Jump to content

Need advice on underlit lighting; How far to push it?

Markus A Ljungberg

Recommended Posts

I would love to hear your approach to underlit scenes.


I have a couple of scenes that takes place in a dark and gloomy drug-dealers apartment. The look should definitely be very underlit, with patches of light around practicals and coming in through badly covered windows.


When you want an underlit look how much would you achieve that in camera versus darkening the scene in grading? Playing it safe would be to expose only a stop under key and then take it down in grading, but then some practicals might still be close to clipping. Completely achieving the effect in camera would be to completely underexpose; exposing to the patches around the practicals and let everything else go dark. But then the options in post would be limited.


I'm shooting on the Red EPIC (But with some luck an Alexa might become available for us instead). My plan is to expose to the patches around practicals and then using false color make sure that I'm at least not crushing the blacks.


How would you light and expose such a scene?


This danish TV ad pretty much nails the look I'm going for in the opening interior scene:


I'm also looking at the more gloomy and dark bits of Hoytemas "Let the right on in".


I'll probably be using a Kinos as soft fill and a chinese lantern for augmented light if needed.


Any advice much appreciated, thank you.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

When you want an underlit look how much would you achieve that in camera versus darkening the scene in grading? Playing it safe would be to expose only a stop under key and then take it down in grading, but then some practicals might still be close to clipping. Completely achieving the effect in camera would be to completely underexpose


For a good explanation on how to light a dark scene, see David Mullen’s excellent post at http://www.cinematography.com/index.php?showtopic=55891. In it he warns not to “make the classic mistake of assuming that a dark image involved working in low light levels.” To that I might add, “don’t assume a dark scene is “underexposed.”” As David explains very well, it’s not that a dark scene is underexposed, but rather that the exposure values in a scene are balanced relative to a proper exposure so that most of the scene remains dark but serves up the full contrast range the medium is capable of. There are a few tricks that should be followed to do this well.


1) Edge light objects in frame. Use reverse keys for talent and underexpose flesh tones by at least two stops or more. As long as you define the contours of your subject with subtle underexposed edges, don’t be afraid to let your talent fall off into black. There is a scene beautifully lit by James Merifield in the “Deep Blue Sea” of Rachel Wiesz and Harry Hadden-Paton standing in a dark alley way. They are back light by a practical at the end of the alley. Their contours are defined by the rims motivated by the practical, but otherwise they are in complete shadows.


2) I personally believe you should always have a hot spot in a frame – a practical in the scene or something in the deep background. You can shift your overall exposure in the camera or in post to create a dark scene, but without a hot spot reference in the frame it will lack contrast and look underexposed. A hot spot in the frame serves as a reference point and creates contrast. In my opinion the opening scenes of the clip look underexposed because the practicals aren't hot enough and don't put out light. Practicals should be close to clipping and appear to be the source of light in a scene.


3) Don’t try to light your talent with only practical’s because they will blow out – the hot spot in your scene has to look natural. Not only is supplemental lighting required to light your talent, but you must also treat the practicals to make them look realistic. I find that practical lamps never look convincing unless one treats the lampshade as well as boost the bulb wattage. That is because if you stop down to keep the shade from burning out, the output of the practical, on the table it sits on or the wall its on, looks rather anemic. I find you get a more realistic look if you boost the wattage of the bulb and line the inside of the shade with ND gel. It is a delicate balance to obtain.


You can obtain this delicate balance without a monitor, by using the old school method with incident and spot meters and a selection of practical bulbs including PH 211, 212, and 213 bulbs. Years ago Walter Lassaley, BSC, instructed me to balance practical’s such that an incident reading of the direct output one foot away from the bulb is one stop over exposure. I have found that rule of thumb gives a realistic output to the practical - the light emitted downward onto the table top and upward onto the wall or ceiling is realistic. After establishing the practical’s output using an incident meter, you then use a spot meter to determine how dense an ND gel is needed to line the inside of the shade so that the shade does not become too hot.


4) Define the edges of your frame with a little detail. As long as you define the edges of your frame with a little detail, you can leave most of it black without it looking under exposed.




The scene above from “Millers Crossing” lit by Barry Sonnenfeld that David Mullen, ASC, analyzes in http://www.cinematography.com/index.php?showtopic=55891 is a good example of all these tricks.



I'll probably be using a Kinos as soft fill and a chinese lantern for augmented light if needed.


These are the wrong kind of fixtures for this kind of scene. You will need fixtures that you can easily control because you will need to cut them off large parts of your set. It will be hard to keep china balls and Kino Flos from spilling light all over the place and filling shadow areas that you want to keep dark. Fresnels with light diffusion inside the doors, cut with flags and nets will give you the control you need.


Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip, Lighting and Grip Equipment Sales and Rentals in Boston.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Premium Member

If you study that clip, the reasons the lamps are clipping is simply because they aren't providing much of the light in the room, which is mainly soft top-lit.


Yes, my approach would be to expose about halfway towards that gloom and finish the darkening in post. Just keep in mind that as you underexpose and then darken further in post, the shadows are going to fall off more, which of course is what you want but it may affect how much fill you use in close-ups or whether to use an eyelight so that there is still something visible once it is darkened. I find that in dim lighting, an eyelight helps a lot in terms of the audience feeling that they can still read the actors' emotions. Anyway, what I sometimes do in these situations is crush the blacks on the monitor on the set to preview the effect so that I light with it in mind.


Now with a RAW camera like the Red Epic, you could decide to shoot at a lower ASA to artificially darken the image further so that not only is the monitor image darker but so are the dailies generated using the metadata. Just make sure that in the final color-correction, you pick a higher ASA value that preserves all your information without any crushing or clipping.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guy that's an excellent rule of thumb for getting the practicals right, I'll adopt that immediately. That's a good rule of thumb for exposing the skintones as well. Thanks for the thorough list of tricks and links to the scene analysis. Defining the edges of frame with details is also something I didn't think of, and you'r right I should be very careful with a chinese lantern not to get spill all over the place.


Thanks for your input David, exposing halfway towards that gloom sounds like a sound approach. Shooting at lower ASA is a great suggestion, I might do that.


The Kino is only intended to softly fill in the shadows so I don't crush them, and leave enough room for darkening it a bit in post. Maybe bouncing a ND:ed light off a large polly is a better idea for filling the shadows, but I don't think I'll have room for a setup like that. Fresnels and flags/nets of course, always =)


Thanks again for the good advice. Does anyone else have any other input?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Follow up question: What about naked light bulbs?


I just walked out of the theatre after watching Le Havre, and in one scene they had a naked light bulb in a fixture on the wall. The bulb did cast a nice and realistic looking shape on the wall around it, which made me think: Did they use a high wattage bulb? Probably. On a digital medium the bulb would probably clip, but shot on 35mm it had a nice gradient to it.


Or could it be that they used a low wattage bulb (15W?) to avoid clipping, and then somehow managed to fake the light on the wall, making it look like it came from the bulb? If that's the case it sure had me fooled.


Any other ideas on how to deal with naked light bulbs?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Any other ideas on how to deal with naked light bulbs?


More likely than not, the side of the bulb facing the camera was treated with either a brown hairspray or a very light application of black spray paint so that it would not clip on camera yet throw a lot of light on the wall. You can do the same with bulbs inside lamp shades instead of using ND.


- Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip,

Edited by Guy Holt
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...