(Not) Fearing the Dark – Using Available or Natural Light

Professional filmmaking makes a huge affair of using good and enough lighting of a scene, in particular with internal shooting. Availability of light is what separates big budget from zero. This stems from the days of shooting with celluloid film stock. Although digtal filmmaking isn’t as sensitive to darkness as photocemicals used to be, this old rule may still apply to a certain extent with smaller sensor digital cameras, such as that of Digital Super 16 Film. We guerilla filmmakers often have to do with what is available from normal tungsten household lights, or natural light coming from the heavenly bodies (i.e. the Sun and Moon). But some professional filmmakers choose to work with available and natural light, out of creative and artistic considerations, such as Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon, and the entire new wave of Danish filmmaking as summarized in Dogme 95, where only reflectors were allowed. Kubrick used vintage lenses that were extremely fast, to capture candle light. The entire 1970’s of Hollywood filmmaking (inspired by the French New Wave), revolutionized our opinios of what constitutes good cinematography, tossing out old dogmas of what was considered to be ugly; suddenly underexposure was considered to be a fresh approach and arty.

Looking through the vlogs at Steve Simpson’s YouTube channel, and in partricular the one embedded above, I realised that he discarded the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema in his latest indie feature Dangerous to Know. In many scenes he chose to use only available light, without the use of cine lighting. However, he only resorted to the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K (which Philip Bloom regarded to be a step back from Blackmagic Design’s previous cameras, the BMCC and BMPCC, and rightly so) and the Sony A7S Mark II. I asked him if he was still using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, and if he had used it at all with Dangerous to Know. And if he had discarded it, if he was still planning to use it in the future. His answer to was the following:

I still have the camera and planned to use it for the low light scenes on Dangerous to Know, but the Sony A7sii came out and could film in low light and in 4K, so I went in that direction. We filmed some of the movie with the Black Magic Production [Camera] 4K, and decided that we wanted to [shoot] the whole film in 4K.

This was an interesting choice, in my opinion. But not surprising, as DSLR cameras have a good reputation as low light cameras compared to cinema cameras. But I wonder if he did any camera tests comparing the BMPCC with the Sony? In similar low light conditions? It would have been interesting to see how the BMPCC had performed in the same scenes as seen in the clip above. High ISO doesn’t necessarily give natural looking images, and quite noisy at that. But I really appreciate Simpson’s shooting philosophy of using natural and available light, something I myself aspire for (out of necessity). As you all know, I haven’t abondoned the BMPCC, and don’t plan to for a foreseeable future. Instead, my ambition is to push the camera to its limits in capturing scenes in low light conditions. And in my opinion, it does that quite well for having such a small sensor. Here I must refer back to my test movie I made shooting our Christmas Tree after midnight, only using available light coming from the LED-christmas lights. Yes, the images are dark but there is still some information left in the shadows. See the film below. (I recommend watching the clip in 4K for better resolution and detail in the shadows.)

Previously, I have used this clip to show how well (or bad) my Fancier FC-270A Tripod and FC-02H Fluid Head behaved in extended operation. I have only briefly touched upon the low light performance of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Let us delve somewhat deeper into this subject. The lens I was using with the BMPCC in this clip, the LOMO Meteor 5-1, is an old Russian (or rather Soviet) zoom lens made for the consumer market. It is quite fast on paper (f/1.9) but its T-stop is probably much higher (perhaps T=2.5), the reason being that it has many elements that are badly coated and of lower quality compared to Western equivalents; but I very much like its vintage look, still. And I didn’t use any speedboster, as I don’t own one, but it would be impossible on the Meteor 5-1 as it is a 16mm format lens. Shutter speed, referred to as Shutter Angle in cine camers such as the BMPCC, is also a way to manipulate exposure. My shutter angle was set at the default 180° (that’s why you will be able to spot the flickering strobe effect in the footage). The exposure and colours look natural though, approximating what I saw with my own eyes.

A screenshot of a RAW capture featuring a
A screenshot of a RAW capture featuring the available light coming from the LED christmas tree lights

I’m now trying to convince myself of how to shoot with my BMPCC in difficult lighting conditions. For starters, I shot this footage in CinemaDNG RAW and one of the great benefits of shooting RAW with no compression is that you may recover details in both shadows and highlights. I’m convinced that I could had pushed the shadows even more and recovered more detail, if I wanted to, but of course with more noise and grain as a consequence. Here the BMPCC excells with its 13 stops of dynamic range and 12-bit colour depth, compensating for the smaller sensor. But its ISO only goes up to 1600 (and I used its native ISO 800); however, ISO is a moot point when capturing RAW sensory data – it’s only metadata. I never change it. What I could manipulate in camera though, is the shutter angle, which could have been opened up more, up to 360° (but that would have required slow movements of both camera and subject, to prevent motion blur). A modern full frame prime lens with low light capability paired with a speedboster (I know that Simpson owns the Metabones one) would have provided the Super 16 sensor with lots of more light. That could do the trick. One may also shoot day for night, especially with no available light present in the scene, for example at dusk or dawn, or late afternoon or early morning, which would give lots of detail in the shadows.  That would perhaps look a bit unnatural, like with a high ISO, but minus the noise.


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