they’re shooting.

 

Intervals vs. Angles

If you come from a stills or ENG background, you may be more used to talking about shutter intervals rather than angles. The two things are related as follows:

Frame rate x (360 ÷ shutter angle) = shutter interval denominator

For example, 24 x (360 ÷ 180) = 48 so a film running at 24fps, shot with a 180° shutter, shows us only a 48th of a second’s worth of light on each frame. This has been the standard frame rate and shutter angle in cinema since the introduction of sound in the late 1920s. The amount of motion blur captured in a 48th of a second is the amount that we as an audience have been trained to expect from motion pictures all our lives.

A greater (larger shutter angle, longer shutter interval) or lesser (smaller shutter angle, shorter shutter interval) amount of motion blur looks unusual to us and thus can be used to creative effect. Saving Private Ryan features one of the best-known examples of a small shutter angle in its D-day landing sequence, where the lack of motion blur creates a crisp, hyper-real effect that draws you into the horror of the battle. The effect has been endlessly copied since then, to the point that it now feels almost mandatory to shoot action scenes with a small shutter angle.

Large shutter angles are less common, but the extra motion blur can imply a drugged, fatigued or dream-like state.

In today’s digital environment, only the Arri Alexa Studio has a physical shutter. In other cameras, the sensor’s photo-sites are allowed to charge with light over a certain period of time – still referred to as the shutter interval, even though no actual shutter is involved. The same principles apply and the same 180° angle of the virtual shutter is standard. The camera will allow you to select a shutter angle/interval from a number of options, and on some models like the Canon C300 there is a menu setting to switch between displaying the shutter setting as an angle or an interval.

 

When to Change the Shutter Angle

Sometimes it is necessary to change the shutter angle to avoid flickering. Some luminous devices, such as TV screens and monitors, or HMI lighting not set to flicker-free mode, will appear to strobe, pulse or roll on camera. This is due to them turning on and off multiple times per second, in sync with the alternating current of the mains power supply, but not necessarily in sync with the shutter. For example, if you shoot a domestic fluorescent lamp in the UK, where the mains AC cycles at 50Hz, your 1/48th (180° at 24fps) shutter will be out of sync and the lamp will appear to throb or flicker on camera. The solution is to set the shutter to 172.8° (1/50th), which is indeed what most DPs do when shooting features in the UK. Round multiples of the AC frequency like 1/100th will also work.

You may notice that I have barely mentioned exposure so far in this article. This is because, unlike stills photographers, DPs rarely use the shutter as a means of adjusting exposure. An exception is that we may increase the shutter angle when the daylight is fading, to grab an extra shot. By doubling the shutter angle from 172.8° to 345.6° we double the light admitted, i.e. we gain one stop. As long as there isn’t any fast movement, the extra motion blur is likely to go unnoticed by the audience.

One of the hallmarks of amateur cinematography is that sunny scenes have no motion blur, due to the operator (or the camera’s auto mode) decreasing the shutter interval to avoid over-exposure. It is preferable to use ND filters to cut light on bright days, as covered in part two of this series.

For the best results, the 180° (or thereabouts) shutter angle should be retained when shooting slow motion as well. If your camera displays intervals rather than angles, ideally your interval denominator should be double the frame rate. So if you want to shoot at 50fps, set the shutter interval to 1/100th. For 100fps, set the shutter to 1/200th, and so on.

If you do need to change the shutter angle for creative or technical reasons, you will usually want to compensate with the aperture. If you halve the time the shutter is open for, you must double the area of the aperture to maintain the same exposure, and vice versa. For example, if your iris was set to T4 and you change the shutter from 180° to 90° you will need to stop up to T2.8. (Refer back to my article on aperture if you need to refresh your memory about T-stops.)

In the final part of this series we’ll get to grips with ISO.

Learn more about exposure in my online course, Cinematic Lighting. Until this Thursday (19/11/20) you can get it for the special price of £15.99 by using the voucher code INSTA90.

Exposure Part 3: Shutter

Exposure Part 2: Neutral Density (N.D.) Filters

In the first part of this series, I explained the concepts of f-stops and T-stops, and looked at how aperture can be used to control exposure. We saw that changing the aperture causes side effects, most noticeably altering the depth of field.

How can we set the correct exposure without compromising our depth of field? Well, as we’ll see later in this series, we can adjust the shutter angle and/or ISO, but both of those have their own side effects. More commonly a DP will use neutral density (ND) filters to control the amount of light reaching the lens. These filters get their name from the fact that they block all wavelengths of light equally, so they darken the image without affecting the colour.

 

When to use an N.D. Filter

Let’s look at an example. Imagine that I want to shoot at T4; this aperture gives a nice depth of field, on the shallow side but not excessively so. My subject is very close to a bright window and my incident light meter is giving me a reading of f/11. (Although I’m aiming for a T-stop rather an f-stop, I can still use the f-number my meter gives me; in fact if my lens were marked in f-stops then my exposure would be slightly off because the meter does not know the transmission efficiency of my lens.) Let’s remind ourselves of the f-stop/T-stop series before we go any further:

1      1.4      2      2.8      4      5.6      8      11      16      22     32

By looking at this series, which can be found printed on any lens barrel or permanently displayed on a light meter’s screen, I can see that f/11 (or T11) is three stops down from f/4 (or T4) – because 11 is three numbers to the right of 4 in the series. To achieve correct exposure at T4 I’ll need to cut three stops of light. I can often be seen on set counting the stops like this on my light meter or on my fingers. It is of course possible to work it out mathematically or with an app, but that’s not usually necessary. You quickly memorise the series of stops with practice.

 

What Strength of filter to choose

Some ND filters are marked in stops, so I could simply select a 3-stop ND and slide it into my matte box or screw it onto my lens. Other times – the built-in ND filters on the Sony FS7, for example – they’re defined by the fraction of light they let through. So the FS7’s 1/4 ND cuts two stops; the first stop halves the light – as we saw in part of one of this series – and the second stop halves it again, leaving us a quarter of the original amount. The 1/16 setting cuts four stops.

However, most commonly, ND filters are labelled in optical density. A popular range of ND filters amongst professional cinematographers are those made by Tiffen, and a typical set might be labelled as follows:

.3      .6      .9      1.2

That’s the optical density, a property defined as the natural logarithm of the ratio of the quantity of light entering the filter to the quantity of light exiting it on the other side. A .3 ND reduces the light by half because 10 raised to the power of -0.3 is about 0.5, and reducing light by half, as we’ve previously established, means dropping one stop.

If that maths is a bit much for you, don’t worry. All you really need to do is multiply the number of stops you want to cut by 0.3 to find the filter you need. So, going back to my example with the bright window, to get from T11 to T4, i.e. to cut three stops, I’ll pick the .9 ND.

It’s far from intuitive at first, but once you get your head around it, and memorise the f-stops, it’s not too difficult. Trust me!

Here are a couple more examples:

  • Light meter reads f/8 and you want to shoot at T5.6. That’s a one stop difference. (5.6 and 8 are right next to each other in the stop series, as you’ll see if you scroll back to the top.) 1 x 0.3 = 0.3 so you should use the .3 ND.
  • Light meter reads f/22 and you want to shoot at T2.8. That’s a six stop difference (scroll back up and count them), and 6 x 0.3 = 1.8, so you need a 1.8 ND filter. If you don’t have one, you need to stack two NDs in your matte box that add up to 1.8, e.g. a 1.2 and a .6.

 

Variations on a Theme

Variable ND filters are also available. These consist of two polarising filters which can be rotated against each other to progressively lighten or darken the image. They’re great for shooting guerilla-style with a small crew. You can set your iris where you want it for depth of field, then expose the image by eye simply by turning the filter. On the down side, they’re hard to use with a light meter because there is often little correspondence between the markings on the filter and stops. They can also have a subtle adverse effect on skin tones, draining a person’s apparent vitality, as some of the light which reflects off human skin is polarised.

IR pollution increases with successively stronger ND filters (left to right) used on a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera. The blue dyes in this costume evidently reflect a large amount of IR.

Another issue to look out for with ND filters is infra-red (IR). Some filters cut only the visible wavelengths of light, allowing IR to pass through. Some digital sensors will interpret this IR as visible red, resulting in an image with a red colour cast which can be hard to grade out because different materials will be affected to different degrees. Special IR ND filters are available to eliminate this problem.

These caveats aside, ND filters are the best way to adjust exposure (downwards at least) without affecting the image in any other way.

In the next part of this series I’ll look at shutter angles, what they mean, how they affect exposure and what the side effects are.

Learn how to use ND filters practically with my Cinematic Lighting online couse. Enter voucher code INSTA90 for an amazing 90% off.

Exposure Part 2: Neutral Density (N.D.) Filters

Exposure Part 1: Aperture

This is the first in a series of posts where I will look in detail at the four means of controlling the brightness of a digital video image: aperture, neutral density (ND) filters, shutter angle and ISO. It is not uncommon for newer cinematographers to have only a partial understanding of these topics, enough to get by in most situations; that was certainly the case with me for many years. The aim of this series is to give you an understanding of the underlying mechanics which will enable you to make more informed creative decisions.

You can change any one of the four factors, or any combination of them, to reach your desired level of exposure. However, most of them will also affect the image in other ways; for example, aperture affects depth of field. One of the key responsibilities of the director of photography is to use each of the four factors not just to create the ideal exposure, but to make appropriate use of these “side effects” as well.

 

f-stops and t-stops

The most common way of altering exposure is to adjust the aperture, a.k.a. the iris, sometimes described as changing “the stop”. Just like the pupil in our eyes, the aperture of a photographic lens is a (roughly) circular opening which can be expanded or contracted to permit more or less light through to the sensor.

You will have seen a series of numbers like this printed on the sides of lenses:

1      1.4      2      2.8      4      5.6      8      11      16      22     32

These are ratios – ratios of the lens’ focal length to its iris diameter. So a 50mm lens with a 25mm diameter iris is at f/2. Other lengths of lens would have different iris diameters at f/2 (e.g. 10mm diameter for a 20mm lens) but they would all produce an image of the same brightness. That’s why we use f-stops to talk about iris rather than diameters.

But why not label a lens 1, 2, 3, 4…? Why 1, 1.2, 2, 2.8…? These magic numbers are f-stops. A lens set to f/1.4 will let in twice as much light as (or “one stop more than”) a lens set to f/2, which in turn will let in twice as much as one set to f/2.8, and so on. Conversely, a lens set to f/2.8 will let in half as much light as (or “one stop less than”) a lens set to f/2, and so on. (Note that a number between any of these f-stops, e.g. f/1.8, is properly called an f-number, but not an f-stop.) These doublings or halvings – technically known as a base-2 logarithmic scale – are a fundamental concept in exposure, and mimic our eyes’ response to light.

If you think back to high-school maths and the πr² squared formula for calculating the area of a circle from its radius, the reason for the seemingly random series of numbers will start to become clear. Letting in twice as much light requires twice as much area for those light rays to fall on, and remember that the f-number is the ratio of the focal length to the iris diameter, so you can see how square roots are going to get involved and why f-stops aren’t just plain old round numbers.

If you’re shooting with a cine lens, rather than a stills lens, you’ll see the same series of numbers on the barrel, but here they are T-stops rather than f-stops. T-stops are f-stops adjusted to compensate for the light transmission efficiency. Two different lenses set to, say, f/2 will not necessarily produce equally bright images, because some percentage of light travelling through the elements will always be lost, and that percentage will vary depending on the quality of the glass and the number of elements. A lens with 100% light transmission would have the same f-number and T-number, but in practice the T-number will always be a little bigger than the f-number. For example, Cooke’s 15-40mm zoom is rated at a maximum aperture of T2 or f/1.84.

 

Fast and slow lenses

When buying or renting a lens, one of the first things you will want to know is its maximum aperture. Lenses are often described as being fast (larger maximum aperture, denoted by a smaller f- or T-number like T1.4) or slow (smaller maximum aperture, denoted by a bigger f- or T-number like T4). These terms come from the fact that the shutter speed would need to be faster or slower to capture the same amount of light… but more on that later in the series.

Faster lenses are generally more expensive, but that expense may well be outweighed by the savings made on lighting equipment. Let’s take a simple example, and imagine an interview lit by a 4-bank Kino Flo and exposed at T2.8. If our lens can open one stop wider (known as stopping up) to T2 then we double the amount of light reaching the sensor. We can therefore halve the level of light – by turning off two of the Kino Flo’s tubes or by renting a cheaper 2-bank unit in the first place. If we can stop up further, to T1.4, then we only need one Kino tube to achieve the same exposure.

 

Side effects

One of the first things that budding cinematographers learn is that wider apertures make for a smaller depth of field, i.e. the range of distances within which a subject will be in focus is smaller. In simple terms, the background of the image is blurrier when the depth of field is shallower.

It is often tempting to go for the shallowest possible depth of field, because it feels more cinematic and helps conceal shortcomings in the production design, but that is not the right look for every story. A DP will often choose a stop to shoot at based on the depth of field they desire. That choice of stop may affect the entire lighting budget; if you want to shoot at a very slow T14 like Douglas Slocombe did for the Indiana Jones trilogy, you’re going to need several trucks full of lights!

There is another side effect of adjusting the aperture which is less obvious. Lenses are manufactured to perform best in the middle of their iris range. If you open a lens up to its maximum aperture or close it down to its minimum, the image will soften a little. Therefore another advantage of faster lenses is the ability to get further away from their maximum aperture (and poorest image quality) with the same amount of light.

Finally it is worth noting that the appearance of bokeh (out of focus areas) and lens flares also changes with aperture. The Cooke S4 range, for example, renders out-of-focus highlights as circles when wide open, but as octagons when stopped down. With all lenses, the star pattern seen around bright light sources will be stronger when the aperture is smaller. You should shoot tests – like these I conducted in 2017 – if these image artefacts are a critical part of your film’s look.

Next time we’ll look at how we can use ND filters to control exposure without compromising our choice of stop.

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Exposure Part 1: Aperture