The amazing low-light sensitivity of modern sensors has led many filmmakers to believe they can shoot with whatever illumination happens to fill the location where a scene is set.

            Well, of course they can.  But being able to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done.

            An important question must first be asked.  “Is the light we see here appropriate for what we’re trying to do?”

            The failure to address this issue is the cause of more lousy cinematography than anything else these days.  Low-budget films and movies by first-timers are especially susceptible to the available light temptation, and I understand the reasons why.  On the flip side, I also understand that no matter how threadbare the production, alternatives always exist.  Higher ticket shows fall into this trap too, though less frequently.  When they do, the results usually stick out like a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

            While there are few one-size-fits-all answers to questions about cinematography, this one comes right from the wheelhouse.  Context governs everything we do.  Lighter\ darker, warmer\cooler, wider\tighter, higher\lower…  Absent some sort of throughline, the embrace of one versus the other means nothing.  But if you’re doing the job right, every choice is tailored to serve the story.  Sometimes the house lights alone are exactly what you need.  Other times you have to remake the entire place so that it seems like you didn’t.  When you take your guidance from the script, consistency becomes effortless and your chances for delivering memorable work increase.

            Whenever you meet resistance on this front, remember one thing:

         Cinematographers don’t light for exposure.  They light for mood!


6 thoughts on “STUDENT QUICK-TIP #1”

  1. Yes, indeed. I am enjoying this thread as I explore my options here in Budapest. We are very fortunate in our backdrop here, every setting is a treat for the eye. I have a few days in the CEU (Central European University) as a Zurich police station. Huge walks of glass, steel, brick but in a design that leans towards the old style. Daylight filters in magically. My plan is to shoot the wides as is and then in our coverage to “light to the look” but take advantage of the potentials for negative fill and to create something worthy of our audience and scripts. Stay tuned: FBI International.

  2. I began my checkered career shooting ECO Ektachrome Commercial ASA 25. Can today’s DPs even imagine how much light we needed back then? It was like exposing for 3-Strip Technicolor. And yet, look how glorious Gone With the Wind looks to this day! Once again, it’s not how much light you use but how you use it. Kids these days have it so easy. Count your blessings everyday.

  3. I remember Ektachrome reversal stock too, Russ. It was a bear to deal with – and your exposures had to be dead-on or you were finished!

  4. Sounds like you’re doing all the right things, Dave – but I would’ve expected no less! I send you my best!

  5. Great article, Richard! Too often I get these generic questions where people want generic answers, like:
    “I have a big night exterior to light, how do I do it?”
    Me: “What do you want it to look like?”
    “I have a big restaurant scene, how do I light it?”
    Me: “What do you want it to look like?”
    “I have a love scene in a small bedroom at night, how do I light it?”
    Me: “What do you want it to look like?”

  6. David – I always tell film students that there’s no “one size fits all” answers to questions like these. It’s a hard sell…

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