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Cinematography Rant: Why Protecting Your Highlights Is Killing Your Footage

As some of you know, in addition to running this blog and shooting/directing my own films I also have worked extensively as a colorist. More so than anything else that I do day to day, color grading has helped to improve my understanding and approach to cinematography immensely – and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you shouldn’t always protect your highlights.

What Do I Mean By Protecting The Highlights?

Essentially what I’m referring to is the practice of exposing your image for the highlights (or hotspots) in the frame to ensure nothing clips. In a scenario where you have an actor standing in front of a bright window, exposing for the highlights would mean that you bring your exposure down low enough that the window isn’t blown out at all. This technique has become extremely popular amongst filmmakers (especially those from a DSLR background), simply because blown highlights on certain cameras can look absolutely awful, and underexposing is one of the simplest ways to get around it. The only problem is that this approach can often yield results that are just as bad, if not worse than letting those hot spots clip.

In an ideal world, you want every shot that you capture to be perfectly exposed. You don’t want to crush your shadows too much (otherwise you will lose shadow detail), but at the same time you don’t want your highlights to clip unnecessarily either. Unfortunately though, unless you are shooting in an ultra flat lighting situation – chances are either the highlights or the shadows are going to clip. And more often than not (at least for daytime work) it’s the highlights.

Practically any daytime interior or exterior shot that you capture is going to have some bright highlights that may become overexposed. This may be a window, a reflection, a white wall or any other number objects or sources. Even night time shots will have hotspots, usually in the form of bright light sources such as lamps or street lights that are prone to clipping. These types of shots can be a challenge to work around, but there are certainly ways to deal with them and still achieve a nice image… That said, your best bet usually doesn’t involve underexposing your entire shot.

To illustrate this, take a look at these luma scopes below. The first is from a perfectly exposed daytime image:

Proper-Exposure-Scope

And the second is from an underexposed daytime shot:

Underexposed-Scope

Unless you are going for a really moody scene, you typically don’t want a daytime exterior to read this way on your scopes. It’s helpful to understand how underexposure translates visually on scopes as you can use your cameras built exposure tools to ensure that your luminance values are in the right place.

Why Underexposing Doesn’t Work

As I mentioned above, I do a lot of color grading work and by far the most common issue I encounter are underexposed shots – usually as a result of overprotected highlights. Having to attempt to save this type of underexposed footage time and time again has made me realize that this is a very common issue amongst filmmakers, and certainly one that is worth being addressed here.

The reason why protecting your highlights is a bad idea is quite simple.. You are ignoring the most important parts of your image (and therefore not exposing them properly) so you can retain detail in an unimportant area of the frame. For example, a shot that is exposed to the left (so a desk lamp doesn’t clip) is naturally going to be underexposed across the board. A bright light source like a lamp should probably be the brightest thing in your frame (for a nighttime shot at least), and there is absolutely no reason why we need to see any detail in that lamp. Our eyes don’t even see that way… But by exposing for that lamp, now all of the important parts of the frame (most importantly the actor’s faces) are going to be way underexposed.

Here is a still from my film ‘Footsteps’ where the window is blown out. We made the choice not to expose for the window to ensure our actors faces still retained some detail:

Footsteps-Blown-Highlights

The fundamental issue with underexposing your footage is that in order to be color corrected later, a lot of heavy grading needs to be done… And even then, the final result is never great. The last thing you want to do with most cameras is bring up the shadows and midtones too much or you will start to introduce a lot of noise into your image. Unfortunately though, when attempting to save underexposed footage you really have no other choice. In the end you wind up with a very grainy shot that needs to be heavily de-noised, and that can lead to some very mushy footage.

What You Should Be Doing

The good news is that you don’t need to be protecting your highlights so aggressively. Or at least not in the way that I have described above. There are a number of ways that you can capture a properly exposed image without having to risk underexposing your talent.

One option is to simply blow out your highlights. This method applies best to scenarios where the highlights are minimal, or where you would expect them to be blown – such as the desk lamp scenario. No one is going to care if a tiny light source in the back of your frame is blown out, and even the largest scale feature films have blown highlights in many shots. It doesn’t always matter. So use your discretion and ask yourself if the hotspots in your image are even problematic at all, or if you are just exposing for them out of habit.

The next option is to actually light your scene properly! There is no denying that there are times when blown highlights are an issue… Especially when the source of them is large. If you have a giant window behind your talent that is blowing out – chances are you are going to want to make some adjustments to improve your image. That said, the only way to achieve really great results in these types of situations is to control the light in your scene more strategically. This may involve pumping in a bunch of fill light on your talent (so you can stop down your exposure and still have light on the talent’s face), or it might even mean using some ND gels. I’ve written about this before on the blog, but ND gels can be your best friend on set when battling window light. If you don’t have enough lights to compensate for a blown out window, you could simply gel the windows from the outside and bring down the exposure at the source.

And with some cameras, you even have the option of exposing to the right (overexposing) and then bringing down the highlights in post. You need to be careful with this technique as it really only works well with certain cameras, but some more capable cinema cameras (such as the Blackmagic Cinema Camera) actually thrive when overexposed. In fact, most of the time when shooting on a BMCC I will intentionally overexpose the image and then recover the highlights in post. This typically yields the best image, since any noise or grain is virtually non-existent when the image is crushed down to a normal exposure. So if you need to shoot in situations where you have little or no control over your lighting, shooting on a RAW camera, or at least a camera that has a lot of range in the highlights will help you a lot.

Here is a before and after example of an overexposed BMCC shot that was brought down in post:

Expose-To-The-Right---Before

Expose-To-The-Right---After

That’s about it for now! Hopefully this post has convinced some of you that protecting your highlights isn’t the most important thing when it comes to capturing beautiful images…

And don’t forget to check out my full line of color grading LUTs, film grain, and post-production assets available here.


When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:

1. Make a feature film today: The No-Budget Feature Film Blueprint

2. Build your network and sharpen your craft in our community: The Backlot

3. Color grade & polish your footage with my post-production tools on: Cinecolor

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

38 Comments

  • faiz
    at

    Hey! Great article!

    Btw, will this technique (overexposing) works with a non-cinema camera that shoot only H264, say with an MFT sensor?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • It could work! But definitely do some camera tests as H264 is a lot less forgiving than ProRes or RAW.

      Reply
  • Jasper Manning
    at

    I realized this while I was on vacation in France. Our hotel had a TV and I watched a lot of French music videos while eating breakfast and before getting to bed. I noticed most of them were shot outside and the sky was nearly always blown out. Check out something like Jessy Matador – Allez Ola Olé for an example.

    Reply
    • Thanks Jasper! I will definitely check that out soon as a point of reference.

      Reply
  • +1 for histograms instead of Zebras for peaking. IMO, you want to use the whole array of the image available to optimize exposure and not just worry about peak highlight, and histogram is the best way to discover the breadth of your exposure.
    Alternately, use Zebra but not for 100 peak – set zebra for 70, make sure the broadest skin area is at the zebra (70%), and then turn off your zebra. I use this to help me balance sin tone in/towards the high-center of my exposure range.

    Reply
  • Jacob Martin
    at

    Love this post! Been wrestling with this concept for a while. I usually try to expose for skin tones when people are my subjects. So do you expose for skin tones and let the highlights get blown out in your flow?

    Reply
    • Thanks! Yes, I generally do expose for skin tones over highlights, but I will still aim to have a background that isn’t completely blown out if I can avoid it.

      Reply
  • Zed
    at

    Hey Noam, great article thx, you have answered a lot of questions for me, but i have one more please.

    Im using the BMMCC and trying to ETTTR with a variable ND. My question is, does it matter whether i set exposure first then adjust the ND or the other way around i.e. is it better to go wide open and shut the light out with the ND or have a more closed lens and open up the ND?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Hey Zed – thanks for the note!

      To answer your question, all that really matters if you’re exposing to the right, is that your overall exposure is brighter than it normally would be at a regular exposure. If you achieve that by use of ND’s, shutter angle, iris, or otherwise, it doesn’t really matter at all (other than the more creative effect that different settings will give your footage)… But from a technical perspective, ETTR can be achieved by any number of ways, so as long as your final image is slightly overexposed, and not clipped, you are in the clear.

      Reply
  • I see shots in movies and TV that would never make the grade for me, but then again, I am ashamed at most of what passes for TV/Hollywood nowadays. No originality. Predictable storylines. Heavy reliance on shock. Sheesh!

    Reply
  • […] Cinematography Rant: Why Protecting Your Highlights Is Killing Your Footage […]

    Reply
  • Torsten
    at

    Thanks for this. I’m researching this for a video we’re making in the next few months. I always end up doing this with a new camera until I get used to what it can do. Zebras are an amazing tool but they sometimes stop you using your eyes and deciding what realistically can be blown out.

    Thanks for the reminder and info! Torsten.

    Reply
  • It seems I neglected to include the link:
    http://www.stevethornton.com/video/S-2586-iso-test-stazione-centrale/

    Steve Thornton

    Reply
  • One more trick is to use the “Highlight Priority” setting on modern DSLR cameras. It allows the camera to write more highlight information and, within limits, prevents the highlights from blowing out.

    When shooting with a 5D MKIII using Magic Lantern and shooting RAW at 14 bit, then converting to 16 bit in the conversion process, you can over expose at least 3 -4 stops, and still hold highlight detail. 4 stops is on the fringe of having any tone. But 3 stops is great.

    I have been using the ETTR (Expose To The Right) for over a year with amazing results. You can see an example here where I shot a night test at 25,600 ISO and “Just” by over exposing by 2 stops and correcting the over exposure in post, the noise all but disappeared.

    Steve Thornton

    Reply
  • Buy a incident exposure meter ( a reflective meter will always give you to much exposure from a hot window in shot ) ,,,,,,, get it in to your head that the little white bubble is a 3D version of a persons head ,,,,,,, point the center of the bubble towards the center of lens no matter where it is ,,,,,,, let the light from the window fall onto the side of the bubble ,,, with your hand cut out that side light and check the exposure of the light on that imaginary face ,,,,,,,,, This will give you the exact exposure of the face ……… letting the side light onto the meter will give a better average so that the face is still exposed properly but the lens is stopped down some to account for the hot window ,,,,,,, look at the picture not the zebra/histoblah blah ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, You turn the bubble slightly towards the window to give you more stop to cope with the window ……… and depending how you prefer the image to loo ,,,,,, By looking at the picture ,,,,,,,,,, until u dont even need the meter anymore ,,,, you stop the shot down by eye ,,,,,,,,,, This my old school advice ,,,,,,, Just about to start a picture using the Sony F55 and I will be dusting off the meter ,,,,,,,, also it gives you thinking time on set ,,, he he he

    Reply
    • Love the old school advice! Thanks so much for sharing your insight with us David.

      Reply
  • Dave Geffin
    at

    Great post good food for thought and well put together. Appreciate it Noam

    Reply
  • I’ll mostly agree. the shooting flat with DSLR’s results in what can be a 7bit image. not clipping your highlights while not totally crushing shadows means.. well. you need to know what the hell you are doing !… just like shooting film 🙂

    reality is I’ve been grading some C series shots in daylight an they aren’t even close to using the camera’s total DR. there is maybe 7-8 stops from shadow to highlight however shocking that sounds. So I’m grading out the image to make white, white and black, black. Simple grade using Wide DR with minor tweaks. If you are shooting 8bit codec maximizing the use of that range matters more than anything. so having blacks at 30 IRE and whites at 70 IRE due to really flat setup is greatly reducing your DR and gradation in color / luma. Congrats in making a 7bit image !. instead use scopes to maximize the DR you can capture, even if that means changing from Log or Wide DR to… horror of horrors, Rec 709 !

    Reply
    • Thanks for this Steve – good points all around! Working on highly compressed codecs is a nightmare no matter how you swing it, but the good news is things will only get better in terms of compression/efficiency on cameras. Hopefully sooner than later this is a moot point.

      Reply
  • This is an excellent post man, and an awesome blog! Thanks 🙂

    Reply
  • Dean
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    Great blog man. Good to hear your thoughts on this. The exposing to the right technique is definitely the way to go when shooting on Red as well. Definitely not the a7s! At least that’s been my experience (adjusting to lack of latitude in 8-bit)

    Reply
    • Many thanks Dean. And I agree with regards to the A7S… Haven’t used it a ton, but when I did shoot with it last I noticed overexposing slightly didn’t give the best results.

      Reply
  • Trevor Mander
    at

    https://vimeo.com/117660539
    #Nate McLean I totally recommend this setting. It makes skin tones look great and works to integrate the highlights better than a normal curve. Yes keep pedestal normal.
    Really with most things I shoot even outside exposing on the GH4 to minimise zebras gets everything else about right. Yes the mids usually get lifted a tad but they still have enough light to not get noise.
    Shooting against a window or lamp would be different sure. Even outside my goal would be to minimise 100% zebras and not necessarily get rid of them completely.

    Reply
  • Nate McLean
    at

    Great article, I’m also a GH4 + Atomos user, and wondering if I should adjust the highlight curve at all, I’ve kept pedistal and shadow curve standard to reduce the noise, but I am never able to make skin tones look normal if I leave it at all overexposed (and I mean even one zebra stripe at 95%)… when shooting flat. And since you color so much, what are you thoughts on how many layers of color I should tweak with in AE using color finess, 32-bit mode.. (I suppose that’s a broad question), I’ve just read somewhere else that too many layers start to degrade quality.

    Thanks a bunch.

    Reply
    • Thanks a lot Nate. I wouldn’t recommend using the highlight curve as I find that it often creates some issues in the footage that aren’t always apparent until you are looking at it on a proper monitor. In terms of overexposing, I think with the GH4 you are better off nailing the exposure in camera since it has far less flexibility than a BMCC for instance. And in terms of color, unfortunately I can’t speak for color finesse as I typically only color in DaVinci Resolve. Regardless though, too many layers on a 32-bit plugin can never be a good thing, so I would try to avoid pushing your color too far, and limit it to one primary correction and one or two secondaries.

      Reply
  • […] More so than anything else that I do day to day, color grading has helped to improve my understandin… […]

    Reply
  • Great article. Being a GH4 shooter I’m always weary of blowing out my highlights, but as you mentioned, you really do need to consider the frame and the relevant things in it and expose for the important things…it is hard to break the habit of just trying to not have any zebra stripes! Hopefully the forthcoming V-log profile will help in this matter. Curiously, what % do you keep your zebras on for the GH4? And if you expose for your subject, do you push it to the limit of exposure on the skin tones and then stop down by fractions of a stop until they don’t clip? I’m finding ski tones the toughest thing for me to figure out. Learning every day thanks to posts like this. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Absolutely! It’s a very common issue, but one that I think we all struggle with from time to time.

      In terms of Zebras, I don’t tend to rely on them on the GH4 – even though I should probably use them more often. When I do use them, they are often set to 95% and I simply use them as a rough guideline to see what is clipping (or close to it). I typically like to use the histogram to judge exposure as it feels more intuitive to me. Skin tones are a challenge for everyone on the GH4 (especially when shooting on cine-D) as the colors don’t always look right… That said, I think a lot of trial and error and just getting out in the field to see what works best for you is the way to go.

      Reply
  • Tom
    at

    Thanks again for these insights Noam! I´ve read your other post on that matter too. I do have a G6 and think I can over- and underexpose to a good degree. Thas is a tiny fantastic camera!

    As you know, it shoots in avchd, which is known for blockcompressing the shadows. But an vintage lens, like the Rokkor f1.4 wide open, normally has low contrast and combined wisely with the i.Dynamic can lift the shadows and so get more info (no noise) before the avchd codec beginns.

    As for the highlights, a graduated ND filter can help in some circunstances, but I will give a try to the black mist pro and the soft fx togheter with a variable ND. I think is a winner combination for such a camera, and maybe for the GH4.

    Reply
    • Thanks a lot Tom. Appreciate the feedback and your insight! A graduated ND (or Pola for that matter) is definitely a great solution for many shooting situations. Great suggestion.

      Reply
  • Xiong
    at

    Holy crap, that last example of shooting overexposed is pretty crazy, I was expecting the the BMCC had better dynamic range but wow that is just amazing.

    Yeah its a bad habit of mine, I end up underexposing some shots, I really need to learn to nail it down. Its pretty bad with dslr footage, it really does get noisy.

    Reply
    • Totally! I was sort of pushing the limit there with the BMCC, but it’s still pretty crazy what is possible. Thanks for the note.

      Reply
  • Will
    at

    Great post! Couldn’t agree more. A famous cinematographer once said a bright pixel is a sharp pixel.

    Reply

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