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Exposing darker over the years.


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Back in the day when I first got my FS7 (and earlier), I didn't know what I was doing from a post-production standpoint and, like today, I was still learning something new about cinematography every day. After years of manipulating images in post, making mistakes, and learning what I like, I feel like I have finally come to a good understanding of what an image should (to my taste) look and feel like. 

I look back at my work from 3-5 years ago and things are washed out, overexposed, and quite the opposite of 'rich'. Bright IRE values are at 99 and dark IRE values are at 0.

A few years back I started to realize that I wasn't producing the image I really wanted and through conversations with other DPs and colorists I learned that 'professionals' don't expose as bright as us ' self-taught corporate shooters'. I started to look at some of my favorite films and see how their IRE values were so much lower than mine. It wasn't easy to get used to at first but once I saw it - I saw it.

Of course, everything is relative and your exposure, art department, and gear choice should be motivated by the story. With that said it is also important to understand that your brightest part in the sky doesn't have to be 99 IRE and your darkest part in the scene doesn't have to be 0.

I recommend heading to or googling some of your favorite movies and looking at their luma and color values. pull those frames into your NLE and compare their histograms and vectorscope tools to some of your frames. That's the ticket.

Of course, this all depends on your style and what you like. For me, I am desperately trying to make my image feel more organic and look like film (when appropriate). Below is a good example of my protecting the highlights and producing a dark exposure. I think it feels wonderful. What do you think about this whole topic?


Shot on Sony FX6 and Leica R 19mm f2.8 v2


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Hi Julien, I question whether you really believe what you wrote.  I've seen your demo reel on Vimeo at is fantastic.  Excellent work through and through.  But I wouldn't describe any of it as being darkly exposed.  Every shot looks appropriately exposed to my eyes.

I think the trend towards darker exposures is a big mistake and I don't care for the look of it at all.  I'm put off by the unmotived dark exposures of Ozark, GoT, The Arrival, and other films that think it is the hip thing to do.   I think it is a fad and will look as silly in the future as bell bottom pants and leisure suits look today.  Yes, it is a creative choice by the filmmakers and they have every right to do things however they choose, but as a viewer, I don't buy it. I think it almost always looks awful.  I don't understand why people have conflated dark exposures with being more "cinematic".   Why put so much importance on using cameras that have the maximum dynamic range, and then crush the exposure like a VHS camcorder?  It makes no sense. 

When I look at the films and TV show (past and present) that I truly admire, none of them are darkly exposed.  None.  Even films such as the Godfather that kind of have a reputation for being dark are not dark due to underexposure.  Yes, many scenes have deep (motivated) shadows and dark lighting, but the overall picture isn't just flatly underexposed like we see on Ozark, GoT, The Arrival.  There is a big difference between underexposing -- and lighting/shooting for a darker feel.

You are correct that highlights hardly ever need to be pushed to 99 IRE, but that doesn't mean that the opposite extreme is the best choice, either.  I believe an appropriate exposure should be in line with what the scene would have really looked like if you had been at that location and time of day.  A dark alley at night should look dark.  But nobody sits around in a room (especially in a business meeting or a restaurant) that is so dark you can barely see the the faces of the other people.  What are we supposed to think, "Ooooh, this must be important filmmaking because it is so dark I can barely see anything. Cool.".  I often wonder if the filmmakers think they can add drama just by playing on our fear of the dark?  Are they hiding poor set construction or lack of production design?  Are they too lazy, ignorant, or under-budgeted to use appropriate lighting?

To make matters worse, this fad isn't just ruining many feature films and narrative television shows,  I've noticed it is creeping into some regular multi-cam television shows too, such as Real Time with Bill Maher and Jimmy Kimmel Live.   Those shows are underexposed, especially Bill Maher, by at least stop or two, and it looks like crap.  Sometimes when they have a dark-skinned guest you can barely see the features of their face.

Fortunately, I don't fancy myself a filmmaker or cinematographer.  I work in the realm of broadcast television, sports, news, documentaries, reality TV, stock footage, and, god forbid, corporate video.  And the majority of those clients still appreciate and demand a "correct" exposure.

That's my counterpoint! 🙂

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Originally TV exposures were bright because TV was generally watched on dim screens in bright rooms. Certainly many daytime TV shows continue that trend to this day, bright average levels that look good when watched during the day in a bright room.


Cinema has always been a little different because films were projected in a dark theatre and the viewing environment was always made as dark as possible.


A very important consideration is that brightness is a relative quantity. How bright something appears on a screen will depend on the environment the screen is in. The same image on the same screen will look bright in a dark room and dim when the room is much brighter. So a relatively dim image on a cinema screen will actually appear to be quite bright to a cinema audience but perhaps uncomfortably dim in a well lit living room.


As more and more post production takes place in darkened rooms and studios there is a risk that we go down too far as not everyone will be watching in such dark surroundings. There has been a tremendous amount of fall out following several very high profile productions with very large budgets such as Game of Thrones that have gone so dark that viewers have felt they can no longer see what is going on and feel there really isn't any need for the images to be so dark. I don't understand why the producers of these shows felt they needed to go so dark, it rarely adds anything to the films, so the only thing I can think of is that is wanting to be "fashionably dark" or going so dark just because you can rather than because it tells the story better.


And while not wanting to insult anyone I can't help but think that dark exposure is often the lazy way out of a difficult exposure situation. In the real world the range that matters the most to us are normally mid tones. People, plants, walls, structures all normally reside around the middle of the perceived brightness range. Deep shadows and bright highlights are rarely important to us. On a bright day many will put on sunglasses or drop down the sun visor on a car because bright skies can be uncomfortable and we really don't care about the sky.


But in the recent contemporary world of cinematography great effort goes into avoiding clipping any highlights or retaining a super bright sky, often at the expense of decent mid range exposure. All too often resulting in noisy mids and shadows or shadows that can't be seen at all. Often the only part of the image correctly exposed is the sky or a window in the background. I don't think this is a good thing.

The use of reflectors to help bring up the mid range when battling a bright sky seems to be going out of fashion, likewise the use of graduated ND filters. And many have forgotten or aren't aware of the old trick of using mild diffusion to soften highlights so they are no longer harsh. Even when everything was shot on film with it's supposedly huge dynamic range, these techniques were regularly used to help ensure the overall the exposure was sufficiently bright.


While there is a place for "moody" footage, not everything needs to be or should be moody. We also seem to be forgetting that having one scene bright before going to a darker scene helps to make the scene change more impactful. Shoot or grade everything dark and you loose a valuable storytelling tool.


I think we are heading ever darker and it's not good. Is it possible that seeing so much dark and frankly depressing looking content is helping fuel depression in the population? It is starting to feel like producing anything bright and colourful is wrong - there is a lot of "if it's bright it can't possibly be film like" what a load of nonsense, some of the greatest films ever made are surprisingly bright and colourful, Lawrence of Arabia, Days of Heaven, 2001 and more recently Top Gun Mavericks to name a few.


When we start seeing shot after shot where everything in the foreground is in silhouette against a brighter but never really bright sky we may as well go back to when cameras had limited dynamic range and simply expose lower than we used to, just expose for the sky, the result will be the same, the sky not clipped but everything in the foreground a texture free darkness, this isn't difficult to achieve. It is harder to expose this more sympathetically but then we have far better cameras today than we have ever had, so why does everything need to be so dark today when in the past it didn't?


We now have cameras with dynamic ranges I could only have dreamt of 20 years ago, but so many on screen images are now so dark that that dynamic range is completely wasted.


If you do watch any of the great movies of the past they were rarely dim. Dim, dark movies is a recent trend and I'm not a fan.

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I would also think about how film exposures are determined. When shooting on film you don't have the luxury of seeing the more or less final output on a monitor. You use a light meter to measure the light falling on the scene or reflected back from the scene and then you expose correctly for that. Incident light meters are normally calibrated for the average illumination of the scene and you would expose according to the light meters recommendation. Middle Grey has become a value synonymous with exposure because not only does this reflectivity of card sit roughly half way between what most would call "black" and the white of a white card but if you take the average light level of most scenes or shots the average illumination level will typically be the equivalent of middle grey. That's why this value has become the standard exposure reference level as it is the average for most scenes whether you expose via a grey card and waveform or use a light meter. This average value, not the highlight value, not the shadow value, the average value, is what has been used for almost the entire history of photography and film making as the reference for good exposure.

And I struggle to believe that most cinematographers are now ignoring their light meters or middle grey and simply exposing everything darker than they used to. I strongly suspect that 99% of the dark look is a grading choice, not an exposure choice.

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