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Bring down the highlights? Bring up the shadows? Or both?


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This question is for anyone, particularly colorists. What's your favourite or preferred method of the four options below? Assume that the sensor or the negative has in all cases encapsulated the full DR of the scene, so the histogram will show 100% of the image well within its boundaries.

1. Expose for the shadows and bring down the highlights

2. Expose for the highlights and bring up the shadows

3. Expose for the mid point between highlights and shadows, and adjust both

4. Expose between highlights and shadows with bias towards one or the other, and adjust both

Would your choice be different if you were shooting ProRes vs RAW vs 10bit 4:2:2 compressed?

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I think the best method would be whatever requires the least amount of adjustments.  However, I'm sure many colorists would probably say that underexposed shots are their most common type of image that they have to fix.  Especially if you're shooting film negative which has so much latitude for overexposure so clipping is a rare problem.

Lately, for example, I've mostly been shooting at ISO 500 on the Alexa because it has great overexposure latitude and the most common fix I have to make is to bring up detail when the eyes are shadowed.  However, I do keep an eye on anything that might be clipping.

I will say that for digital stills, my most common technique is to shoot in raw mode at a low ISO and underexpose for highlight detail.

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It would depend on the camera or the film stock. With modern color negative, I would not be concerned about protecting highlights. On a digital sensor with a very harsh clip point or on reversal film, I would err towards under exposing to protect the highlights.

It also depends on the intended look. If you’re going for a glowy diffused high key look, then it’s usually part of the look to not have detail in the highlights. You just want to make sure that your rolloff is hiding the clip point, which is where custom viewing LUTs are useful. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of your colorist to fix it. Same thing if you’re shooting a silhouette or very contrasty scene and want areas of pure black in the shot - there’s no need to protect the shadows then. 

Finally, it’s situation dependent. If the dynamic range of the scene can be brought within range of the shooting format, then there’s no need to expose it differently from how you want it to look in the end. You have lighting and grip, filters, production design and set dressing, choice of shooting time and location, wardrobe - there are so many tools to adjust what’s in front of the camera to suit the format, that often that is the best choice. 

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It really depends on what you're after, but if you're talking a more normal cinematic look, I expose for the key and then balance the shot properly through augmenting lights to enable the look you're going after. Whether that's being able to see the background or not, is up to the cinematographer. In practice, I generally try to keep a 5 stop range above and below middle gray unless I purposely want something to flair or be hidden in the blacks. 

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I guess it's usually option 3 for me... thought I have contrasty tastes. On cameras with only 9 stops of DR I find myself always exposing to keep highlights safe, then proceeding to crush the shadows even more in post. But my work might be garbage and ugly so who knows.

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