High dynamic range cameras have been all the rage lately, and for good reason. Arri set the gold standard for DR with their Alexa a few years back, and today just about everyone wants to shoot with a camera that can pull 13 or 14 stops of dynamic range. Unfortunately though, not everyone owns an Alexa (or even a Blackmagic for that matter), and many of us are often faced with the challenge of having to shoot on a low DR camera. The good news is that in order to capture beautiful images, you don’t necessarily need a high dynamic range camera… You just need to know how to make the most out of what you have.
Throughout this post I am going to share with you 5 tips capturing beautiful images with a low dynamic range camera. If you’re shooting with an older Canon DSLR, a GH2, or any camera that has 9 or less stops of DR, this article is for you. The truth of the matter is that capturing a gorgeous image doesn’t absolutely require that you capture a wide amount of dynamic range. It is possible to create beautiful work with cameras that only have 7 or 8 stops of dynamic range, as long as you know how to make the most out of those stops, and you shoot with the camera’s limitations in mind.
The most obvious way to combat a low DR sensor is by using light. In other words, if you are shooting a high contrast situation that your camera isn’t going to be able to handle, adding in lots of fill lighting is certainly a viable way to get the exposure of your image within fewer stops. That said though, for the purpose of this article I don’t want to focus on lights at all. Instead, I want to focus on how to achieve great images on a low DR camera, even if you’re not able to using any lighting whatsoever.
In many high contrast shooting situations the best option involves exposing for the highlights and letting your character fall into silhouette. This can be a great technique regardless of the camera you are shooting on, but is especially relevant with low DR cameras. For example, imagine you have to shoot a quick scene in front of a huge window in an office building and the sun is really bright outside. With a low DR camera, obviously you would need to choose between exposing for the skintones (and blowing out the highlights) or exposing for the highlights and putting your actors in silhouette. Depending on the nature of your story and what you’re shooting, you might want to consider the latter option.
Silhouettes can create a beautiful mood that completely shapes the feel of any given scene, and by simply exposing for your highlights you can achieve this look really easily. Obviously it isn’t for every project (you probably wouldn’t shoot a corporate spot or commercial this way), but for a dramatic film this look can work wonderfully and doesn’t require that you shoot with a high DR camera. Essentially, you are using your 9 stops of range (or whatever your camera may have) to capture the highlights, and allowing your shadows to clip to black.
I used lots of silhouetting on my film Footsteps, as seen below.
2. Blow The Highlights
This is the exact opposite technique of the previous point. As opposed to exposing for your highlights in a high contrast situation, you might want to expose for your actor’s skintones instead – even if it means the highlights get blown. My general thinking with this point (and the previous one) is that you don’t always want to fight the fact that your camera has low DR. A lot of shooters are tempted to try to find some sort of middle ground by dialling in their camera settings to squeeze out a tiny bit more DR, but in reality they should either be lighting their scene properly for their camera, or choosing between exposing for shadows or highlights.
Assuming you are shooting in the same scenario as above (the office window), but need to show your characters faces clearly – it might be perfectly okay to blow out the highlights. I’ve written about this before, but many filmmakers (Steven Spielberg included) will intentionally blow out their highlights in certain shots, so don’t feel like you can’t do this in a pinch. The key is knowing when to do it, and why you are doing it. Don’t just arbitrarily choose to blow the highlights because you are too lazy to set up lights, but rather choose to do this if it suits the mood of your story.
Here’s a shot with blown highlights from the film Sound Of My Voice, shot on Canon 7D.
3. Use Bounce Boards
The first two points on this list are excellent options if you are willing to either let your characters fall into silhouette or blow out the highlights. But what if your scene calls for something different? What if you need to show both the skintones and the detail in the background, but have a camera that is forcing you to choose between the highlights or the shadows? Well the obvious answer would be to use lights, but assuming you aren’t working with a lighting kit, you can still “light” the scene by using reflectors or bounce boards.
I have had to shoot some really high contrast shots over the years with no lighting other than a single bounce board, and have been able to produce some really great results. The fact is that bounce boards or reflectors can act as a very strong light source when used properly, and in many ways they are preferable to traditional film lights in certain instances. The biggest reason I often prefer to work with bounced light as opposed to film lighting is the color temperature. Assuming you are bouncing sunlight onto your talent, that bounced light will always match (color temperature-wise) perfectly with the rest of the ambient light in the scene. As the day goes on, the color temperature of sunlight will change, but by default so will the temperature of the bounced light on the actor’s face. This is obviously not the case with traditional film lights, which will need to be gelled or adjusted throughout the day to match the changing color temperature of the sun.
I used bounce boards on my short film Model to combat the harsh sun.
4. Use ND Gels
In most situations, bounce boards are going to be your best friend when trying to capture an evenly exposed image… But they aren’t always practical. Imagine a situation where you need to shoot inside a car on a bright day. Obviously it would be very hard to fit a bounce inside the car (unless you’re using a tiny one), and even so there probably wouldn’t be a lot of light coming through the windows to reflect off the board. The key in this situation would be to take the opposite approach. Rather than trying to add light to the shadows (by using a bounce) you can take away light from the highlights by using ND gels.
ND gels have been used forever on film sets as the provide an excellent method for light control. In the car situation that I outlined above, you could simply attach ND gels to the outside of the car windows on the vehicle you’re shooting in, which would in turn cut down the light significantly. Now, the ambient light inside the car will fall within fewer stops of the light outside the car, making it far easier to maintain the detail both inside and outside of the car.
Below is a behind the scenes shot from Margin Call, showing how the crew used Rosco ND Gels to control the light in this building.
5. Shoot At Golden Hour
This is probably simplest option on this list, and only requires that you choose to shoot at golden hour (meaning about an hour before sunset, or an hour after sunrise) for your exteriors. The worst time of day to shoot outside is usually around mid day (noon or so), as the sun is directly overhead and it can cast really heavy shadows on your actor’s faces. This is especially hard to deal with when shooting on a low DR camera, since you can’t bring back that shadow detail in post if it clips to black. Golden hour on the other hand, is the absolute best time to shoot as you can avoid these issues entirely.
The quality of light during golden hour is second to none. Some filmmakers (like Terrence Malick) have built their careers off of shooting in this light as it offers a mood and texture that you can never replicate with film lighting. Thankfully for those of you shooting on low DR cameras, golden hour offers a much lower contrast light to shoot in. Since the sun is so low to the horizon, the light you are working with at that time is much softer, more forgiving, and less harsh. This means that you don’t need nearly as much DR in camera to expose at that time of day, unless you are doing something really specific such as shooting right into the sun to catch the sunset. Shooting at golden hour is always a great idea in my opinion – regardless of the camera you are shooting on, but it’s especially helpful when your dynamic range capabilities are limited.
The shot below is from a recent shoot that I did during golden hour, with no bounce boards or lighting of any kind.
Achieving beautiful images with a low dynamic range camera is completely possible, it just may take an extra step or two past what you would need to do on a camera with higher DR capabilities. If you aren’t dealing with any lighting or light modification at all, I recommend either exposing for the shadows or the highlights, and avoiding shooting in that ugly middle ground that will really just emphasize your cameras limitations. If you have the ability to use bounce boards or ND gels in your scene, that can help immensely for situations where you need an even exposure… And once again, simply choosing to shoot at the right time of day (golden hour in particular) can make your life a lot easier too. In the end, just remember that many incredible films have been shot on cameras that have the same amount of DR as your camera. It’s all about working around the limitations of your camera and maximizing it’s capabilities.