- Now we're gonna take a look at exposure as a creative tool. In order to do that, we first have to define it. Exposure is an amorphous thing. Correct exposure is truly subjective, based on the needs of a particular story. Even though a camera has a recommended exposure level, your story has a need for a look and feel that may contradict what the manufacturer recommends. So no matter how you expose your images, a cinematographer should try to be consistent. There are two terms I'll define to make creative control of exposure clearer, normal exposure and correct exposure.
In its simplest form, normal exposure is that level of exposure measured using a calibrated incident light meter, and with the light directly behind the camera, using the manufacturer's recommended ISO rating. Normal exposure is more complicated than that, but that definition will serve you pretty well in most situations. Correct exposure is that degree of exposure that tells your story in the most powerful way, whether that's normal exposure or not.
No experienced cinematographer I know accepts the manufacturer's recommendation without testing the camera for themselves. This doesn't imply mistrust of the manufacturer. It's that you have to do your own test to really understand a camera and how it reacts to light you are creating. You have to know how that degree of exposure affects the images you wanna make for the particular film you're shooting. In addition, it's important to know exactly what your images will look like when carried through to post-production.
I would define underexposure as that degree of exposure that results in unwanted loss of detail in the shadows of the images you've created with that camera. I would define overexposure as that degree of exposure that results in unwanted loss of detail in the highlights of the images you've created with that camera. The key word here is unwanted. There may be times in shooting a story that you're gonna want to have missing detail in the highlights or the shadows.
Take a look at this scene from the film Good Will Hunting. In this scene, Matt Damon's character, Will Hunting, attends a counseling session with Robin Williams' character, psychologist Sean Maguire. Will and Sean start this meeting engaged in a fairly banal conversation. They talk about weightlifting and Will's smoking. Will paces around the office and notices a painting on a windowsill. As Will examines and analyzes the painting, he realizes that he's found Sean's weak spot.
As he leans forward to examine the painting more closely, the exposure on Will changes. This is anything but normal exposure. The moment is both powerful and painful. It's effective because of the foundation laid by the normal exposure of the scene up to this point. Something has fundamentally changed in the relationship between these two men, and it's its critical story point.
This example shows that great cinematographers create expressive work by working right up to the limits of the dynamic range of the medium. Part of a well-shot film is to avoid distracting the audience by arbitrary changes in exposure as the story moves along. However, when you think of an idea that involves stretching the limits of exposure, and you feel that this is motivated by something you feel the story is trying to say, be bold.
Don't limit your exposure choices to that which is merely normal. After all, cinematography is an art that uses science to say things with power. And in the next movie, we'll introduce you to the number one tool for the science and art of cinematography.
Follow along and learn the fundamentals required to shoot a story with a camera. Learn how to plan your production, assemble a crew, choose the right camera and lenses, and make creative choices that best fit the themes, characters, and story of your film. Bill covers the elements of composition, exposure, optics, lighting, and camera movement. Part 2 (coming in November 2016) will show you how to put all these ideas together on set, and deliver the footage to an editor and director for assembly into a complete, coherent, and compelling story.
- Motion picture history
- Preproduction planning
- Working with a crew and actors
- Understanding the story
- Composition in film
- Working with different types of cameras
- Recording, compression, and storage
- Choosing a lens and focal length
- Finding the correct exposure
- Lighting a scene
- Lighting and grip equipment
- Camera movement