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Soft vs hard light when shooting b/w


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#1 Gabriel Cortez

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Posted 05 March 2007 - 03:48 AM

This is the follow-up to a thread I started in the "film stock and processing" forum, in which I was inquiring about the means to increasing the apparent sharpnes of the 7222. More contrasty lighting would be one of them, I agree.

So ok, knowing that, I'll be lighting to a higher lighting ratio. But would it be mostly soft light or hard light? Which "behaves" or "looks" better in black and white?

Everyone is keen of soft lighting nowadays, in color cinematography, and no doubt for a good reason.
I've never shot b/w until now, but as everyone here I've seen a lot of b/w movies from the old days and they look gorgeous, lit with hard light (Casablanca, The Third Man and other noirs etc). While I know that there was also a technical hindrance to light them soft in those days (slower stocks), they look great because of that.

Now, recent films such as "The man who wasn't there" and "Good night and good luck" do seem to have another feel to them, compared to the old ones, due to the use to a much larger extent of soft light. "The man.." looked quite muddy sometimes, when there wasn't enough separation (the transition from light to shadow was too soft).
On the other hand, "The good german" went the "vintage way", so to speak, and it does more "justice" to b/w, don't know if I'm being too clear on this..

Anyway, I know this is a highly subjective opinion, a matter of taste, but surely there must be some guidelines and arguments for using hard or soft light in b/w; I wouldn't know, since I don't have experience with b/w, but I'm guessing that the absence of color should be an important factor to consider when planning the lighting in b/w; i.e. what works with color doesn't work with "not color" :)
And then, there's also the grain factor with 7222 at least, which I found to be very annoying as it is amplified in out-of-focus and large continuous midtone surfaces. On the other hand, there are tons of gorgeos photographs making use of the infinite shades of grey, but somehow that seems harder to get in movies.


So, what would be your view on the soft vs hard light in b/w ? I'm leaning towards giving more credit to the hard light as more appropriate for b/w in general.

Thank you in advance! :)
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#2 Rupe Whiteman

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Posted 05 March 2007 - 03:29 PM

Another film to have a look at is Lenny directed by Bob Fosse and of course Raging Bull (although I think I'm right in remembering that Raging Bull was shot on colour neg in the first place...)

I'd say that if you want to enhance the perceived sharpness you should think more about separation and not necessarily higher contrast ratios - or both!...

- You have to be very careful with black and white when you're controlling separation. Obviously with colour films the colour/hue of objects/subject helps the separation but with b&w it's the tone... You might have two colours that are obviously different to the naked eye, but in b&w they'll mould into one... Reds and greens have to be watched out for. In the great old times of b&w movies sets were often painted with different shades (and hence tones) of blue to get separation in the frame - this was also applied to make up too...

I think the argument over hard and soft light is more to do with choices, story and genre. Classic film noirs like The Big Combo (John Alton) were all about graphic use of light and dark and there was a lot of hard light and single source lighting - there's a well known scene with Lee Van Cleef lit by a bare bulb from above - the rest of the room is beautiful inky blackness. There are many b&w movies that were more mainstream, shot in daylight with a more traditional, softer feel (lower contrast ratios etc) like say Sullivans Travels or a thousand other films of the time...

This is a bit of a ramble but I hope it's of some interest!... and a contrast viewing filter would be an essential.. Blain Brown's books on cinematography have some good info. on this subject...
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#3 Gabriel Cortez

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Posted 06 March 2007 - 02:37 AM

It is of very much interest to me, actually! Thank you Mr. Whiteman. What I had in mind when I was talking about "higher contrast ratios" was exactly a sort of "graphic" look, as you well put it. It was a mere observation that movies which take on such a look (the noirs, especially), seem to be using the natural qualities of b/w at their best, so to say. It's a subjective opinion. I feel that with just subtle separation (like between different shades of blue, as you say) there is still the possibility of them getting mushed (through whatever combination of filtering, light (soft light especially :) ) etc effects); hence my opinion in favor of hard light to act also as separation (particularly with grainy stocks, as I said).

I mean, separation is of course difference between different tones of gray, but those very tones are affected by light. You can arrive at separation by having different tones of gray in your set decoration in the same light, but when you start shedding different amounts of light over different areas, your tones change too.

I guess I'm saying that with hard light and higher contrast ratios you can have maximum separation of tones (duuh), and that is best suited to b/w.

This would be a purely aesthetic point of view about b/w in general, but in the end I agree that you have to suit your aesthetics to the "story and genre", as you said.


Thank you, again!
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#4 Michael Nash

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Posted 06 March 2007 - 04:13 AM

You're right that contrast plays a more important roll in B&W than it does in color. But don't confuse soft light with flat light (lack of contrast). You can have soft light and high contrast if you want. You can also mix hard and soft light, and the softness of the light can be varied or controlled as well.

A soft key light can give you some midtones in the transition to shadow, as the light softly wraps around a 3-dimensional subject. If you don't want those midtones, don't use a soft light or at least make it less soft.

Soft light also minimize hard shadow edges, which can sometimes appear more distracting in B&W. For example, you could key a face with hard light but fill with a soft light, to avoid a double nose shadow.

I think you've made some good observations about B&W, and you seem to know what you like. So now it's up to you to experiment -- try different approaches and find the boundaries of your own theories.
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