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Best exposure practices with consistency in mind


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Hi, I've been doing a lot of research lately on best exposure practices and ran into a few questions. My current plan for setting exposure is to set exposure using my eye on a log c image with a rec 709 lut applied to it, then check the wave form (toggling between rec 709 and log c image) to confirm my highlights aren't clipping and that I have an acceptable level of noise. Going from shot to shot within the scene I then plan to use an incident meter on the actor to keep the lighting consistent. Where I got a little bit confused is the idea of exposing to the right. I know this is a practice that has generally been phased out, but I still had a few questions. Let's say I set my exposure, but when I go into the waveform see I have a lot of room left in the highlights before clipping, thus it would make sense for me to "over" expose the image to get more information in the shadows, and the image can then be brought down in the grade, correct? I also understand I would want to keep exposure consistent shot to shot. I then wonder, switching from one angle to another, what if my "over" exposed image suddenly becomes problematic because say the bright sky is more present in the image,  and now parts of my image are actually clipping that weren't before, so I am now forced to decrease the aperture of this image. I understand exposing to the right for every image in this way doesn't make sense as matching the shots in the grade would be a pain, but I guess I'm asking what practice is more typical? to "properly" expose from the get go, or to attempt to retain the most dynamic range by lighting the scene as much as possible? Additionally, if it is the latter, how do you predetermine you won't run into any problems going between the different camera positions?

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If you see more of the sky in a particular shot and want to preserve details, then add an nd and bring up the ambient levels or fill on talent, depending on the frame and angle,  to compress the contrast to your camera's dynamic range.

Edited by Giray Izcan
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2 hours ago, Eamon Colbert said:

1. Let's say I set my exposure, but when I go into the waveform see I have a lot of room left in the highlights before clipping, thus it would make sense for me to "over" expose the image to get more information in the shadows, and the image can then be brought down in the grade, correct?

2. I also understand I would want to keep exposure consistent shot to shot. I then wonder, switching from one angle to another, what if my "over" exposed image suddenly becomes problematic because say the bright sky is more present in the image,  and now parts of my image are actually clipping that weren't before, so I am now forced to decrease the aperture of this image. I understand exposing to the right for every image in this way doesn't make sense as matching the shots in the grade would be a pain, but I guess I'm asking what practice is more typical? to "properly" expose from the get go, or to attempt to retain the most dynamic range by lighting the scene as much as possible?

3. Additionally, if it is the latter, how do you predetermine you won't run into any problems going between the different camera positions?


1. If you adhere to the ‘expose to the right’ philosophy, then yes. If you want consistency from shot-to-shot, then no. ETTR really comes from still photography where images are usually processed, edited, and presented one at a time. A single photographic image can stand on its own.

But with motion pictures, shots are part of a sequence. And if you want the audience not to be jarred from cut to cut, then continuity matters - not just in terms of screen direction and mise-en-scene, but also focal length and perspective, depth of field, noise/grain, lighting, etc. Knowing how much you can cheat continuity shot-to-shot takes experience.

So yes, an ETTR shot can be brought down in post - but will it cut seamlessly with the other shots in the sequence? It depends.


2. This happens frequently in film, where what works for visual continuity is very different from reality. For example, let’s say you have two matching OTS shots in a late afternoon day exterior. Angle 1 is backlit by the sun, with a soft sidey bounce key. Realistically, Angle 2 should then be front-lit if the two people are facing each other. But frequently, Angle 2 will also be shot backlit so the edit isn’t as abrupt. The content of the scene, the tone of the story, and the blocking determine whether you draw attention to the difference in lighting, or try to make it more seamless.

In that sense, exposing ‘properly’ for the intended effect of your final image is the only way to go in motion pictures. If you want your images dark like ‘Arrival’ then light it that way. If you want it bright and washed out like ‘Jarhead’ then expose it that way. That’s how you create a look for a project, not by ETTR and then finding the right exposure in post. But that means you do have to know what you want the picture to look like, before you shoot it.

As you can see, consistency in motion pictures is largely an illusion. Often, very little actually goes unchanged from shot-to-shot. What’s important is that those changes help the shots flow from cut to cut. But one thing you can do is to leave the camera/lens settings the same as much as possible and instead change what’s in front of the camera. If it doesn’t look good, you can change the angle, the blocking, the set dressing, the lighting, filters, etc. It’s all fair game, as long as the final effect is seamless.

 

3. Just look at each shot after you’ve set up the camera, and make adjustments from there. With experience, you’ll be able to pre-visualize problems and solutions in prep, and you’ll become much more efficient on set. But even the most experienced cinematographers run into problems and surprises on every shoot - that part never ends. Check out the Team Deakins podcast, it’s full of problem solving stories from some of the world’s best filmmakers. 

In the meantime, just keep shooting and learning as you go. That’s the fastest way to get there.

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