“Less is More”
The pace of new technological development has been aggressive to the point of disruption, meaning it has completely changed all aspects of this industry. For this Guild, digital camera systems have received the lion’s share of attention, while areas of new lighting technologies have flown a bit more under our radar.
That needs to change because lighting changes have been radical and profound. The springboard, of course, is advancements in digital sensor technology, i.e., sensitivity to light. Today’s typical EI (Exposure Index) is 800, whereas with film it was ASA 500. In previous years (not to age myself too much), I can recall a standard ASA of 25, with ECO Reversal 16mm. In those days, I somehow had the magical ability to go out with a box of (blue) Color Trans 650s, and light an entire factory!
Today’s camera systems (like Canon’s small footprint motion picture cameras) offer a 3200 ASA, with very little noise, and gorgeous output. That requires a completely new way of how we conceive of production lighting. When a practical light – a desk lamp, ceiling fixture or sconce – can create exposure, it inspires a different way of thinking. For me, and many other DPs, that change has been creatively exciting and stimulating.
Manufacturers are responding to this new paradigm with instruments that allow gaffers and DPs to work with much smaller amounts of light in more effective ways. In fact, as I begin a new feature project this week, my approach to lighting will be much centered on the axiom: “How can I do more with less?”
Of course, there are many challenges along the way. Most notable is the impact on our camera assistants – maintaining critical focus when there’s less light in the shot and the lens is wide open is not an easy task. And gone are the days of through-the-lens viewfinders of film workflows, which allowed operators to glean focus through the camera eyepiece. Today’s focus puller relies solely on his or her skill and experience to see micro-distances, instantly and fluidly making those changes during the shot.
Some might say such changes present a “mixed bag” of opportunities. I think it means we just need to better understand the dynamics of “less light,” rather than the bigger-and-more-intense lighting schemes we once strove for.
Because not all sensors or lights are equal, more careful testing (matching of instrument with camera sensor) is needed in preproduction. And we must be considerate of the other production crafts – an LED light shining on a synthetic fabric may not return the same color the DP sees on the set.
I learned that lesson early in my career when I had to photograph a pool table under uncorrected fluorescents. I didn’t know that the table’s felt covering was synthetic, and, while shooting, didn’t think anything of the color green. Until the dailies came back, and the table looked bright blue! I almost got fired because of that oversight. But the lesson was a valuable one: never assume the camera is seeing what I see. The same can be said of many paints, plastics, and certain types of makeup. It’s important that we work cooperatively to see how the work of other departments is actually being photographed.
Doing more with less has become a mantra in so many ways, and never more so than in the world of lighting. The key is training (or re-training) the way we see, think, and work to maximize our creative output and shine ever more brightly.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600