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Wednesday, 21 December 2011 16:43

Lighting Fundamentals Remain While Technology Continues to Change

Written by  Carl Mrozek
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ligthinghd_allan1Cinematographer Allan Westbrook’s first HD shoot entailed using a Sony HDC-500 camera in collaboration with HD pioneer DP Randall Dark. "The HDC-500 was faster than the HD tube cameras before it, but its dynamic range was fairly narrow," says Westbrook (pictured left). "We certainly needed more light than we do with a typical camera today. Also, it was so heavy that simply moving it around was a challenge. We definitely used more lights than we would need for the same scenes with many of today’s HD cameras.”

The latest crop of HD cameras, ranging from the ARRI ALEXA and RED EPIC to Sony’s F3 and Panasonic’s AF100, are much more sensitive to light than earlier HD cameras with much wider exposure latitude — and this has definitely impacted how DPs light for HD shoots. “The resolution on the full-frame chips is outstanding,” notes Westbrook. "We can now push the ISO on the cameras much higher than in the past with no loss in image quality. That enables us to better utilize ambient lighting on location. Neon signs, window lights, streetlights, building lights, traffic lights … are now more prominent and can be used as [light] sources in a more convincing way." Among other things, this can result in more realistic-looking scenes in commercials, movies and everything in between. In many situations it can also mean using fewer lights, which can mean faster setups and breakdowns, especially if it includes the new generation of "cool lights."

Being able to take better advantage of the full spectrum of ambient light has helped spur a shift to more location shoots in general, particularly on feature films. “Basically, the newer HD cameras are much more forgiving of mixed-light sources than were earlier HD cameras,” Westbrook explains. "We used to cringe at seeing fluorescent, mercury-vapor and sodium-vapor lights, but now we can use them to reflect a broader palette of light sources than before. It also looks a lot more realistic, with a mixture of tones and color temperatures."

Working with the newer, faster HD cameras also gives Westbrook more creative freedom. "I love to blend the color temperatures of different types of lights,” the DP admits. “When I’m balancing for daylight, I’ll use either HMIs or KinoFlos with daylight bulbs in them. If I am trying to match different light sources, such as streetlights or store lights, I use a color-temperature meter to read the light source and then gel either daylight or tungsten lights to match them as closely as possible."

In the end it all comes down to achieving and capturing a particular desired look on camera for display on both small and large screens. However, there are many ways to skin a hide. "My approach to lighting [a scene] is to key on the feeling the director wants to project," Westbrook says. "[Is the feeling] happy? Sad? Scared? Loving? That [mood] sets the tone for each scene and can be expressed with different lighting that is warm or cold, hard or soft, strong or dull, etc." Westbrook will blend different lights and color temperatures to achieve a desired mood. "If you want to achieve a sad look, letting a scene go ‘blueish’ is a good start," he explains. "A soft key [light] with very little back and fill light also helps. If the room you’re working in has a window, you might add rain with water dripping down the glass. The water could be reflecting on the window glass or on the wall or even on the face of the person." A loving scene could be lit very "warm," with candle lights everywhere. Likewise, the keys would be lit very softly and with little fill light. The soft key could be as simple as bouncing light off of a bedboard (using a Chimera softbox with extra diffusion), or simply with China balls, especially to complement longer lens shots. Increasingly, Westbrook uses LEDs for soft lighting, especially in situations where lights need to be hidden.

In terms of which (HD) cameras have most impacted how Westbrook lights a scene, the DP is egalitarian since all the new cameras (from the Canon 5D to the EPIC and even the ALEXA) are smaller and lighter than HD cameras were even several years ago. Many of them have amazing latitude at 12 to 14 stops — and that matches or exceeds that of the best film stocks. Nevertheless, the principles of lighting don’t change with each new generation of HD camera. “The fundamentals of lighting a scene have remained the same: key, fill and backlight,” says Westbrook. 'I’m pretty sure that no matter what recording formats are being used in 50 years, we’ll still be using this same basic lighting setup however the camera and lighting technology evolves."

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