Don’t be a slave to the source. Light to make things look good!
I’ve been fortunate that while watching films, I can easily turn off the cinematographer part of my brain and enjoy them as any civilian would. This’s not so for many of my colleagues – and I sympathize with the dilemma. On the job our attention is fixed on so many technical\creative details that a kind of hyper-vigilance sets in. Though I still get lost micro-analyzing the streaks of light that cross my living room walls, that odd trait has never prevented me from relaxing and going with the flow.
But when the laser’s engaged, oh boy, the details you can pick up… First among them would be the amount of cheating that goes on, even at the most refined levels of movie photography. Pick any production and pay attention to the angle, texture and intensity of the lighting in various shots within the same scene. There’s an appreciable latitude available with regard to matching; if you know how to manipulate it, the quality of your work will be hugely improved. Beginners always seem to wrestle with this concept, but its essence is simple: Exact fidelity to a source is not required.
This doesn’t mean that sloppiness is acceptable. But just because the sun\window\lamp, etc. is located in that spot doesn’t mean the key light always has to originate there or the shadows need to fall just so. If that were the case, the majority of shows wouldn’t hold a fraction of their visual appeal. Though the concept is easy to embrace, its practice can be tricky. The best way to learn is to watch what the masters have done, then try to replicate it on your own.
To varying degrees, adjustments in lighting most often occur between wide shots and closer ones, with the close ups getting the finest adjustments. If proper care is being taken by the cinematographer (i.e., the scene isn’t using ten cameras from ten different angles), you’ll easily flag the cosmetic shifts that are enacted. Sometimes they’re barely perceptible; other times they’ll flaunt an entirely new approach. More fill, less fill, a flipped key, a filter added, something taken away, sun shining, sun gone… The manipulation of light from shot to shot is powerful. Knowing how far to push it without calling attention is what separates the serious players from the hacks. Fortunately – save for examples of egregious liberties – the general audience never notices.
If you still need to justify such action, sensitize yourself to the inconsistencies that surround you. Though light travels in a straight line, it’s not perfect. It bounces, reflects, refracts and redefines itself as it moves from one point to the next.
So, just as we light for mood, not exposure…light to make your subject look good, not to serve the source!