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Do you guys use lightmeters?

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No, I don't, except if I was using film. For digital it is all screen for me. And really, much of my work is guesstimate.

But don't go by me. I'm a loose goose. For filmmaking I'd be a war type of cine man, an 'on the fly' shooter. I'm not an anal setup type of person.

You can't do light reading for most of my work anyway. Take this lady. It was shot from the hip, at the apex of the arm swing with my hand at my side while walking by. Zone focus, zone exposure and heavy PP. The white foam, being less than a foot away from the lens, gave off terrible reflection of the infrared flash. It is very hard to balance 1 foot bright white from 6 foot pitch black for exposure. It is a one shot deal. Get it or not, but no second chance.

Living In A Cardboard Box IR Flash D.D.Teoli Jr. : D.D.Teoli Jr. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

This one got more exposure work. I walked by and shot a test photo. I walked away to study it. Then went back for a second helping. But none of my photos work without massive PP. You can't shoot into the sun like this with a fisheye and get great photos...unless you can make it work in post. 

Pinky from The Americans 60 years after Frank : Daniel D. Teoli Jr. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

This one I did many, many test exposures while waiting in communion line. It was shot with the 2 second self-timer. Lots of PP. Pushed maybe 1-1/2 stops. You can't shoot available light with a slow f5.6 adapted lens that makes it into an f8 in dim light. I limit my ISO to 3000 or it is too crappy. All I got is old gear.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield Wheeling WV Cathedral D. D. Teoli Jr. : Daniel D. Teoli Jr. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

If you want to be a good , trad cine man or cine lady. Use a meter. If nothing else it makes you look like you know what your doing! No one says you have to go all by the meter anyway. Back the 60's we used the sunny rule of 16.

Edited by Daniel D. Teoli Jr.
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(As a younger aspiring/studying cinematographer). On commercial work and narrative work I always use my metre and spot metre, analogue and/or digital.

This is for several reasons. During a pre-light/rig often the production I'm working on can't afford to have the camera package for that day. Even if they could it would be a waste and money and why would I need it if I can judge exposure through other means. This is the same with scouting... if you need to know the level of light in a dark room etc taking a camera package to judge exposure with, to me, is nonsensical.

Not only that but often the monitors I use to judge the image are uncalibrated and are not harmonised to that of the camera (when a production is willing to hire someone younger, they very rarely have the budget for a knowledgeable DIT). 

I do think the lack of understanding of the properties light and exposure from some (potentially due to digital technology) is an issue with contemporary film education.



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On 1/28/2021 at 12:23 PM, DanielSydney said:

Many young DPs don't use lightmeters anymore and rely on camera tools for exposure.

Without meters you are tethered to the camera and the camera can be a real bottleneck when it comes to each department of a production (Electric, Grip, Camera, Wardrobe, Make Up, Set Dec, etc.) having to accomplish what they have to accomplish before the camera can role again.  The value of meters, and knowing how to use them, is that they provide you the information you need to light a scene in your mind's eye and then translate that to reality. Rob Draper, when he was teaching at the Maine Film Workshops, used to call it the Zen of Cinematography and tell this story about how he works.

He said he would always plot the lighting for a scene in advance on paper – specifying every detail down to the FC candle output from each instrument.  This allowed him to pass off to his Gaffer all the details he needed when he arrived on set.  Rob would then go off to craft service to get a cup of coffee.  By the time he finished saying good morning to everyone (client relations are very important for a DP), and got back to the set, the lights were starting to come up. With a cup of coffee in hand, he possessed a clarity of mind that enabled him to now take the lighting to the next level. He found time within time to address the finer nuances of shading and color: the Zen of cinematography. This is what you lose when you tether yourself to the camera.

The old school method was that the DP would choose the camera stop, which would establish the Key Tone - say T5.6 for deep focus.  Having chosen his exposure he can then calculate how many Foot Candles (FC) he needs on different elements of the scene.

To figure out how many FC you need for exposure, all you need to know is that it takes 100 FC to get an exposure of 2.8 with an ISO 100 film with a 180 degree shutter at 24 FPS (1/50th of a second shutter speed.)  If your digital camera is 2 stops faster than an ISO 100 film, you will need 100 FC to get a stop of 5.6. Once you know how many FC you need for exposure you can simply calculate how many FC will give you the effect you see in your mind’s eye. Of course, it helps to have done a lighting test of what effect over and underexposing a subject will give.

Such a lighting test for talent (you may also want to do one for key props or sets) would consist of testing in a systematic fashion the effect of Key, Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners that are over and under exposure. For example, to test the effect of your key light on flesh tones, set your exposure with two doubles and a single in your key light. Then remove them a half stop at a time (without changing your camera exposure setting or exposure of the chip chart), and systematically note on a slate in the frame what you are doing. Once you have removed all the scrims, your flesh tone will be two and a half stops over exposed (since you have not changed the camera setting.)  

Put all the scrims back in and now, using single and double nets, systematically under expose the flesh tone in half stop increments (remember rotating a net relative to the light source will make it "fatter" or "thinner", which will enable you to "dial in" the exact level you want from the light.) If you want to play on the lower register continue to under expose the flesh tone until it becomes a pure silhouette. Do the same for Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners in isolation and in specific combinations that you plan to use them. Having systematically tested each light, you can now see the effect that different ratios of each has on the scene and can even use the test as a reference on set when lighting the scene.

An example of this type of pre-visualization would be say you are shooting a couple conversing at a bar. After working through in your minds eye that you want a low-key look with selective (shallow) focus you might settle on a stop of 2.8. Say the script calls for the guy to be somewhat mysterious and distant and the women to be very open and receptive, then you may choose to keep him in deep shadow with just enough of a liner to separate him from the subdued background of the bar. This type of lighting on him could be motivated by a practical fixture you establish behind him, which would be consistent with the more frontal key you want for her, since you would want to light her more frontally so that her character is clearly apparent, but not him to retain some mystery to his character.

Having roughed out your style and light placement you can begin to set your levels and balance your lights based on lighting tests you have shot over the years. For instance, if your camera is two stops faster than an ISO 100 film, you will need 24 FC to properly expose your key tone (mid gray) at a T Stop of 2.8. 24 FC would then give you a “properly” exposed flesh tone on her. But this is a bar with subdued lighting, so you don’t want full exposure on her. You liked the feel of a half key (1 stop under) in your lighting tests so you would light her with 12 FC from a high frontal key. Again, because the scene takes place in the subdued lighting of a bar, you don’t want to over fill her. Going back to your lighting tests you like the look and feel of an 4:1 key to fill ratio so you would give no more than 3FC of fill light. You need to separate her from the dark background of the bar and so you might give her a backlight of 6 FC because that's what looked appropriate in the lighting tests to separate her hair color from a dark background without looking over-lit.

You would want to make sure you flag her backlight off him since you want to play him in near silhouette and so have to keep any frontal light on him to under 1 FC because four stops under exposure was a near silhouette with just the right amount of detail in the lighting test. For the liner to separate him from the dark background of the bar you will need a fairly strong fixture capable of delivering 48FC from directly behind him since your lighting tests established you need to be at least a stop over exposure for the liner to read.  Once you have figured out how many FC you need for the effect (a liner in this case) you can figure out which lights will give you that using the photo-metrics that manufacturers provide on their websites, or you can download Arri’s handy photometric calculator (be wary of the photo-metrics given for LED lights.) With a little experience you begin to develop a feel what light will give you what you need in different situations.

You wouldn’t want to try to use the practical fixture that you are flying in behind him to motivate this lighting scheme as the source for the liner on him because, first of all it’s placement in the shot may not be far enough around his back to serve as a liner. But, also to deliver 48 FC on him, it would be screaming hot in the shot.  For this reason it is better to use a separate light to light your talent and treat the practical so that it looks realistic in the shot. I find that practical lamps never look convincing unless one treats the lampshade as well as boost the bulb wattage. Unless it is completely opaque, you typically need to treat the shade to keep it from burning out (remember stopping down to keep it from blowing out will throw off the balance you have set with your other lights)  You can put a lower wattage lamp in it,  but then the output of the practical on the bar will look 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 achieve.

You can achieve this 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 which in this case would be 48 FC. I have found that rule of thumb gives a realistic output to the practical. 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 glass shade.

You can do all of this pre-visualization, setting of levels, and balancing based upon a location scout, blocking with stand-ins, and your lighting tests. In other words, almost everything can be worked out ahead of time so that when you arrive on set you know exactly what you need to do. This is especially helpful on low budget projects since, generally the time spent with minimal crew in scouting and blocking with stand-ins, is considerably less than the time wasted working these things out on set with a large crew and principle talent. 

Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip, Lighting Rental & Sales in Boston



Edited by Guy Holt
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I kind of expect the gaffer to be equipped with a light meter at all times, mostly so that he can take measurements without walking back and forth to the camera, but for me, from the image acquisition point of view, waveform monitor is the best light meter.

And as for location scouting, everything there is to know about the luminance of the scene, you can learn from the scout photo exposure settings (after all, a DSLR or a mirrorless camera is a perfectly capable metering tool in itself, and I don't mean just its built-in metering that returns the f-stop value for a given shutter time and ISO, but also the millions of per-photosite measurements that it stores in every single photo).

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  • 2 weeks later...

I love my light meter but honestly most of the time I end up only using it to double check my exposure. I use false color constantly and cross reference monitors and the camera's tools, but it never hurts to have a meter when dialing in a light or lighting before camera is up. These days I notice the gaffers do most of the measuring, but I step in every once in a while to reference.

Edited by Taylor Russ
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