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Shooting at Magic Hour - What should it even look like?


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#1 Thomas Worth

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Posted 26 November 2005 - 10:25 AM

I've got a shoot coming up that is to be shot at magic hour. However, I've done some tests and am having trouble determining exactly what the scene should look like. Shooting on 250D film at T2.8 results in a "correct" exposure -- that is, middle gray in the scene is recorded as middle gray on film. However, with a "correct" exposure, the scene doesn't necessarily look like it's in the morning. Sure, there are no hard shadows, but the scene is exposed the same as it would be exposed if it were in the middle of the day!

I keep thinking of the twilight scenes in Thin Red Line. They are very dark -- clearly not metered for middle gray. So, if they aren't metered for middle gray, what are they metered for? And while it may be commonplace to overexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 a stop to insure rich blacks, there is also the threat of blown highlights if metering normally outside (which kills the morning look). Even if crushing the image later, the overexposure leads to higher contrast, something I am not sure fits the "morning" mood.

Is it simply a matter of underexposing the image to your liking? Is that common for early morning shots? Would something like this be considered a partial day for night technique?

Any help on the subject would be appreciated!
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 November 2005 - 11:04 AM

The 2/3's of a stop overexposure is a base rating meant to be timed down for a "correct" brightness. From THAT you can over or underexpose for effect.

In the case of shooting a scene in backlight in daytime, for example, you would underexpose the shadow side of the face to some degree, because if the face was exposed at "key" it would be too bright compared to the sunny backlight. I generally underexpose a face in a close-up by one stop if it is completely backlit by the sun; in wide shots, maybe a little more. It depends on what percentage of the frame is in sunlight versus shade. You may split the difference, for example. When the sun is higher in the sky, I generally measure the sunlight and then overexpose by one stop when shooting in toppy backlight. When shooting in low backlight, I measure the shade and underexpose it by one stop.

Same for shooting a scene at dusk. If there is very little sky in the shot, you might underexpose for starters by one stop for a slightly dimmer feeling, one and a half stop to two stops for a greater feeling of impending darkness. For a "dim dusk" or dusk-for-night, I generally use two-stops underexposure. But that's starting out with my base rating for the stock, which is 2/3's overexposed.

So you shoot the gray scale in "white" light at the ASA value you want (let's say, 320 ASA for a 500 ASA stock) so that the timer / colorist knows what "normal" is, then you shoot the dusk scene with the amount of blueness or darkness that you want creatively.

Now if you're shooting at dusk and framing a lot of sunset sky in the shot, you may want to underexpose the foreground faces even more, like by two stops, to preserve some detail in the sky and throw the actors in semi-silhouette. It also depends on which direction you are looking because the sky will be hotter in the area where the sun set compared to the reverse direction.

I've been talking about caucasian skintone brightnesses here, but generally you can figure a face four stops under is near black and four stops over is near burned-out white, even though color negative has more range than 8 stops but I'm speaking practically. So a face 3 stops under looks really dim & dark, barely there, 2 stops under looks dark but visible, 1 stop under is barely dark at all.

This is one reason why a basic test before starting a production would be to shoot a face normal, 1-under, 2-under, 3-under, 4-under, and the same for overexposure, just to know what it looks like with your particular ASA rating, printer lights, and print stock used.

Edited by David Mullen, 26 November 2005 - 11:12 AM.

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#3 Thomas Worth

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Posted 26 November 2005 - 11:29 AM

Thanks for the explanation, David. This is very helpful.

Just to clarify, the underexposure you are talking about is after the base 2/3 overexposure for printing, correct?

So, I set my base exposure to 2/3 stop over (rating at 160 for 250 film) just like I would any other day, shoot a grayscale chart (which would be 2/3 over at this point), then set my stop to 1 or 2 under, and shoot the scene. This would leave me with a shot that after timing would be 1 to two stops darker than middle gray, but STILL overexposed 2/3 so it could be printed down. Does that all sound right?
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 26 November 2005 - 11:42 AM

Thanks for the explanation, David. This is very helpful.

Just to clarify, the underexposure you are talking about is after the base 2/3 overexposure for printing, correct?

So, I set my base exposure to 2/3 stop over (rating at 160 for 250 film) just like I would any other day, shoot a grayscale chart (which would be 2/3 over at this point), then set my stop to 1 or 2 under, and shoot the scene. This would leave me with a shot that after timing would be 1 to two stops darker than middle gray, but STILL overexposed 2/3 so it could be printed down. Does that all sound right?


Yes. The idea is that you just rate the film stock at 2/3's overexposed and forget about it after that. Just pretend you are shooting with a 320 ASA stock instead of a 500 ASA stock from then on out. So you shoot your gray scale at the new rating under white light, the timer / colorist sets the brightness to look normal, so when an orange, blue, bright, or dark shot follows, they know it is intentional and don't try and "fix" it.

So let's say that with your new rating, the gray scale prints in the mid 30's instead of the high 20's. Now you have your dusk scene underexposed by two stops. Assuming that you don't try and lighten it in post, it would also print in the mid 30's to look correctly dark as you exposed it to look.
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