Manipulating the Image

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  • #215997

      Hi James and Roger,

      I hope you’re doing well, I had a (long) question for you both but am eager to hear everyone’s take and would greatly appreciate any feedback.

      Generally speaking, when it comes to shooting a scene, how much of the image is created by manipulating your scene (i.e. lighting) and how much of the image is created by manipulating your camera’s settings or digital workflow?

      To draw a parallel, when it comes to your photography, you are typically reliant on natural light and thereby manipulate the contrast and quality of an image through exposure, developing and printing, and can create vastly different outcomes when manipulating those parameters purposefully.

      While much of cinematography is involved with lighting and you use artificial light to manipulate the contrast/feel/mood, how often are you likewise manipulating the image through how the scene is exposed to achieve the desired look and feel – do you find yourself only changing ISO for example when it’s absolutely and logistically necessary, or are you often rating it differently (pushing/pulling) to achieve a desired contrast and aesthetic?

      Or as is often the case, are the characteristics of the image dialed in when developing the show LUT and your choices are more or less scene-referred throughout shooting?

      Sorry for such a long-winded question, I just notice that every cinematographer maintains a different balance between these three factors, which obviously vary from story to story, but in the same way a stills photographer can create an image using countless combinations between the stages of exposing, developing and printing, I’m desperately curious to know your general approach and philosophy on the matter.

      Thanks so much!

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    • #216000

        It’s not as binary as “using natural light = not manipulating the scene” vs. “using artificial light = manipulating the scene” — natural light can be altered in ways (flagging, diffusion frames, etc.) and often artificial light is mixed with natural light if on location.

        Cinematographers use light — natural, artificial, or a mix — to create mood and to tell a story. If the goal is a completely realistic and “honest” visualization, the truth is that the lighting could still be entirely artificial.

        And what defines “artificial”?  If you are shooting a scene in a auto repair garage and you ask the art department to hang a fluorescent shop light over the car being repaired, is that a natural or an artificial light?  And if the light is above the frame line so instead you hang a LiteMat LED light instead of a fluorescent, if the effect is more or less the same, how artificial is it? And if the location already had fluorescent shop lights but you switched the tubes from Warm White to Cool White or to color-balanced 3200K or 5600K tubes, is that “manipulating” the scene? Maybe the original tubes would have made the scene look less “natural”, creating a more stylized effect?


          As to whether you heavily push the ISO setting or create a stylized LUT (for monitors and dailies) / or stylized post color-correction, that is entirely project dependent. Your reasons may be practical or aesthetic.

          But there are some tried-and-true generalizations:

          (1) The simplest approach is often the best.

          (2) Garbage In / Garbage Out — the shots you create in camera that come closest to the final look will go through the post process the easiest and come out closest to your intent — whereas the shots that are far from the look you wanted and need a lot of post to fix might not end up close to what you wanted, or you may run out of time and budget in post to get what you wanted.


            Really appreciate the thoughtful responses, David. I completely agree in regards to the use and definitions of artificial and natural light, my question might’ve been unclear and my use of the word “manipulating” a little misleading – when noting the dichotomy I was mainly referring to a stills street photography background where compositions and light are mostly found, while a cinematography setting generally offers more options/tools for control.

            To that end, and because as you said it’s entirely project dependent, I guess I was just curious if there were any specific projects/scenes you or Roger worked on where you combined lighting and exposure compensation creatively to get a look in-camera you wouldn’t have gotten as close to otherwise.

            In the same way you might do push/pull processing on film, was there a time shooting digitally where in conjunction with the lighting, you for example changed the ISO to increase or decrease the global contrast of the image or redistribute the dynamic range?

            Nevertheless amidst these hypotheticals your comment that the simplest approach is often the best is very sage advice, I was just wondering if the dynamic described above is as relevant on digital as it is on film – in the interest of creating a shot in camera that comes closest to the final look one might be going for.


              Generally no, I shoot on the Alexa and stick to a ISO 500 to 1000 range, mostly to control depth of field more than anything. Otherwise I’m mostly at ISO 800. I control my highlights or shadows by exposure and lighting. I control contrast through lighting and by adjusting the LUT using ASC-CDL, mainly for dailies (an adjustment might be to match two cameras or lenses for example, or to deal with a hazy set, etc.)


                Great to know – thanks a ton David, really appreciate the insights!

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