And I’m answering…the honorable Andrew Cirincione:

I was wondering if you could make a post about your process exposing and lighting low key scenes, specifically night exteriors and interiors.  While normally I try to get things right “in camera” and expose how I would like it to look, I’ve heard that it is often better to overexpose 1-2 stops so that there is detail in the shadow areas and then pull it down in post.

            That’s a great question, Andrew.  Unfortunately – as is the case with so many aspects of cinematography – there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Also, the absence of context for the situation you’ve described makes it impossible to be specific.

            Nonetheless, I used to have a general technique when shooting low-key scenes on film for theatrical projection.  It involved underexposing the key by one stop and the fill by two stops.  As I was printing on a Hazeltine light that was predetermined in testing, I knew exactly where the image rested on the curve and could easily imagine how it would look onscreen.  But this was just a jump-off point.  A lot of fine tuning was left to the vicissitudes of the moment and demands of the story.  But the low-key texture of the look – something I’m very sensitive to – was always pushed in the right direction by this basic formula.

            That doesn’t apply in quite the same way when shooting digitally.  Today’s sensors see much further into the dark than any negative possibly could.  The nature of our electronic viewing devices also mitigates against such a simple approach.  You’re right to do as much as you can in-camera.  Sadly, that’s not always enough anymore.

            Further response folds into your next question…

How do you make sure you are maintaining consistent exposure, and how involved are you in the color correction and grading processes?  Do you make LUTs beforehand to monitor what the look will be like in the grade?

            In 2022, everything concerning any look you’re trying to achieve begins in collaboration with your colorist.  That’s the only way to find out if overexposing or underexposing – or using any other method, for that matter – is indeed the best way to execute a low-key effect.  My relationship with the colorist is a critical part of the image-making effort, and I’m deeply involved in every step of the process.

            I maintain consistent exposure through a combination of my light meter, my eye and occasional consultation of the waveform monitor and histogram (less commonly, the vectorscope and false color).  In reference to your question about low-key work, you must remember that everyone sees color and density differently.  One person’s concept of ‘dark’ might look like the vegetable aisle in your local supermarket…and they wouldn’t be wrong!  My best advice would be to – as always – test, test, test.  Certainly, the way you expose a scene will greatly influence how it looks.  But it’s the combination of exposure and DI manipulation that will ultimately deliver what you want.

            I often employ LUTs to reflect my intent and render dailies that are as close to the final look as possible.  Once again, they are arrived at after an appreciable amount of testing.

Also, I know this is a generalized question, but what IRE or f-stop are you lighting skin tones to in those scenes?  Can you give some examples from your work?

            Fleshtones usually fall into place somewhere in the 50-60 IRE range.  Of course, that’s not a solid rule and varies according to the intent of the scene.  As for T-stop, that varies for the same reason.  Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules about these things…

            Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to dig out any examples in my work.  I’d suggest shooting tests and working with your colorist as closely as possible.  The more experience you get, the easier it’ll be for you to make judgements in these areas!


One thought on “SOMEBODY ASKED…”

  1. Thank you! I appreciate your insight and next time I’ll be more specific with my questions. It is interesting to hear how the shift from film to digital affected how cinematographers work. I’ve also heard similar thoughts to yours about extensive testing.

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