How is Dynamic Range Measured?

The high dynamic range of the ARRI Alexa Mini allowed me to retain all the sky detail in this shot from “Above the Clouds”.

Recently I’ve been pondering which camera to shoot an upcoming project on, so I consulted the ASC’s comparison chart. Amongst the many specs compared is dynamic range, and I noticed that the ARRI Alexa’s was given as 14+ stops, while the Blackmagic URSA’s is 15. Having used both cameras a fair bit, I can tell you that there’s no way in Hell that the Ursa has a higher dynamic range than the Alexa. So what’s going on here?


What is dynamic range?

To put it simply, dynamic range is the level of contrast that an imaging system can handle. To quote Alan Roberts, who we’ll come back to later:

This is normally calculated as the ratio of the exposure which just causes white clipping to the exposure level below which no details can be seen.

A photosite on a digital camera’s sensor outputs a voltage proportional to the amount of light hitting it, but at some point the voltage reaches a maximum, and no matter how much more light you add, it won’t change. At the other end of the scale, a photosite may receive so little light that it outputs no voltage, or at least nothing that’s discernible from the inherent electronic noise in the system. These upper and lower limits of brightness may be narrowed by image processing within the camera, with RAW recording usually retaining the full dynamic range, while linear Rec. 709 severely curtails it.

In photography and cinematography, we measure dynamic range in stops – doublings and halvings of light which I explain fully in this article. One stop is a ratio of 2:1, five stops are 32:1, thirteen stops are almost 10,000:1

It’s worth pausing here to point out the difference between dynamic range and latitude, a term which is sometimes regarded as synonymous, but it’s not. The latitude is a measure of how much the camera can be over- or under-exposed without losing any detail, and is dependent on both the dynamic range of the camera and the dynamic range of the scene. (A low-contrast scene will allow more latitude for incorrect exposure than a high-contrast scene.)


Problems of Measurement

Before digital cinema cameras were developed, video had a dynamic range of about seven stops. You could measure this relatively easily by shooting a greyscale chart and observing the waveform of the recorded image to see where the highlighs levelled off and the shadows disappeared into the noise floor. With today’s dynamic ranges into double digits, simple charts are no longer practical, because you can’t manufacture white enough paper or black enough ink.

For his excellent video on dynamic range, Filmmaker IQ’s John Hess built a device fitted with a row of 1W LEDs, using layers of neutral density gel to make each one a stop darker than its neighbour. For the purposes of his demonstration, this works fine, but as Phil Rhodes points out on RedShark News, you start running into the issue of the dynamic range of the lens.

It may seem strange to think that a lens has dynamic range, and in the past when I’ve heard other DPs talk about certain glass being more or less contrasty, I admit that I haven’t thought much about what that means. What it means is flare, and not the good anamorphic streak kind, but the general veiling whereby a strong light shining into the lens will raise the overall brightness of the image as it bounces around the different elements. This lifts the shadows, producing a certain amount of milkiness. Even with high contrast lenses, ones which are less prone to veiling, the brightest light on your test device will cause some glare over the darkest one, when measuring the kind of dynamic range today’s cameras enjoy.


Manufacturer Measurements

Going back to my original query about the Alexa versus the URSA, let’s see exactly what the manufacturers say. ARRI specifically states that its sensor’s dynamic range is over 14 stops “as measured with the ARRI Dynamic Range Test Chart”. So what is this chart and how does it work? The official sales blurb runs thusly:

The ARRI DRTC-1 is a special test chart and analysis software for measurement of dynamic range and sensitivity of digital cameras. Through a unique stray light reduction concept this system is able to accurately measure up to 15.5 stops of dynamic range.

The “stray light reduction” is presumably to reduce the veiling mentioned earlier and provide more accurate results. This could be as simple as covering or turning off the brighter lights when measuring the dimmer ones.

I found a bit more information about the test chart in a 2011 camera shoot-out video, from that momentous time when digital was supplanting film as the cinematic acquisition format of choice. Rather than John Hess’s ND gel technique, the DRTC-1 opts for something else to regulate its light output, as ARRI’s Michael Bravin explains in the video:

There’s a piece of motion picture film behind it that’s checked with a densitometer, and what you do is you set the exposure for your camera, and where you lose detail in the vertical and horizontal lines is your clipping point, and where you lose detail because of noise in the shadow areas is your lowest exposure… and in between you end up finding the number of stops of dynamic range.

Blackmagic Design do not state how they measure the dynamic range of their cameras, but it may be a DSC Labs Xlya. This illuminated chart boasts a shutter system which “allows users to isolate and evaluate individual steps”, plus a “stepped xylophone shape” to minimise flare problems.

Art Adams, a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, and someone who’s frequently quoted in Blain Brown’s Cinematography: Theory & Practice, told Y.M. Cinema Magazine:

I used to do a lot of consulting with DSC Labs, who make camera test charts, so I own a 20-stop dynamic range chart (DSC Labs Xyla). This is what most manufacturers use to test dynamic range (although not ARRI, because our engineers don’t feel it’s precise enough) and I see what companies claim as usable stops. You can see that they are just barely above the noise floor.



Obviously these ARRI folks I keep quoting may be biased. I wanted to find an independent test that measures both Blackmagics and Alexas with the same conditions and methodology, but I couldn’t find one. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Alexas have a bigger dynamic range, in fact that’s widely accepted as fact, but quantifying the difference is harder. The most solid thing I could find is this, from a 2017 article about the Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4.6K (first generation):

The camera was measured at just over 14 stops of dynamic range in RAW 4:1 [and 13 stops in ProRes]. This is a good result, especially considering the price of the camera. To put this into perspective Alan measured the Canon C300 mkII at 15 stops of dynamic range. Both the URSA Mini 4.6 and C300 mkII are bettered by the ARRI Alexa and Amira, but then that comes as no surprise given their reputation and price.

The Alan mentioned is Alan Roberts, something of a legend when it comes to testing cameras. It is interesting to note that he is one of the key players behind the TLCI (Television Lighting Consistency Index), a mooted replacement for CRI (Colour Rendering Index). It’s interesting because this whole dynamic range business is starting to remind me of my investigation into CRI, and is leading me to a similar conclusion, that the numbers which the manufacturers give you are all but useless in real-world cinematography.

Whereas CRI at least has a standardised test, there’s no such thing for dynamic range. Therefore, until there is more transparency from manufacturers about how they measure it, I’d recommend ignoring their published values. As always when choosing a camera, shoot your own tests if at all possible. Even the most reliable numbers can’t tell you whether you’re going to like a camera’s look or not, or whether it’s right for the story you want to tell.

When tests aren’t possible, and I know that’s often the case in low-budget land, at least try to find an independent comparison. I’ll leave you with this video from the Slanted Lens, which compares the URSA Mini Pro G2 with the ARRI Amira (which uses the same Alev III sensor as the Alexa). They don’t measure the dynamic range, but you can at least see the images side by side, and in the end it’s the images that matter, not the numbers.

How is Dynamic Range Measured?

Making an Analogue Print

This is the latest in my series about analogue photography. Previously, I’ve covered the science behind film capture, and how to develop your own black-and-white film. Now we’ll proceed to the next step: taking your negative and producing a print from it. Along the way we’ll discover the analogue origins of Photoshop’s dodge and burn tools.


Contact printing

35mm contact sheet

To briefly summarise my earlier posts, we’ve seen that photographic emulsion – with the exception of colour slide film – turns black when exposed to light, and remains transparent when not. This is how we end up with a negative, in which dark areas correspond to the highlights in the scene, and light areas correspond with the shadows.

The simplest way to make a positive print from a negative is contact-printing, so called because the negative is placed in direct contact with the photographic printing paper. This is typically done in a spring-loaded contact printing frame, the top of which is made of glass. You shine light through the glass, usually from an enlarger – see below – for a measured period of time, determined by trial and error. Where the negative is dark (highlights) the light can’t get through, and the photographic emulsion on the paper remains transparent, allowing the white paper base to show through. Where the negative is transparent (shadows) the light passes through, and the emulsion – once developed and fixed in the same way as the original film – turns black. Thus a positive image is produced.

Normally you would contact-print multiple strips of negative at the same time, perhaps an entire roll of film’s worth, if your paper is large enough to fit them all. Then you can examine them through a loupe to decide which ones are worth enlarging. You have probably seen contact sheets, complete with circled images, stars and arrows indicating which frames the photographer or picture editor likes, where they might crop it, and which areas need doctoring. In fact, contact sheets are so aesthetically pleasing that it’s not uncommon these days for graphic designers to create fake digital ones.

The correct exposure time for a contact print can be found by exposing the whole sheet for, say, ten seconds, then covering a third of it with a piece of card, exposing it for another ten seconds, then covering that same third plus another third and exposing it for ten seconds more. Once developed, you can decide which exposure you like best, or try another set of timings.

120 contact sheet


Making an enlargement

Contact prints are all well and good, but they’re always the same size as the camera negative, which usually isn’t big enough for a finished product, especially with 35mm. This is where an enlarger comes in.

An enlarger is essentially a projector mounted on a stand. You place the negative of your chosen image into a drawer called the negative carrier. Above this is a bulb, and below it is a lens. When the bulb is turned on, light shines through the negative, and the lens focuses the image (upside-down of course) onto the paper below. By adjusting the height of the enlarger’s stand, you can alter the size of the projected image.

Just like a camera lens, an enlarger’s lens has adjustable focus and aperture. You can scrutinise the projected image using a loupe; if you can see the grain of the film, you know that the image is sharply focused.

The aperture is marked in f-stops as you would expect, and just like when shooting, you can trade off the iris size against the exposure time. For example, a print exposed for 30 seconds at f/8 will have the same brightness as one exposed for 15 seconds at f/5.6. (Opening from f/8 to f/5.6 doubles the light, or increases exposure by one stop, while halving the time cuts the light back to its original value.)


Dodging and burning

As with contact-printing, the optimum exposure for an enlargement can be found by test-printing strips for different lengths of time. This brings us to dodging and burning, which are respectively methods of decreasing or increasing the exposure time of specific parts of the image.

Remember that the printing paper starts off bright white, and turns black with exposure, so to brighten part of the image you need to reduce its exposure. This can be achieved by placing anything opaque between the projector lens and the paper for part of the exposure time. Typically a circle of cardboard on a piece of wire is used; this is known as a dodger. That’s the “lollipop” you see in the Photoshop icon. It’s important to keep the dodger moving during the exposure, otherwise you’ll end up with a sharply-defined bright area (not to mention a visible line where the wire handle was) rather than something subtle.

I dodged the robin in this image, to help him stand out.

Let me just say that dodging is a joyful thing to do. It’s such a primitive-looking tool, but you feel like a child with a magic wand when you’re using it, and it can improve an image no end. It’s common practice today for digital colourists to power-window a face and increase its luminance to draw the eye to it; photographers have been doing this for decades and decades.

Burning is of couse the opposite of dodging, i.e. increasing the exposure time of part of the picture to make it darker. One common application is to bring back detail in a bright sky. To do this you would first of all expose the entire image in such a way that the land will look good. Then, before developing, you would use a piece of card to cover the land, and expose the sky for maybe five or ten seconds more. Again, you would keep the card in constant motion to blend the edges of the effect.

To burn a smaller area, you would cut a hole in a piece of card, or simply form your hands into a rough hole, as depicted in the Photoshop icon.


Requirements of a darkroom

The crucial thing which I haven’t yet mentioned is that all of the above needs to take place in near-darkness. Black-and-white photographic paper is less sensitive to the red end of the spectrum, so a dim red lamp known as a safe-light can be used to see what you’re doing. Anything brighter – even your phone’s screen – will fog your photographic paper as soon as you take it out of its lightproof box.

Once your print is exposed, you need to agitate it in a tray of diluted developer for a couple of minutes, then dip it in a tray of water, then place it in a tray of diluted fixer. Only then can you turn on the main lights, but you must still fix the image for five minutes, then leave it in running water for ten minutes before drying it. (This all assumes you’re using resin-coated paper.)

Because you need an enlarger, which is fairly bulky, and space for the trays of chemicals, and running water, all in a room that is one hundred per cent lightproof, printing is a difficult thing to do at home. Fortunately there are a number of darkrooms available for hire around the country, so why not search for a local one and give analogue printing a go?

Some enlargements from 35mm on 8×10″ paper


Making an Analogue Print

How Analogue Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer

With many of us looking for new hobbies to see us through the zombie apocalypse Covid-19 lockdown, analogue photography may be the perfect one for an out-of-work DP. While few of us may get to experience the magic and discipline of shooting motion picture film, stills film is accessible to all. With a range of stocks on the market, bargain second-hand cameras on eBay, seemingly no end of vintage glass, and even home starter kits for processing your own images, there’s nothing to stop you giving it a go.

Since taking them up again In 2018, I’ve found that 35mm and 120 photography have had a positive impact on my digital cinematography. Here are five ways in which I think celluloid photography can help you too sharpen your filmmaking skills.


1. Thinking before you click

When you only have 36 shots on your roll and that roll cost you money, you suddenly have a different attitude to clicking the shutter. Is this image worthy of a place amongst those 36? If you’re shooting medium or large-format then the effect is multiplied. In fact, given that we all carry phone cameras with us everywhere we go, there has to be a pretty compelling reason to lug an SLR or view camera around. That’s bound to raise your game, making you think longer and harder about composition and content, to make every frame of celluloid a minor work of art.


2. Judging exposure

I know a gaffer who can step outside and tell you what f-stop the light is, using only his naked eye. This is largely because he is a keen analogue photographer. You can expose film by relying on your camera’s built-in TTL (through the lens) meter, but since you can’t see the results until the film is processed, analogue photographers tend to use other methods as well, or instead, to ensure a well-exposed negative. Rules like “Sunny Sixteen” (on a sunny day, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed reciprocal to match the ISO, e.g. 1/200th of a second at ISO 200) and the use of handheld incident meters make you more aware of the light levels around you. A DP with this experience can get their lighting right more quickly.


3. Pre-visualising results

We digital DPs can fall into the habit of not looking at things with our eyes, always going straight to the viewfinder or the monitor to judge how things look. Since the optical viewfinder of an analogue camera tells you little more than the framing, you tend to spend less time looking through the camera and more using your eye and your mind to visualise how the image will look. This is especially true when it comes to white balance, exposure and the distribution of tones across a finished print, none of which are revealed by an analogue viewfinder. Exercising your mind like this gives you better intuition and increases your ability to plan a shoot, through storyboarding, for example.


4. Grading

If you take your analogue ethic through to post production by processing and printing your own photographs, there is even more to learn. Although detailed manipulation of motion pictures in post is relatively new, people have been doctoring still photos pretty much since the birth of the medium in the mid-19th century. Discovering the low-tech origins of Photoshop’s dodge and burn tools to adjust highlights and shadows is a pure joy, like waving a magic wand over your prints. More importantly, although the printing process is quick, it’s not instantaneous like Resolve or Baselight, so you do need to look carefully at your print, visualise the changes you’d like to make, and then execute them. As a DP, this makes you more critical of your own work and as a colourist, it enables you to work more efficiently by quickly identifying how a shot can be improved.


5. Understanding

Finally, working with the medium which digital was designed to imitate gives you a better understanding of that imitation. It was only when I learnt about push- and pull-processing – varying the development time of a film to alter the brightness of the final image – that my understanding of digital ISO really clicked. Indeed, some argue that electronic cameras don’t really have ISO, that it’s just a simulation to help users from an analogue background to understand what’s going on. If all you’ve ever used is the simulation (digital), then you’re unlikely to grasp the concepts in the same way that you would if you’ve tried the original (analogue).

How Analogue Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer

How to Make a Zoetrope for 35mm Contact Prints

Are you an analogue photographer looking for a different way to present your images? Have you ever thought about shooting a sequence of stills and reanimating them in a zoetrope, an optical device from the Victorian era that pre-figured cinema? That is exactly what I decided to do as a project to occupy myself during the zombie apocalypse Covid-19 lockdown. Contact prints are aesthetically pleasing in themselves, and I wanted to tap into the history of the zoetrope by creating a movie-like continuous filmstrip of sequential images and bringing them to life.

In the first part of my blog about this project, I covered the background and setting up a time-lapse of my cherry tree as content for the device. This weekend I shot the final image of the time-lapse, the last of the blossom having dropped. No-one stole my camera while it sat in my front garden for three weeks, and I was blessed with consistently sunny weather until the very last few days, when I was forced to adjust the exposure time to give me one or two extra stops. I’ll be interested to see how the images have come out, once I can get into the darkroom.

Meanwhile, I’ve been constructing the zoetrope itself, following this excellent article on Reframing Photography. Based on this, I’ve put together my own instructions specifically for making a device that holds 18 frames of contact-printed 35mm film. I chose a frame count of 18 for a few reasons:

  1. The resultant diameter, 220mm, seemed like a comfortable size, similar to a table lamp.
  2. Two image series of 18 frames fit neatly onto a 36 exposure film.
  3. Negatives are commonly cut into strips of six frames for storage and contact-printing, so a number divisible by six makes constructing the image loop a little more convenient.


You Will Need

  • Contact sheet containing 18 sequential 35mm images across three rows
  • A1 sheet of 300gsm card, ideally black
  • PVA glue
  • Ruler (the longer the better)
  • Set square
  • Compass
  • Pencil & eraser
  • Scissors
  • Craft knife or stanley knife
  • Paper clips or clothes pegs for clamping while glue dries
  • Rotating stand like a lazy susan or record player


Making the image loop

First, cut out the three rows of contact prints, leaving a bit of blank paper at one end of each row for overlap. Now glue them together into one long strip of 18 sequential images. The strip should measure 684mm plus overlap, because a 35mm negative or contact print measures 38mm in width including the border on one side: 38×18=684.

Glue the strip together into a loop with the images on the inside. This loop should have a diameter of 218mm. Note that we must make our zoetrope’s drum to a slightly bigger diameter, or the image loop won’t fit inside it. We’ll use our image loop to check the size of the drum; that’s why we’ve made it first. (If you don’t have your images ready yet, use an old contact sheet – as I did – or any strip of paper or light card of the correct size, 35mmx684mm.)


Making the side wall

Cut a strip of the black card measuring 723x90mm. This will be the side wall of your drum. Wrap this strip around your image loop, as tightly as you can without distorting the circular shape of the image loop. Mark where the card strip overlaps itself to find the circumference of the drum, which will be slightly bigger than the 684mm circumference of the image loop. In my case the drum circumference was 688mm – as illustrated in the diagram above. (You can click on it to enlarge it.)

Now we can measure and cut out the slots, one per image. Reframing Photography recommends a 1/8″ width, and initially I went with this, rounding it to 3mm. As with making a pinhole, a smaller slot means a sharper but darker image, while a bigger slot means a brighter but blurrier one. Once my zoetrope was complete, I felt that there was too much motion blur, so I retrofitted it with 1mm slots.

Let’s stick with 3x35mm (the same height as the images) for our slot size. How far apart should the slots be? They need to be evenly spaced around the circumference, so in my case 688÷18=38.2mm, i.e. a gap of 35.2mm between each slot and then 3mm for the slot itself. If your drum circumference is different to mine, you’ll have to do your own maths to work out the spacing.

(It was impossible to measure 38.2mm accurately, but I made a spreadsheet to give me values for the cumulative slot positions to the nearest millimetre: 38, 76, 115, 153, 191, 229, 268, 306, 344, 382, 420, 459, 497, 535, 573, 612, 650 and 688.)

Mark out your 18 slots, positioning them 15mm from the top of the side wall and 40mm from the bottom, then cut them out carefully using a knife and a ruler.

Now you can glue your side wall into a loop, using paper clips or clothes peg to hold it while the glue dries. I recommend double-checking your image loop fits inside beforehand. (Do not glue your image loop into the drum; this way you can swap it out for another image series whenever you like.)


Making the connector

The connector, as the name suggests, will connect the side wall to the base of the drum. (When I made a prototype, I tried skipping this stage, simply building the connecting teeth into the side wall, but this made it much harder to keep the drum a neat circle.)

Go back to your black card and cut another strip measuring 725x60mm. Score it all the way along the middle (i.e. 30mm from the edge) so that it can be folded in two, long-ways. Now cut triangular teeth into one half of the strip. Each triangle should have a 30mm base along the scored line.

As with the side wall, you should check the circumference of the connector to ensure that it will fit around the side wall and image loop, and adjust it if necessary. My connector’s circumference, as shown on the diagram above, was 690mm.

Glue the strip into a loop, clamping it with clips or pegs while it dries. Again, it doesn’t hurt to double-check that it still fits around the side wall first.


Making the base

Use a compass to draw a circle of 220mm in diameter on your remaining card, and cut it out. (If your connector is signficantly different in circumference to mine, divide that circumference by pi [3.14] to find the diameter that will work for you.)

Now you can glue the connector to the base. I suggest starting with a single tooth, putting a bottle of water or something heavy on it to keep it in place while it dries, then do the tooth directly opposite. Once that’s dry, do the ones at 90° and so on. This way you should prevent distortions creeping into the shape of the circle as you go around.

When that’s all dry, apply glue all around the inside of the upright section of the connector. Squish your side wall into a kidney bean shape to fit it inside the connector, then allow it to expand to its usual shape. If you have made it a tight enough fit, it will naturally press against the glue and the connector.


Making it Spin

The critical part of your zoetrope, the drum, is now complete. But to animate the images, you need to make it spin. There are a few ways you can do this:

  • Mount it on an old record player, making a hole in the centre of the base for the centre spindle.
  • Mount it on a rotating cake decoration stand or lazy susan.
  • Make your own custom stand.

I chose the latter, ordering some plywood discs cut to size, an unfinished candlestick and a lazy susan bearing, then assembling and varnishing them before gluing my drum to the top.

How to Make a Zoetrope for 35mm Contact Prints

Shooting a Time-lapse for a Zoetrope

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.

Example of a zoetrope

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.

Shooting a Time-lapse for a Zoetrope

Pinhole Results

In my last couple of posts I described making and shooting with a pinhole attachment for my 35mm Pentax P30t SLR. Well, the scans are now back from the lab and I’m very pleased with them. They were shot on Fujifilm Superia Xtra 400.

As suspected, the 0.7mm pinhole was far too big, and the results are super-blurry:

See how contemptuous Spike is of this image. Or maybe that’s just Resting Cat Face.

The 0.125mm hole produced much better results, as you can see below. My f/stop calculations (f/365) seem to have been pretty close to the mark, although, as is often the case with film, the occasions where I gave it an extra stop of exposure produced even richer images. Exposure times for these varied between 2 and 16 seconds. Click to see them at higher resolution.

I love the ethereal, haunting quality of all these pictures, which recalls the fragility of Victorian photographs. It’s given me several ideas for new photography projects…


Pinhole Results

Adventures with a Pinhole

Last week I discussed making a pinhole for my Pentax 35mm SLR. Since then I’ve made a second pinhole and shot a roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 with them. Although I haven’t had the film processed yet, so the quality of the images is still a mystery, I’ve found shooting with a pinhole to be a really useful exercise.

My Pentax P30T fitted with a 0.125mm pinhole attachment


A Smaller Pinhole

Soon after my previous post, I went out into the back garden and took ten exposures of the pond and the neighbour’s cat with the 0.7mm pinhole. By that point I had decided that the hole was almost certainly too big. As I noted last week, Mr Pinhole gives an optimal diameter of 0.284mm for my camera. Besides that, the (incredibly dark) images in my viewfinder were very blurry, a sign that the hole needed to be smaller.

Scans of my two pinholes

So I peeled the piece of black wrap with the 0.7mm pinhole off my drilled body cap and replaced it with another hole measuring about 0.125mm. I had actually made this smaller hole first but rejected it because absolutely nothing was visible through the viewfinder, except for a bit of a blur in the centre. But now I came to accept that I would have to shoot blind if I wanted my images to be anything approaching sharp.

The 0.125mm(ish) pinhole magnified in Photoshop

I had made the 0.125mm hole by tapping the black wrap with only the very tip of the needle, rather than pushing it fully through. Prior to taping it into the body cap, I scanned it at high resolution and measured it using Photoshop. This revealed that it’s a very irregular shape, which probably means the images will still be pretty soft. Unfortunately I couldn’t see a way of getting it any more circular; sanding didn’t seem to help.

Again I found the f-stop of the pinhole by dividing the flange focal distance (45.65mm) by the hole diameter, the result being about f/365. My incident-light meter only goes up to f/90, so I needed to figure out how many stops away from f/365 that is. I’m used to working in the f/1.4-f/22 range, so I wasn’t familiar with how the stop series progresses above f/90. Turns out that you can just multiply by 1.4 to roughly find the next stop up, so after f/90 it’s 128, then 180, then 256, then 358, pretty close to my f/365 pinhole. So whatever reading my meter gave me for f/90, I knew that I would need to add 4 stops of exposure, i.e. multiply the shutter interval by 16. (Stops are a base 2 logarithmic scale. See my article on f-stops, T-stops and ND filters for more info.)


The Freedom of Pinhole Shooting

I’ve just spent a pleasant hour or so in the garden shooting the remaining 26 exposures on my roll with the new 0.125mm pinhole. Regardless of how the photos come out, I found it a fun and fascinating exercise.

Knowing that the images would be soft made me concentrate on colour and form far more than I normally would. Not being able to frame using the viewfinder forced me to visualise the composition mentally. And as someone who finds traditional SLRs very tricky to focus, it was incredibly freeing not to have to worry about that, not to have to squint through the viewfinder at all, but just plonk the camera down where it looked right and squeeze the shutter.

Of course, before squeezing the shutter I needed to take incident-light readings, because the TTL (through the lens) meter was doing nothing but flash “underexposed” at me. Being able to rely solely on an incident meter to judge exposure is a very useful skill for a DP, so this was great practice. I’ve been reading a lot about Ansel Adams and the Zone System lately, and although this requires a spot reflectance meter to be implemented properly, I tried to follow Adams’ philosophy, visualising how I wanted the subject’s tones to correspond to the eventual print tones. (Expect an article about the Zone System in the not-too-distant future!)


D.I.Y. pinhole Camera

On Tuesday night I went along to a meeting of Cambridge Darkroom, the local camera club. By coincidence, this month’s subject was pinhole cameras. Using online plans, Rich Etteridge had made up kits for us to construct our own complete pinhole cameras in groups. I teamed up with a philosophy student called Tim, and we glued a contraption together in the finest Blue Peter style. The actual pinholes were made in metal squares cut from Foster’s cans, which are apparently something Rich has in abundance.

DIY pinhole camera

I have to be honest though: I’m quite scared of trying to use it. Look at those dowels. Can I really see any outcome of attempting to load this camera other than a heap of fogged film on the floor? No. I think I’ll stick with my actual professionally-made camera body for now. If the pinhole photos I took with that come out alright, then maaaaaaybe I’ll consider lowering the tech level further and trying out my Blue Peter camera. Either way, big thanks to Rich for taking all that time to produce the kits and talk us through the construction.

Watch this space to find out how my pinhole images come out.


Adventures with a Pinhole

Making a Pinhole Attachment for an SLR

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 drill,
  • a small piece of smooth, non-crumpled black wrap, or kitchen foil painted black,
  • scissors,
  • gaffer tape (of course), and
  • a needle or pin.


  1. Drill a hole in the centre of the body cap. The size of the hole is unimportant.
  2. Use the pin or needle to pierce a hole in the black wrap, at least a couple of centimetres from the edge.
  3. 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.
  4. Use the gaffer tape to fix the black wrap tightly to the inside of the body cap.
  5. 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!

Making a Pinhole Attachment for an SLR

How Big a Light do I Need?

Experience goes a long way, but sometimes you need to be more precise about what size of lighting instruments are required for a particular scene. Night exteriors, for example; you don’t want to find out on the day that the HMI you hired as your “moon” backlight isn’t powerful enough to cover the whole of the car park you’re shooting in. How can you prep correctly so that you don’t get egg on your face?

There are two steps: 1. determine the intensity of light you require on the subject, and 2. find a combination of light fixture and fixture-to-subject distance that will provide that intensity.


The Required intensity

The goal here is to arrive at a number of foot-candles (fc). Foot-candles are a unit of light intensity, sometimes more formally called illuminance, and one foot-candle is the illuminance produced by a standard candle one foot away. (Illuminance can also be measured in the SI unit of lux, where 1 fc ≈ 10 lux, but in cinematography foot-candles are more commonly used. It’s important to remember that illuminance is a measure of the light incident to a surface, i.e. the amount of light reaching the subject. It is not to be confused with luminance, which is the amount of light reflected from a surface, or with luminous power, a.k.a. luminous flux, which is the total amount of light emitted from a source.)

Usually you start with a T-stop (or f-stop) that you want to shoot at, based on the depth of field you’d like. You also need to know the ISO and shutter interval (usually 1/48th or 1/50th of a second) you’ll be shooting at. Next you need to convert these facets of exposure into an illuminance value, and there are a few different ways of doing this.

One method is to use a light meter, if you have one, which you enter the ISO and shutter values into. Then you wave it around your office, living room or wherever, pressing the trigger until you happen upon a reading which matches your target f-stop. Then you simply switch your meter into foot-candles mode and read off the number. This method can be a bit of a pain in the neck, especially if – like mine – your meter requires fiddly flipping of dip-switches and additional calculations to get a foot-candles reading out of.

A much simpler method is to consult an exposure table, like the one below, or an exposure calculator, which I’m sure is a thing which must exist, but I’ll be damned if I could find one.

Some cinematographers memorise the fact that 100fc is f/2.8 at ISO 100, and work out other values from that. For example, ISO 400 is four times (two stops) faster than ISO 100, so a quarter of the light is required, i.e. 25fc.

Alternatively, you can use the underlying maths of the above methods. This is unlikely to be necessary in the real world, but for the purposes of this blog it’s instructive to go through the process. The equation is:


  • b is the illuminance in fc,
  • f is the f– or T-stop,
  • s is the shutter interval in seconds, and
  • i is the ISO.

Say I’m shooting on an Alexa with a Cooke S4 Mini lens. If I have the lens wide open at T2.8, the camera at its native ISO of 800 and the shutter interval at the UK standard of 1/50th (0.02) of a second…

… so I need about 12fc of light.


The right instrument

In the rare event that you’re actually lighting your set with candles – as covered in my Barry Lyndon and Stasis posts – then an illuminance value in fc is all you need. In every other situation, though, you need to figure out which electric light fixtures are going to give you the illuminance you need.

Manufacturers of professional lighting instruments make this quite easy for you, as they all provide data on the illuminance supplied by their products at various distances. For example, if I visit Mole Richardson’s webpage for their 1K Baby-Baby fresnel, I can click on the Performance Data table to see that this fixture will give me the 12fc (in fact slightly more, 15fc) that I required in my Alexa/Cooke example at a distance of 30ft on full flood.

Other manufacturers provide interactive calculators: on ETC’s site you can drag a virtual Source Four back and forth and watch the illuminance read-out change, while Arri offers a free iOS/Android app with similar functionality.

If you need to calculate an illuminance value for a distance not specified by the manufacturer, you can derive it from distances they do specify, by using the Inverse Square Law. However, as I found in my investigatory post about the law, that could be a whole can of worms.

If illuminance data is not available for your light source, then I’m afraid more maths is involved. For example, the room I’m currently in is lit by a bulb that came in a box marked “1,650 lumens”, which is the luminous power. One lumen is one foot-candle per square foot. To find out the illuminance, i.e. how many square feet those lumens are spread over, we imagine those square feet as the area of a sphere with the lamp at the centre, and where the radius r is the distance from the lamp to the subject. So:


  • is again the illuminance in fc,
  • is the luminous power of the souce in lumens, and
  • r is the lamp-to-subject distance in feet.

(I apologise for the mix of Imperial and SI units, but this is the reality in the semi-Americanised world of British film production! Also, please note that this equation is for point sources, rather than beams of light like you get from most professional fixtures. See this article on LED Watcher if you really want to get into the detail of that.)

So if I want to shoot that 12fc scene on my Alexa and Cooke S4 Mini under my 1,650 lumen domestic bulb…

… my subject needs to be 3’4″ from the lamp. I whipped out my light meter to check this, and it gave me the target T2.8 at 3’1″ – pretty close!


Do I have enough light?

If you’re on a tight budget, it may be less a case of, “What T-stop would I like to shoot at, and what fixture does that require?” and more a case of, “Is the fixture which I can afford bright enough?”

Let’s take a real example from Perplexed Music, a short film I lensed last year. We were shooting on an Alexa at ISO 1600, 1/50th sec shutter, and on Arri/Zeiss Ultra Primes, which have a maximum aperture of T1.9. The largest fixture we had was a 2.5K HMI, and I wanted to be sure that we would have enough light for a couple of night exteriors at a house location.

In reality I turned to an exposure table to find the necessary illuminance, but let’s do the maths using the first equation that we met in this post:

Loading up Arri’s photometrics app, I could see that 2.8fc wasn’t going to be a problem at all, with the 2.5K providing 5fc at the app’s maximum distance of 164ft.

That’s enough for today. All that maths may seem bewildering, but most of it is eliminated by apps and other online calculators in most scenarios, and it’s definitely worth going to the trouble of checking you have enough light before you’re on set with everyone ready to roll!

See also: 6 Ways of Judging Exposure



How Big a Light do I Need?

6 Ways to Judge Exposure

Exposing the image correctly is one of the most important parts of a cinematographer’s job. Choosing the T-stop can be a complex technical and creative decision, but fortunately there are many ways we can measure light to inform that decision.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the journey light makes: photons are emitted from a source, they strike a surface which absorbs some and reflects others – creating the impressions of colour and shade; then if the reflected light reaches an eye or camera lens it forms an image. We’ll look at the various ways of measuring light in the order the measurements occur along this light path, which is also roughly the order in which these measurements are typically used by a director of photography.


1. Photometrics data

You can use data supplied by the lamp manufacturer to calculate the exposure it will provide, which is very useful in preproduction when deciding what size of lamps you need to hire. There are apps for this, such as the Arri Photometrics App, which allows you to choose one of their fixtures, specify its spot/flood setting and distance from the subject, and then tells you the resulting light level in lux or foot-candles. An exposure table or exposure calculation app will translate that number into a T-stop at any given ISO and shutter interval.


2. Incident meter

Some believe that light meters are unnecessary in today’s digital landscape, but I disagree. Most of the methods listed below require the camera, but the camera may not always be handy – on a location recce, for example. Or during production, it would be inconvenient to interrupt the ACs while they’re rigging the camera onto a crane or Steadicam. This is when having a light meter on your belt becomes very useful.

An incident meter is designed to measure the amount of light reaching the subject. It is recognisable by its white dome, which diffuses and averages the light striking its sensor. Typically it is used to measure the key, fill and backlight levels falling on the talent. Once you have input your ISO and shutter interval, you hold the incident meter next to the actor’s face (or ask them to step aside!) and point it at each source in turn, shading the dome from the other sources with your free hand. You can then decide if you’re happy with the contrast ratios between the sources, and set your lens to the T-stop indicated by the key-light reading, to ensure correct exposure of the subject’s face.


3. Spot meter (a.k.a. reflectance meter)

Now we move along the light path and consider light after it has been reflected off the subject. This is what a spot meter measures. It has a viewfinder with which you target the area you want to read, and it is capable of metering things that would be impractical or impossible to measure with an incident meter. If you had a bright hillside in the background of your shot, you would need to drive over to that hill and climb it to measure the incident light; with a spot meter you would simply stand at the camera position and point it in the right direction. A spot meter can also be used to measure light sources themselves: the sky, a practical lamp, a flame and so on.

But there are disadvantages too. If you spot meter a Caucasian face, you will get a stop that results in underexposure, because a Caucasian face reflects quite a lot of light. Conversely, if you spot meter an African face, you will get a stop that results in overexposure, because an African face reflects relatively little light. For this reason a spot meter is most commonly used to check whether areas of the frame other than the subject – a patch of sunlight in the background, for example – will blow out.

Your smartphone can be turned into a spot meter with a suitable app, such as Cine Meter II, though you will need to configure it using a traditional meter and a grey card. With the addition of a Luxiball attachment for your phone’s camera, it can also become an incident meter.

The remaining three methods of judging exposure which I will cover all use the camera’s sensor itself to measure the light. Therefore they take into account any filters you’re using as well transmission loss within the lens (which can be an issue when shooting on stills glass, where the marked f-stops don’t factor in transmission loss).


4. Monitors and viewfinders

The letter. Photo: Amy Nicholson

In the world of digital image capture, it can be argued that the simplest and best way to judge exposure is to just observe the picture on the monitor. The problem is, not all screens are equal. Cheap monitors can misrepresent the image in all kinds of ways, and even a high-end OLED can deceive you, displaying shadows blacker than any cinema or home entertainment system will ever match. There are only really two scenarios in which you can reliably judge exposure from the image itself: if you’ve owned a camera for a while and you’ve become very familiar with how the images in the viewfinder relate to the finished product; or if the monitor has been properly calibrated by a DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) and the screen is shielded from light.

Most cameras and monitors have built-in tools which graphically represent the luminance of the image in a much more accurate way, and we’ll look at those next. Beware that if you’re monitoring a log or RAW image in Rec.709, these tools will usually take their data from the Rec.709 image.


5. Waveforms and histograms

These are graphs which show the prevalence of different tones within the frame. Histograms are the simplest and most common. In a histogram, the horizontal axis represents luminance and the vertical axis shows the number of pixels which have that luminance. It makes it easy to see at a glance whether you’re capturing the greatest possible amount of detail, making best use of the dynamic range. A “properly” exposed image, with a full range of tones, should show an even distribution across the width of the graph, with nothing hitting the two sides, which would indicate clipped shadows and highlights. A night exterior would have a histogram crowded towards the left (darker) side, whereas a bright, low contrast scene would be crowded on the right.

A waveform plots luminance on the vertical axis, with the horizontal axis matching the horizontal position of those luminance values within the frame. The density of the plotting reveals the prevalence of the values. A waveform that was dense in the bottom left, for example, would indicate a lot of dark tones on the lefthand side of frame. Since the vertical (luminance) axis represents IRE (Institute of Radio Engineers) values, waveforms are ideal when you need to expose to a given IRE, for example when calibrating a system by shooting a grey card. Another common example would be a visual effects supervisor requesting that a green screen be lit to 50 IRE.


6. Zebras and false colours

Almost all cameras have zebras, a setting which superimposes diagonal stripes on parts of the image which are over a certain IRE, or within a certain range of IREs. By digging into the menus you can find and adjust what those IRE levels are. Typically zebras are used to flag up highlights which are clipping (theoretically 100 IRE), or close to clipping.

Exposing an image correctly is not just about controlling highlight clipping however, it’s about balancing the whole range of tones – which brings us to false colours. A false colour overlay looks a little like a weather forecaster’s temperature map, with a code of colours assigned to various luminance values. Clipped highlights are typically red, while bright areas still retaining detail (known as the “knee” or “shoulder”) are yellow. Middle grey is often represented by green, while pink indicates the ideal level for caucasian skin tones (usually around 55 IRE). At the bottom end of the scale, blue represents the “toe” – the darkest area that still has detail – while purple is underexposed. The advantage of zebras and false colours over waveforms and histograms is that the former two show you exactly where the problem areas are in the frame.

I hope this article has given you a useful overview of the tools available for judging exposure. Some DPs have a single tool they rely on at all times, but many will use all of these methods at one time or another to produce an image that balances maximising detail with creative intent. I’ll leave you with a quote from the late, great Douglas Slocombe, BSC who ultimately used none of the above six methods!

I used to use a light meter – I used one for years. Through the years I found that, as schedules got tighter and tighter, I had less and less time to light a set. I found myself not checking the meter until I had finished the set and decided on the proper stop. It would usually say exactly what I thought it should. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t believe it, or I would hold it in such a way as to make it say my stop. After a time I decided this was ridiculous and stopped using it entirely. The “Raiders” pictures were all shot without a meter. I just got used to using my eyes.

6 Ways to Judge Exposure