So Sensitive

Just yesterday I was explaining to a producer how film has become an artistic rather than economic choice. That’s not without advantages: the myth about digital being cheaper than film is not something we still have to battle. Producers, directors, studio executives and others now understand that when you are choosing a digital camera, you are choosing the “emulsion” that will determine the quality of a project’s look. And that means the choice to shoot film becomes a viable and artistic one.

Is this proof that we are solidly in the “digital age”? I think so. Film is now an alternative to digital, rather than the other way around. History always moves us forward. But I can still hear that handful of engineers in an NBC TV studio in Chicago in 1972 insisting that within a year we would “never see any more film being shot, at all.” If you accept that prediction as fact, then film has indeed enjoyed a long and graceful old age, while the teenager that is digital has only now begun to mature.

And as digital platforms evolve, so do film emulsions. The newest stock from Kodak (VISION3 50D – 5203/7203) and Fuji (ETERNA and REALA) set new standards for daylight sensitivity, while Kodak’s reliable 500T/5219 can easily be shot at 800 to match the speed of most digital cameras. What this sensitivity does for us, whether shooting film or digital, refutes another oft-heard phrase: “You don’t need light.”

Sure, contemporary emulsions have better granularities to shoot at higher speeds, and, yes, chips on the latest digital cameras can provide a huge dynamic range. But that hardly means the director of photography now has nothing to do with lighting. It’s quite the opposite. The skills of a cinematographer to ascertain the application, placement and intensity of light on a project are more important than ever!

Life in this ultra-sensitive camera age requires ultra-sensitive eyes. In the old days, when we needed 100 to 200 foot candles to light a set, adding a light that was one stop different meant changing 100 foot candles to get there. That’s quite a bit of light. Getting that same stop today with light levels as low as six foot candles or less requires eyes that can discern details and separations in three foot candles or less. That kind of sensitivity training takes a great deal of skill and experience, as all Guild members have.

After all is said and done, the subtlety of lighting is what we are about. And understanding how to light a large set, with much smaller instruments than we’ve ever had before, is a huge challenge. Even in situations where we’re not adding lights, the director of photography has to be able to see light.

Because if you can’t see as well as the camera sees, how can you light the set?


Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600