Your Equipment Does Not Define You or Your Skills























(originally posted on my Run and Gun Video Blog , but seems not too many people follow that one, so sharing it here)


I noticed my book cover on Amazon along with some of the related ones being promoted (and their covers) which reminded me at the same time of the many postings I’ve seen of people’s equipment. Some nice stuff and some Frankenstein monsters, but the underlying message (despite what was being said) was usually, ‘look at me’.

You know, the guy posts a shot of a whole load of expensive stuff with the caption: ‘off to do a blah-blah shoot’. Since surely nobody cares that he’s off to do a shoot, the obvious intended message is ‘look at all my cool stuff and be envious’.

Now look at the cover above.

That was very deliberately posed. Of course there was a humorous analogy with and throughout the book of the camera being a gun (so the Marlboro man hat and coat forwarded that), but note that the relatively small and unfancy camera is just dangling from the hand as if it were a 6 shooter and he’s off to shoot some vermin on the ranch that are stealing his chickens–or off to the OK Corral  to dispatch Billy the Kid for that matter.

The gun, the camera are tools, they are not the man.

They come out when it’s time to do the job and the pro doesn’t care what you think about them.

They’re taken care of, oiled and cleaned as any professional would treat his equipment, but except for a few of the narcissistic crazies, they don’t sleep with them, pose with them in the mirror or caress them fondly when no one is looking.

They’re just tools.

And look here: The gun that killed Billy the Kid didn’t even have a laser scope on it.



Color Grading Tools for Hogwartians

Color grading is relatively new to me, so I’m not an expert, but so far it has enabled me to not only make shots look better, but has allowed me to dramatically improve the look of interview shots.

Denver Riddle of Color Grading Central originally introduced me to the whole subject when he released Color Finale for FCPX. It’s an invaluable tool and I highly recommend getting it.

FCPX has some powerful grading tools itself in its Color pane. It’s more powerful than many people realise, but I’m not going to attempt a tutorial that others would be much better at.

Instead I want to show you a couple recent examples, starting with a little contest Denver Riddle posted on the FB Color Grading Central page.

I’m also going to tell you about the amazing vignette tool from Slice X and show you how and why I used it in grading a few shots. It is definitely way better than the built-in FCPX tool because you can infinitely manipulate it.

I’ll put the links to all these things at the bottom of the post.

First, here’s what Denver posted and asked people to grade:


And here’s what I did with it:

Boy Meets Girl

Hundreds of people posted their grades in response to Denver’s challenge. Mine seems to be one of the few he commented on directly saying it was a nice color balance. I was kind of chuffed, though he said there was too much separation from subject to background. On that I had to disagree. It is one of the primary things I try to achieve with lighting first, and grading afterwards because it creates more depth and 3 dimensionality. But in fairness, I didn’t spend that much time on it and there were still some things I wanted to do to improve it. He might have had a point. Too much separation? Anyway…

I did this grade using both the FCPX color pane and Color Finale. The FCPX color pane, amongst other things, gives you the ability to isolate shapes which you can then adjust independent of the surroundings. In this case I isolated their faces and graded them separate from the background. Most of the color work on the background was done using Color Finale which allows you to independently control the hue, saturation and brightness of the  main color components (along with many other things).

Finally I used Slice X vignette to direct attention to the subjects.

All of these things are key-framable. Since this is a still shot, key-framing was not necessary of course.

SLICE X Vignette Shape Mask

Here’s a screen grab of Slice X Vignette in use:

Slice X

Unlike most vignette tools, including the one in FCPX, this one is infinitely controllable in terms of shape and axis. Like all the others, you can also control the density, size and softness of the vignette. But this is the only one where you can also shape it and change its axis. Here are the properties that you can vary from within the inspector in addition to the on-screen controls you see above:

Slice X Inspector

Ok, now for real life.

For those of you who read Run and Gun Videography–The Lone Shooters Survival Guide, you’ll know I covered the subjects of lighting both generally and specifically in regard to interviews. Lighting is the lifeblood of cinematography and is much more effective in creating that ‘cinematic look’ than shallow depth of field alone.

Here’s an interview shot I did recently as it came out of the camera:

Peter ungraded

It was not without some problems.

While I did manage through lighting to effectively separate him from the background in a white room (turned off all overheads, closed the window blinds, skimmed the back wall with a light to give the impression of of an off-scene window while controlling the spill from hitting the opposite wall as much as I could and gave him facial modelling and a backlight–both of which I had to severely control with black foil to avoid spill). The trouble with white rooms is that light bounces all over the place. So this was pretty good and I could have left it as it was, but there was another problem I hadn’t realised at the time. It was shot with relatively high gain (unnecessarily) and so is a bit grainy. You’ll see what I mean if you click on the picture to see it full-sized.

Here’s what I did with it:

Peter grade


Grading was done with FCPX and Color Finale. Then I added the Slice X vignetting tool subtly. I also used Neat Video to de-noise it. The result, I think, is that the shot has more depth and dimension.

And one final sample and a small test:


Duchess ungraded

Duchess grade

The first one was out of the camera, the second one graded. But what may be of more interest is the lighting. See that big window in the back? Well, there were three more to the left which effectively lit up the whole room. I closed the heavy curtains on the side windows. Then I placed a softbox in the floor in the background (left) to create a fake light from the (now dark) window being sure to keep it off the walls. Now I was able to light her with a relatively low intensity softlight and have her more dramatically separated from the background. I gave her a backlight and a little frontal fill which also gave her eye lights.

As I told Denver, this is what I try to achieve with almost any shot–separation of subject from background which can be achieved with focus or lighting or both. (In this case lighting was going to carry the job as the focal length was wide and the depth of field too great)


I could have done it more telephoto (which can also be more flattering), but chose this because she is a Duchess in a castle and I felt the grandeur of the room was important to include.

Now for the test:

Did you notice the microphone in the shot ?

(I didn’t think so–which is why I left in in there rather than crop the shot)

Because of the depth and because of the directing of attention to her face, what is it that you look at when you  see this shot.? Her face, right?

Our little secret.



Color Grading Central Facebook page

Color Grading Central Website  (where you can get Color Finale)

Slice X Vignette Shape Mask

Neat Video De-noiser

Run ‘n Gun Videography eBook



Confessions of a Run and Gunner

The Ritz


Warning: This is an 11 minute video. The  subject is St. James’s Square, London, one of the most historical and prestigious districts of London.  All of the following will be of no value at all if you don’t plan on watching it. This is for those of you who plan to.

This video is not typical of what I do, but I treated it like any other that I do. And all that is covered in the book Run ‘n Gun Videography–The Lone Shooter’s Survival Guide.

It wasn’t typical, because it is long (11 minutes).

In the book I talk about how to do and edit interviews. Up until now, I’d say for an hour of interviews, I cut out on average about 50% or more. That means all of my questions and all of the answers that I know I won’t use. What’s left is what I use to construct the narrative.

In this case, I had just over an hour of interview, and with my questions cut out, over 95% of is was totally usable. That’s never happened before.

This was a case of a very educated, experienced and articulate Brit. There are many like him. I just never got to interview one. And I’ve done over 1000 interviews.

I already knew I was going to produce multiple properties from his interview, but when it came to the first one–an overview of the St. James’s Conservation Trust, when I got it reduced down to about 11 minutes, I felt I couldn’t cut it down any more without losing.

Sure, he didn’t say it all in the order your hear it, but in crafting an overview and knowing that it’s first showing would be to a prestigious event in St. James Park attended by a lot of very important people, I felt I just had to work with that 11 minutes and make it as visually interesting as possible.

That was what was different about it.

As to the rest, it was all hand-held, except for the interview of course.

Why is that worth bringing up?

Well try going around St. James Square and in the vicinity of a working palace and other important clubs and high-end shops in the heart of historic London with a big camera and a tripod and see how far you get.  The client was even concerned that I get all the right ‘permissions’. I told him, “don’t worry about it”.

All that B roll was shot with my teeny weenie Sony HXR NX30 hand-held.

The interview was shot with my Sony PXW X70. And guess what? I somehow screwed that up, inadvertently shooting with high gain.

Though we were in the offices of the Ritz Hotel, we weren’t able to get a suite in the Hotel for the shoot. I was your typical white room. So to get that interview look I had to 1) apply Neat Video de-noiser to it, 2) use Color Finale to get the best separation from subject to background (after doing my best with foil to keep spill lights off the back wall) and , 3) Used the vignette tool from Digital Rebellion (it’s awesome–much better than the FCPX tool, because you can manipulate it on all axises, control its shape, ctc.)

TIP: When using Neat video, get your look, then disable it. It’s very processor intensive and whenever you change an edit it will want to re-render again. So get your look, disable it, and when you’re all done, re-enable it and let it render everything one time.

The other regular practices were shooting tons of B roll and how I found a stock music piece that worked (two in this case) and made them seem like they were written for the video. Seriously, if you manage to watch it once through, try again and just listen to how the music plays to and enhances the narrative. It was pretty magical–considering it’s stock.

B roll:  As much as I preach about shooting TONS of B roll to cover your edits, even I, in this case, did not shoot enough. In fact I made 3 trips to London in all. And still didn’t shoot enough. There was just SO MUCH covered in more than an hour of interview, I was lucky to scrape by in order to produce this one (and the next one I’m working on now). More properties will probably develop from this, and when that happens I’ll edit the narrative first and then get back on a train to London with a list…

Shooting handheld:  Shooting hand-held is one thing. You should also know that for almost all of these hand-held shots I applied 50% slow mo. And in most cases ALSO added stabilisation. Some from FCPX and some using CoreMelt’s ‘Lock and Load”.  Also (did you know?) that once you apply any kind of speed change in FCPX, you can then select a video standard of either ‘frame blending’ or ‘optical flow’. I used optical flow which smooths it out just a little bit more. Also, in some case (shooting those wall plaques), I shot them both as stills (on the NX30) and as slow zooms. In the edit I wound up animating the stills rather than using the zooms. And finally, (as dictated by the edit and conformity with surrounding shots, i.e. continuity), I also often applied manual key-framed zooms to my shots.

Marketing yourself: Also covered in the book. Relevant here is this: Sometimes you do something for cheap with malice aforethought. I had done another video for an organisation that had often asked but never hired me. Finally I did a birthday video for the daughter’s 18th. That was so well received I was asked to do one for the organisation–for cheap. I did it because I knew their upscale clientele would see it and it would likely get me more business. It got me two commissions worth £6000, including this one.

Now you know all my secrets.

Ok, so this is run’n gun. As covered in the book, it ain’t perfect. It won’t stand up to the scrutiny of the various film geeks out there. But it does the job and the stuff that the geeks will gleefully point out won’t be the things that the intended audience will ever see or concern themselves with.

The test is, does it get the message across with clarity and impact.


Free Book Offer: Run ‘n Gun Videography–The Lone Shooter’s Survival Guide

Run 'n Gun Videography

I’ve decided to enrol in KDP Select which gives me some promotional options including making the book available for FREE for 5 days.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

I’m doing it for two reasons.

  1. I’m locked into KDP select for 90 days during which period the book can only be available on Kindle. So that gives me a sort of deadline for making the book available in soft cover and putting it on other platforms. I can’t promise it, but it’s a good target for me because I’m going to be pretty busy before then anyway. Plan is to update it and make it available in hardcover next fall.
  2. Though the book has sold a few hundreds copies, it’s only gotten about a little over 30 reviews between the UK and US markets. They’re all good reviews, but I’d like to see a lot more reviews.

The Free Download Offer is NOW LIVE on Amazon and runs through Sunday.

I hope that most of my subscribers here who don’t have it yet will take the opportunity to download it.

In exchange I have a humble request: Please review it on the Amazon page once you’ve read it.

US Amazon Link

UK Amazon Link

Available world wide.

A Good Corporate Video Sample

corporate video

(from the Run and Gun Videography Blog)

The Lone Shooter: One day shoot, 2 day edit

I think this is a great example of a corporate video combining many of the chapters of Run ‘n Gun Videography–The Lone Shooter’s Survival Guide including:

  1. Message
  2. Using local talent
  3. Interviews
  4. B roll
  5. Music

The Message

The message is clear by the content of the narrative (which was distilled from about 40 minutes of interview), but also by choice of B roll. Yes, the use of relevant B roll shots is standard in editing this type of interview, but additionally there are shots in there one might not realise are important–unless you are in this business and know what you are looking for. And for those potential business clients, they will have seen what they are looking for: the top tier German machines in use at the plant. That’s why you see their names prominently in some of the shots.

Local Talent

As to local talent, in this case we used the co-managing directors who are brothers.

To my surprise, it was the younger brother (who appears first) who was the most put off by the camera. In fact, in looking at the footage I noticed his head appeared to be physically straining away from the camera as if to get as far away from it as possible. Correspondingly, there was a lot more to edit in his interview (pauses, ums, ahs, stumbles, etc.), all of which is hidden under the B roll. The end message of the video, however is carried entirely by him. And there’s a reason for that: He was asked the magic interview question at the end. I pointed out that they had a very successful and growing business in a niche market and that they had been at it for a very long time, growing all along the way. “So”, I asked him, “What makes you get up in the morning? What is your passion for this business?” (or words to that effect). His response is entirely uncut. I let it roll even despite a few long pauses because it was so obvious that he was completely sincere. And his message was in perfect alignment with the message of the video in its whole.  Who wouldn’t then want to do business with this guy?

B roll

It might appear, in some cases, that the B roll was shot after the interview to fit so nicely with a few bits that were being said, but no. It was all shot first. But I shot so much that I was able to fit shots very nicely to what was being said as if I had shot it afterwards or to a script.


I must have spend an hour and 1/2 looking for a suitable piece of music for this video. Thanks to the search parameters of Audio Jungle (and now Audio Blocks) which allowed me to search for a pretty exact length, I was able to preview dozens of potential fits. Then I found this one. To my absolute amazement, I laid it down and didn’t have to do a thing to it. No editing. No adjusting. It’s entirely uncut. It fits the beginning and end titles, and, if you listen carefully, it even does several things along the way that would convince you that it was scored specifically for this video.

I liked this music so much that when I was editing a promo video for my sculptor wife I had it in the back of my head to see if it would work. Turns out the same thing happened. It just dropped right in as if it was written for that video too. That’s one magical piece of music.

Other Notes

It was a one day shoot and two day edit.

For those interested, it was shot on the Sony PXW X70 in AVCHD mode.

The interview lighting was done with 2 LED Flexlites which I reviewed in this blog. The ‘kick’ you see on the side of their faces would appear to be from the background windows, but was actually created by one of the Flexlites dialed way down. The frontal fill was another Flexlite opposite the backlight. Fill was simply ambient light in the room with the intensity of the key light being set to achieve a 2 1/2:1 contrast ratio with the ambient fill.

Edited on FCPX. Color balanced with Color Finale.

Oh, and did anyone notice I added the sky, clouds and sunbeams to the opening shot? (it was a lousy day in Leicester that day)

The following video was directed and produced by Leapfrog Marketing (Alan Myers – 0116 278 7788) in association with The Video Whisperer.

And just for a bit of fun, here’s the video I did for my wife with the same music:

Preview, Chapter 8 Lighting, from ‘Run ‘N Gun’ Videography

Ok,  I can’t stand it anymore.

My broadband has been down for a month (now fixed) and I’d been wanting to publish another preview to ‘Run ‘N Gun Videography–the Sole Shooters Survival Guide’, but I’m hung up on the one I wanted to publish as I can’t yet publish the video that goes along with it.

Thanks all for the great feedback on the chapters I’ve released so far. There will be over 25 chapters, so no worries yet about pre-publishing the entire book on this blog like this. But I will do at least two more.

This one is in its entirety (minus illustrations which is what I have to work on next along with the design, cover, etc.). I did however drop in one picture here that will be in the book.

I’ve been being asked how to order the book. There will be a link here, of course, but that will come once it’s actually published to Amazon as an eBook for about £20 (or should it be £19.95?). I believe you will be able to order it as a hardcopy as well, but I’ll know more once I get into that part of the process.

Anyway, here’s a chapter that can be put to immediate effective use in your run ‘n gun corporate videos (or whatever else you do!)


Chapter 8  Lighting

Lighting is considered the lifeblood of cinematography.

In Hollywood, the ‘Director of Photography’ or ‘Cinematographer’ is primarily concerned with the lighting and exposure of the scene, not the camerawork.

To be fair, the two are practically inseparable. But then, so are all the other departments. Yet there is a very personal relationship between camera and lighting.

You’ve all seen dramatizations of the stereotypical Director of Photography walking around a set or through life holding his fingers in front of his eyes in such a way as to frame the world that he sees.

On the set, as far as camera goes, the frame that is arrived at is vital. It tells everyone in every other department, what will be seen and from what perspective. It also tells them what will not be seen.  How it will be seen or perceived is largely due to lighting.

The screen upon which the film or video will eventually be viewed (and probably for a long time to come, despite the rapid advance of technology) is FLAT.  Ok, there are curved screens now to further the illusion of depth, but they are still 2 dimensional. For all intent and purposes, it’s a flat screen.

You are all familiar with types of art in the world of painting that are essentially two-dimensional line-art. While there are many examples, possibly the most familiar is what you would see on the walls in your favorite oriental restaurant.

On the other hand there is art that specializes in great depth and perspective, lending a very convincing 3 dimensional effect to what is clearly a 2 dimensional plane.

Rembrandt was one of the first to truly popularize this illusion of 3 dimensionality achieved through the simulation of light and shadow, and indeed, one of the most enduring types of portrait lighting used in cinematography, videography and photography today is called “Rembrandt Lighting”.

It is lighting, possibly more than anything else, that creates atmosphere, mood and depth in photography, cinematography and videography. That is to say, it has the potential of doing so.

To be sure, there is “bad lighting” and “good lighting”. You know it’s good when you see it. And when it’s bad, you might not realize it’s the lighting at fault, but you’ll probably be unimpressed by the film.

In the early days of TV, video cameras required a relatively high light level for proper exposure and weren’t very good at rendering contrast either. TV studios were typically flooded by light from all directions and this became known as “TV lighting” which is not a flattering term.  There was little or no lighting direction, little or no shadows, and little or no separation of subject to background. It also made it easy to shoot from multiple cameras all over the set at the same time. It was the “MacDonalds” of film production, also not a flattering description when it comes to good cuisine.

Motion pictures, on the other hand, were done (and are still done) shot by shot, each shot a completely different set-up with everything tailored to the particular camera angle.

If you recall some of the early Hollywood black and white classics, you would at once notice a dramatic difference in the lighting compared with “TV lighting”. Next time you see one, take a moment to study the complexities of light and shadow in any given scene and compare that with any modern TV sit com.

It was more than that though. Because they were shooting in Black and White, tonal separation was achieved solely through a total command of the subject of reflectance.  A theoretical ‘total white’ would reflect back 100% of the light hitting it. Conversely, a theoretical ‘total black’ would reflect back no light. In between there is a theoretical infinite range of different reflectances of all colors as rendered in black and white film. Therefore the masters of black and white films did extensive testing of all fabrics and paints before committing anything to film. It was at that point that lighting took over to complete the look that we all recognize as classic black and white.

Interestingly, when color film came into being, lighting suffered somewhat as now it was easy to achieve tonal separation of subject from background with color alone.

So some of the early color films were pretty crappy, technically speaking.

Crap quality, however, does not endure, and it was not long before great lighting was married up with color film. Most of the good films of the last three decades have a great director of photography on board whose principle job—as mentioned earlier—is lighting design.

It wasn’t until some Hollywood film crews brought the discipline of cinematography to television that the bad habit of TV lighting began to change.

I think in the U.S. one of the first televisions shows to do this was “Hill Street Blues” in 1981, an award winning and long running series following daily life in a New York police precinct. That was a Hollywood film crew. Not only was the lighting good, but they introduced a choreography of moving camerawork within the busy police precinct that was truly impressive—all the more so because moving cameras following moving actors put great strain on the lighting crews. But they pulled it off so successfully that it’s become the norm for television police dramas throughout the world ever since.

In my opinion, the Danish series “The Killing” is the pinnacle of filming excellence in all departments, but many other similar shows in the UK,  Europe and the US have attained similar cinematic excellence, and ALL of them have great lighting.

Ok, let’s get down to earth. I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with run ’n gun videography? You’re obviously not going to be running around with a huge lighting crew with 85,000 watts at their disposal.

I used to and now I travel with three fluoro lights totaling a whopping 375 watts. So what’s the point?

First of all, there will be no attempt in this chapter to cover the intricacies of lighting. There is a massive text on the subject called “Techniques of Lighting for Television and Film” by Gerald Millerson, whose book on lighting is probably the original lighting bible for Hollywood.

Interestingly it was not written by a person who had ever lit a set in his life. It was written, however, by a consummate researcher who studied the subject of film lighting over several decades and codified the subject. If ever there was a definitive book on the history and technology of cinematic lighting, this book was it.  While I would encourage any serious film maker or corporate videographer to read it, what I want to accomplish in this chapter for the run ’n gun shooter is two things:

  1. A realization and appreciation of the fact that lighting is a vitally important element of any production.
  2. What you can and should do to with minimal kit and resources to maximize the potential of lighting in any given run ’n gun circumstance.

So let’s draw out two important elements of lighting that can be applied no matter the circumstances:

  1. It is the relationship between light and shade in a two dimensional plane that creates the illusion of 3 dimensionality;
  2. Lighting contrast ratio from subject to background is as important a factor in the creation of depth and 3 dimensionality as the modeling and contrast ratio of the subject.

Practically speaking, in most corporate shoots, with the exception of interview lighting, most of the B roll that you will shoot will be with existing lighting whether it’s overhead fluorescent lighting, skylights, windows, open loading dock doors or a combination of any of these.

Sometimes when shooting a plant or office interiors, it’s helpful to have at least a single light that can be used to give some lighting direction or effect to a foreground subject. It’s not too difficult to have a single lightweight lamp at hand. But in truth, most of the time, due to the speed you will be shooting at and due to the fact that most of what you will be shooting will have little screen time, you’ll deal with existing lighting conditions.

Most modern cameras are sensitive enough to make just about any scene look good.

Furthermore, the sole shooter simply won’t have enough horsepower, in terms of lighting, to create any advantage with supplemental lighting in a medium or long shot. You can’t really compete with sun coming through windows or skylights in a medium or long shot with anything less than a set of 5 or 10 thousand watt lamps and those are not things you’re going to be carrying around.

But as most corporate shoots involve some sort of interview shots, be it representatives of the company or testimonials of customers that give you your narrative content, this is the one area you do have control over in terms of lighting because you’re dealing with a relatively small frame size. And this is the one area you can make look much more polished and professional than those who don’t even bother with lighting interview shots.

In my opinion, it is the lighting of interview shots that separates the professionals from amateurs in any corporate video I have ever seen.

Amateurs use whatever is there, and often don’t even use what’s there to the best advantage. The results are rather drab looking shots where the featured talent is not separated from the background, has no facial modeling, no lighting direction, no mood and no pizzaz at best. At worst, steep overhead lighting from existing fluoros create dark eye sockets or other ambient lighting sources create distracting shadow patterns on the subject or a host of other problems that result in an unattractive looking image or even a revolting one.

But that doesn’t mean any lighting is better than no lighting, because lighting can also be done so poorly that it creates the same effect as no lighting.

The point is, with knowledge of basic lighting, there are things a lone shooter can do easily and quickly make a scene look better with correctly and judiciously place lights or by turning off, blocking or changing the character of existing light.

“Lighting” is as much placing lights to create an effect as it is preventing unwanted light from hitting the subject or background.

So let’s look a little closer at the fundamentals of lighting.

Contrast Ratio

This is something I’ve rarely seen covered in lighting tutorials, yet it is a fundamental building block of all lighting, so it’s worth knowing. It’s also fun.

Please bear with me on this. I’m not a mathematician and I’m not trying to impress you with numbers. This is simply the language of lighting exposure. It’s not hard to understand, but it is important that you do understand it. Once you do, a lot of things make sense and you’ll find it very easy to create just about any effect or mood you want to.  So if in what follows you feel at any time that you’re starting to lose the plot, slow down, read it over again, think of real examples or whatever you need to do to realize the simplicity of what I’m talking about here. Deal? (And those of you already familiar with these principles, there still may be a trick or two following that may be helpful).

For simplicity, let’s first consider a single, focused halogen light hitting a human face from the side in an otherwise dark room.

“Contrast ratio” refers to the ratio between the lit part of the face and the shadowed part.

For purposes of example, let’s consider that we’re shooting in a black room. Because there is no ambient light from any other source, the only light that will hit the shadowed area would some light bouncing off the walls from the main light source which would be very little as there will be very little bounce light in a black room. Therefore the ratio between light and shadow is likely to be 32:1 or greater.  The bright portion will be at least 32 times brighter than the shadowed portion. The shadowed portion will be at least 1/32nd the brightness of the lit portion.

This would be a very dramatic looking scene.

In actual fact, at a ratio of 32:1, the shadows would render totally black on both film and video. No detail in the shadow at all.

Film and video cannot render detail in a contrast range much beyond 8:1. At least that was the case in the 1990s when I was shooting film and just starting to shoot video. It may be better now, but not much compared with the human eye.

The human eye is capable of detecting detail in a contrast range as great as 1,000,000:1.

In other words, if the shadowed area is 1/1,000,000 the brightness of the lit portion, the human eye is still capable of detecting details in the shadows. Not so with film and video.

Here’s a real example anyone can relate to as it has nothing to do with film, video, or artificial light sources.

Outside on a clear day (clear blue sky) with bright sun, the contrast between light and shade is between 16:1 and 32:1 depending on altitude and other environmental factors. Yes, the sun is BRIGHT, but that big bowl of clear blue sky acts as a shadowless fill, so the contrast won’t be much greater than 16:1.

Anyway, that is why “fill lights” are used to fill the shadows cast by the main light.  Without “fill”, facial shadows would always be inky black on film or video.

So how come on exterior shots in film or video with a 16:1 contrast ratio the shadows cast by the sun on the actors faces are not inky black?  Ah ha!  That’s what the lighting people and director of photography are doing with their lights and other equipment on exterior shoots, and it’s all quite variable.

In Westerns (Cowboy and Indian movies) shot under clear blue sky, those actors had a hell of a lot of light being pumped onto their faces by multiple 12,000 watt arc lamps and or “sunny boards” (which are large boards covered with shiny tin foil that reflect the full intensity of the sun back onto the scene).

This is probably why John Wayne had a permanent squint.

Other methods to reduce that contrast involve flying huge white translucent screen above the actors to cut the intensity of the sun by 50% or so, reducing the contrast ratio to maybe 8:1, then using lights to reduce it down to 4:1 to give a better approximation of what the human eye would see.

I mentioned other variables. They include hazy skies whereby the sun is diffused by a thin layer of clouds—which reduces the contrast ratio. Etc.

Of course most of the time they just put the sun behind the subject and exposed the shadowed faces to appear as it would to the human eye resulting in a slight, but acceptable over-exposure of the background. If that background was a low reflectant one (a forest, the shadowed side of a mountain, dark storm clouds or house, etc.) you’d have a pretty good looking scene. And that bright sun on the hair and shoulders of the subject would separate him nicely from that darkened background.

Next point: The degree with which you fill the shadows determines the mood of the shot. That applies whether it’s an exterior shot or an artificially lit interior shot.

You video guys instantly see the contrast when you look at the LCD screen of your video camera.

Film people won’t see it until the film is developed. So they have to use light meters to determine and set the contrast ratio with their fill lights in order to control the eventual effect they will see once the film is developed and screened. (I know, they use ‘video assists’ these days, but they also still use light meters to expose film)

How much fill they add depends on the mood they want. It goes roughly like this:

Low Key Lighting (High Contrast)

For a dramatic look they’ll go for a contrast ratio of 4:1-6:1.  Night scenes would generally have such a contrast ratio as it’s what the human eye expects. There is no big blue bowl of sky to fill the shadows.  Remember, once you go to about 8:1, neither film or video will see much detail in the shadows. So if an even more dramatic look is wanted, the director of photography may set the contrast to 8:1 or even 12:1 to make the shadowed areas deliberately black.

On most interior night scenes, contrast ranges will probably by set to about 4:1 or 6:1 because, unlike a daylight interior scene where light may also be coming in through windows to fill those shadows, a night interior scene will normally be more contrasty. Lighting is set to create the appropriate illusion or mood. High contrast scenes like these are called “high contrast”.

Don’t worry about these numbers.

High Key Lighting (Low Contrast)

At the opposite extreme, however, there’s something called “high key” (low contrast), where the relationship between light and shade is very little.

An upbeat or “happy” scene would generally be shot with low contrast; very little difference between light and shade.

“Flat lighting”, as discussed early in relation to early “TV lighting” would have little or no shadows at all.

In any case, the deliberate use of varying degrees of contrast is for creating specific “moods” for any given scene.

Now let’s get back to how this relates to “run ’n gun” videography mainly for people shooting corporate videos, and most specifically to the shooting of interviews.

Subject to Background Contrast

If you think about it, the whole idea of a posh looking interview close-up comes from the Hollywood close up.

Most people assume the main difference between a video shot and a film shot is depth of field. In other words, the film shot has that nice out-of-focus background.  While that is a factor, it is less important than the lighting of the film shot.

The director of photography not only ensures nice modeling and contrast on the actor’s face (suitable to the message of what’s being shot), but also the contrast of the actor to the background.

In a typical daytime scene, for a nice looking shot with good depth, the contrast ratio is set to around 3:1. That means the main light is 3 times brighter than the wall behind the actor. You could also look at it as the wall  being 1/3 the brightness of the main light on the actor, but the first way is the correct way to define 3:1..

For a night scene, that contrast will increase to 4:1 or greater.

Now let’s leave Hollywood and move on over into a typical corporate interview.

You’re in an office. What color are the walls?  That’s right, white (more often than not).

What’s the light source? Overhead fluorescent lamps, most likely. And what do they do?  —The give a pretty much overall even illumination to the entire room, but since they’re directly overhead, they tend to cast eye socket shadows on your talent.

If you were to use the overhead fluorescents to light the interviewee (god forbid), guess what the contrast ratio from interviewee to the background is going to be.  That’s right, about 1:1 which is no difference. The background is the same brightness as the subject. Worse, the subject’s facial tone will be less reflective than the white wall, so the background will appear to be brighter.

And right there is a typical scenario that any corporate videographer runs into routinely.

What can you do about it?

You can do more or less the same thing that the Hollywood crew would do on location. You reduce the light hitting that back wall. That’s the first thing they’ll do, because it is the brightness of that background that will determine the brightness of the main light hitting the actor.

Sure, you could leave the wall and just pump up the light on the actor and create your desired contrast ratio that way. But two things are wrong with that. a) you’ll fry the actor (and he’ll sweat), b), you’ll increase the f stop (iris) on the lens and increase your depth of field.

There’s an advantage to shooting at low light levels. The set is cooler (in terms of ambient temperature) and the iris of the camera lens is wide open or close to it which means your depth of field will be shallow (which is what you want in a close up).

Ok, let’s go back to the corporate shoot scenario with our videographer.  If you’re like me, you travel light with fluoro soft boxes (or LEDs) rather than halogens. Not a lot of horsepower there, even with the biggest ones. So you can’t compete with sunlight coming in through the windows very well.

A sequence of actions for lighting a corporate interview

1) Frame the interview shot including composing the background (which normally involves moving a few things around)

2) Now reduce the light hitting the background by any of or a combination of the following:   a) turn off the overheads, or a portion of them, even if it means unscrewing the bulbs or taping some black foil over an offending lamp, b) close the blinds wholly or partly, c) cover the windows wholly or partially with black cloth.

This is not a robotic exercise. Perhaps there is a light pattern created from a window source you’d like to have in there for a little background modeling. The point is not to simply cut out all or most of the light. The point is to bring down the light level while retaining as much as possible of any directional lighting pattern that may be there that will enhance the overall shot.

If you want to use some of the sun effect, you can put some neutral density gels on the offending window which will knock down the intensity without changing the pattern.

3) Now you’re ready to light the subject, preferably with some nice modeling by proper placement of the main light (called the “key light), but certainly brighter than the background.

4) Add a backlight, and now you will have a corporate interview that has a nice “filmic” look by lighting alone because you will have a nice contrast ratio from subject to background with a nice backlight that further separates subject from background and a nice contrast ratio on the subject’s facial lighting.

If you also happen to be shooting with a DSLR or a full sensor shallow depth-of-field video camera, you will have that nice filmic look everyone wants.

Remember, it’s not just depth of field that makes up the “filmic look”. The better part of that filmic look is lighting and contrast.

Here’s a video frame from a recent video I did that illustrates my point.

Jennie's Journey interview lighting

Let’s evaluate it:

1. We have some nice facial modeling from the main light which was placed above and to the right of the person.

2. We have a nice backlight on her hair and the plants behind her which separate both from the background and give the scene a rather polished look.

3. We have good separation of subject to background (approximately 3:1 contrast ratio).

Note: There is a “romantic filter” on the scene which caused the outer edges to appear as a slightly blurred vignette; something I don’t normally do, but in this particular case the interview was with a cancer survivor and I felt it added to the spirit of the interview which was very upbeat.

Here’s the good news for the lone shooter:

That scene was lit with a single softbox fluoro!

How did I do it?

Exactly as I outlined in 1-4 above.

In this case, the one thing I did not and could not change was the brightness of the sunlight coming through the window. Instead I limited it by the amount I closed the curtains.

So I set exposure to make the backlight that hit the subject (created by the sun) appear correct.

That left me with a near silhouette of the person.

Next I added a main light (key light) and positioned it for best modeling. I had to get it really close to achieve enough brightness (which wasn’t enough), so I compromised and opened up the aperture to get my exposure which made the backlight (the sun) brighter than it should have been, but acceptable.

As the “softbox” fluorescent lamp has a broad source, it tends to cast soft shadows. Nevertheless, with no other light source in the room I would have needed a fill light to fill in those shadows a bit or they would have appeared too “dark” or “dramatic”. And this was an upbeat interview, so fill was required.

Fortunately the ambient sunlight bouncing off the walls in the small white room gave me sufficient fill light on her face for the modeling I wanted.

But the key light (though it was deliberately positioned at an angle to minimize background spill,_ being a diffuse source was still lighting the wall behind her to a degree causing the subject to background contrast to be nearly 1:1 (probably about 1 ½:1).  Flat looking, no depth.

To handle that I suspended black foil from a light stand just above her head to order to block most of the spill light that was hitting the back wall. But I allowed a little of the light to escape around the right side of the foil so it would still  hit the edge of the bookshelf in the right background, thus cheating on the atmospheric lighting. If I had blocked all the light the background would have appear flat and dull back there.

Result: By utilizing and controlling existing ambient light, and adding a single key light I was able to produce a scene that looked like a portrait shot or a “Hollywood close up” lit by a director of photography and team of gaffers using anywhere from 3 to 6 lights or more.

To be fair, they probably would have made it look better, but remember, I’m addressing the lone shooter or small production company in this book and the point I will continue to make is that if you minimally understand the basics of what I’ve described in this chapter, and take that little bit of effort to deal with basic lighting and contrast, your shots will definitely look better than most of your competitors. I know because I have looked. And that’s why I am writing this book.

Lighting basics

To be fair, I haven’t at all covered the basics of lighting which are aptly covered in great detail in Gerald Millerson’s ‘The Techniques of Lighting for Film and Television’, and which can also be found in one form or another in many internet tutorials on lighting.

I really do think it’s wise for any videographer to study and understand these basics so that he or she can then use the tools he has to hand (actual lighting kit plus extant ambient lighting conditions at the site) to optimize lighting. While a thorough study of the subject is beyond the scope of this book, I want to cover the rock bottom basics in brief so that anyone unfamiliar with the subject will have some idea of its make-up.

If one were to light a Hollywood set inside a studio somewhere, there are 5 types of lights which are used to create the illusion of atmospheric lighting.

  1. Key lights (the main lights that hit the actors or subject)
  2. Fill lights (the soft light used to fill the shadows cast by the key lights to the desired contrast ratio)
  3. Set lights (which independently light the set, including walls, furniture, etc without hitting the actors or subject.)
  4. Effect lights (supplemental to set lights to create effects such as sunlight or moonlight streaming through a window, off-scene lightning flashes, car headlights, etc. and even lights used to bring out detail on surfaces, fill dark shadows or simulate the effects of off-scene lamps from adjacent rooms)
  5. Practical lights (which are actual lamps visible in the scene, such as table lamps, wall lamps, chandeliers, etc.

There are typically multiples of each of these types of lights to light any given scene. Indeed, a seemingly simply lit scene may have dozens of lights totalling 80,000 watts or more creating that illusion.

Obviously, that’s a bit out of the league of the run ‘n gunner.

But if you understand the basics of how these illusions are created, you’d be surprised how well you can adapt to make the best of what you have and what is otherwise available to create lighting illusions far better than the amateur who just comes into the room and turns on his camera with no understanding or regard for lighting.

Remember, lighting is considered the “lifeblood” of cinematography. It deserves some attention.

#               #                 #

If you’d like to watch the video that the still frame above is from, here it is. This is one of those rare cases where all I had to do was turn on the camera. She talked non-stop for 14 minutes.

Color Temperature, Warts ‘n All

This tutorial was by request of Daren Henderson.  I do appreciate all the feedback on the first two videos in the “Lighting For Video That Doesn’t Suck” series, and particularly requests.

I’m also chuffed that people have started subscribing to this blog. I’ve just added share buttons to the articles, so please share as you see fit.

I called it “Warts n All” because I did this one 100% solo without the benefit of moral support from my assistant/model Gemma. But also I demonstrate and discuss color temperature errors.

For you Americans: “Warts n All” is an English expression that’s sort of self explanatory. So is “chuffed”. The English have a way with expressions that make no sense on the face of it until you hear them in context and suddenly they make total sense. (I live in England)

Don’t miss Part One, Lighting for Video That Doesn’t Suck, Getting Started

and Part Two, 3 Point Lighting.


%d bloggers like this: