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!