DV Dilemmas

DV Dilemmas

Byline: Bill Miller

A number of years ago – and vanity will prevent me from being more specific – a client informed me that we needed a new “cameraman” for an upcoming video shoot. I was well known in the field as a cinematographer, but portable video was new and this client felt he needed someone more experienced. I boldly asserted myself, telling the client that basically all cameras are the same. “You look through the viewfinder, whether optical or electronic, compose the picture, light the scene, press the button, and pictures come out the other end,” I confidently said.

While at the time I was being naive, not to mention arrogant, my philosophy has pretty much stayed the same over the years. A camera is a tool, and in the hands of an experienced photographer it shouldn’t matter if it’s an old analog video camera, an Arriflex film camera, or one of the new miniDVs flooding the market. What I have come to admit is that there are subtle differences in how you present the subject to the lens. So while the videographer doesn’t need to know all the electronic jargon of how the image gets from the lens to the recording media, knowing how to light, compose, and expose are vitally important.

As with most of my counterparts in the industry, I have slowly been making the transition from analog videography to digital. Along the way I’ve been learning how the videographer treats the new formats differently in terms of light and darkness, contrast, exposure, composition, and focal length choices. Since the field is relatively new, I didn’t want to rely solely on my experiences, so I enlisted the expertise of other respected videographers and lighting directors.

This is not the final statement on the subject, but merely a starting point. The tools are changing every day, as well as the ideas on how to use them, so let’s call this a work in progress. I would also love to hear from readers on what you’ve learned or some of the techniques you employ. Please feel free to email me at millerfilm@attbi.com.

While opinions differ widely on the quality of digital images, all of those consulted agreed upon one thing: Lighting is critical for good photography no matter the format or media on which it is being captured. A videographer needs to learn the basics of good lighting, which haven’t changed much over the years.

Doug Jensen, freelance cameraman and owner of Vortex Media, says the principles of lighting haven’t changed for decades. “Your lighting techniques have very little to do with the format being recorded on. A nicely lit interview takes the same setup whether you are shooting on HDCAM, Betacam, miniDV, or VHS. The camera doesn’t care what the recording format is. So my advice is to learn the basics and don’t get sidetracked on slight differences among formats.”

This is not to say that different cameras don’t have unique characteristics that must be considered. In that light, I’d like to present a concept that works better in theory than in reality, but when you can afford to do it, it’s a wonderful asset. Test your lighting techniques and video equipment, especially if you’re going to be using it for the first time. Read the manual and set up various lighting situations before going out on a production. If you’ve been using Betacams until now and the new job calls for DVCAM or miniDV cameras, try setting up side- by-side comparisons so you can see how different cameras deal with highlights and shadows, color balance, and image reproduction. If you have time, dub the results down to the final release format.

This is really the only accurate way of pre-judging what your final results are going to be without wasting precious time and money during production, or worse yet, having to do a re-shoot. Most of the new digital format cameras are full of built-in gimmicks and effects. I am a fan of turning all of these off and capturing the image as cleanly as possible, even if you know you’re going to posterize, stutter-frame, or alter the image in any other way. Postproduction is so advanced these days that any image doctoring can be done in the edit room. Even the inexpensive editing tools have tons of digital effects. So if you’re altering the image as it goes into the camera, you’re limited in how you can change it in post.

Neil de la Pena, a DP in Los Angeles who likes to live on the cutting edge, thinks digital cameras look best when the gain is pumped.

“I like to push the whites sometimes and I don’t worry about exceeding 100 (if I even have a wave form monitor on the set, which is rare) because I know when broadcast the whites will be clipped at 100 regardless,” says de la Pena.

He also likes to shoot on the long end of the lens and at wide-open apertures, which is somewhat of a contradiction when pushing the gain, but can be achieved by keeping light levels very low. “Because generally the quality of lenses that come with video packages are far less sharp than those we use for film, I find myself in a constant battle to narrow my depth of field. Soft backgrounds – and foregrounds, for that matter – help create the illusion of a film feel,” he says. Video lenses are notorious for greater depth of field, so the videographer has to work extra hard to keep depth of field narrow.

Most DPs I know work hard to get video to look as much like film as possible. Where cameras have interchangeable lenses, videographers are turning to film lenses to increase the film look of digital video cameras. Using stockings or other filters in front of or behind the lens (or in post) enhances the film look.

I have found that the smaller DV cameras have far less latitude (contrast) than the traditional Betacams, which are at best barely tolerable. This means that the highlights will blowout and the shadows will lose detail faster. Shooting recently at the circus, where the lighting is high contrast because of low-level ambient light and bright follow spots, I had a chance to compare Betacam directly to a new miniDV. I found that wide shots on the miniDV could not be intercut with the Beta tapes because of the high-contrast lighting. However, closeups were easily cut together with great results.

Ed Marcotti, a Boston director of photography, agrees. “I find that digital video is more forgiving with the amount of light needed to get the results you are looking for, but the contrast problem still raises its ugly head … once you get outside in bright sun. You still have to fill in most of the time to lessen the contrast. Skin tone and color balance is improving with the upgrade of chip technology and better optics.” Marcotti says the key to good-looking digital video is soft light. He likes to use large soft sources, like 5KW Fresnels through soft diffusion.

Dominic DeSantis, a freelance cameraman in Maryland, finds that with DV less is more most of the time. “The new video formats seem to need very little light,” he says. “DV thrives in the murky low-light world, constantly surprising me.”

DeSantis says he is often thrown into situations where the client wants him to go with available light. Because DV cameras require less light, the videographer can get away with using smaller lighting units. Now, a 2ft. Kino Flo unit often does the trick, where before a 1000W open-faced par light was needed. The newer lights take up less space, have smaller power requirements, and can be hand-held. You can also sneak them under dashboards in cars, behind furniture, or in the shower (of course, being careful not to electrocute the talent).

Los Angeles-based DP Jim Simeone gives this example of why less light doesn’t necessarily mean less lighting.

“When shooting a scene where ballet dancers were rehearsing in their supposedly sun-lit, wood-floored dance studio, I was able to expose for the existing meager overall light level of the room. With the use of just two very small lights, I was able to shape bright and believable window patterns on the shiny floor,” he says. “If I was using a broadcast grade camera or even the new high-def gear, I would have needed bigger and more lights to create the same effect. The extreme sensitivity of that camera, in conjunction with careful placement of the lights, allowed that scene to happen with the tiny crew and budget that we had.”

In fact, many experienced DPs find that the lower-end corporate and consumer grade cameras are more light sensitive than the expensive broadcast models. Having cameras that are more sensitive to light is not always an advantage, however, especially if you want to shoot at the wide-open end of the lens. You may have to use negative lighting (hanging drapes or black cards) to limit the light in the scene, employ neutral density filters, or switch to -3db on the camera to achieve small depth of field.

Finally, knowing where your video is going to end up is crucial to how you light a scene. For instance, if I know a scene is going to end up on the Internet or on a CD, I light with little contrast, using lots of fill light. If the video will be broadcast, I can be more creative, taking chances with dark and light areas.

Ed Marcotti, who I’ve worked with for years, taught me not to be afraid of the dark. “Don’t be afraid to shoot at higher contrast levels if it will make a better-looking picture. Low light can give you beautiful pictures,” he says. “But be sure to experiment when it’s not going to hurt your career or your pocketbook.”

I think Simeone summed it up best: “Lighting is critical for good photography, whether it be film, analog, or digital video. It is also important towards advancing your career and increasing the caliber of the quality of what you shoot, your demo reel, and your labor rate.”

This is just the beginning of the dialogue on lighting for digital video. Stay tuned to this section for updates.


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