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The trouble with backlighting.


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#1 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 01:30 PM

I've never been a huge fan of backlighting as a standard part of the set up and as a means to create separation. The reason mainly being that a backlight needs a lot more control than one normally thinks, or it turns real ugly real quick. There are better ways to create separation in my book. Also, backlighting makes stuff look artificial and lit many times.

I see these examples daily and it doesn't look good in my book:

1. The backlight that hits the tip of the nose. I can't think of anything uglier personally, yet you see this all the time.

2. The too hard backlight at to acute an angle so as to create a frizzy halo of unkept hair on the performer (unless it's Kojak).

3. The too low backlight where the shadow of the shoulder creates a sharp line across the lower part of the face or the neck.

4. The double rim backlight - where you got a hot line on both sides of the face. Preferably with a nose hit from both, ah yes..... Nothing looks more "lit" than this.

Naturally I backlight as well, but mostly when I have the room to be able to control it properly (which you rarely do on a tight interior location).

Thoughts?
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#2 Matt Workman

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 02:29 PM

Hey Adam,

I'm afraid I perpetrate the "over back lit" shot pretty much every day, recently anyway. I never really leaned on it before but since I've been shooting a lot of hip hop music videos lately it has clearly become en vogue to double back rim light. Not to mention Dave Hill and Jill Greenberg's influence on music photography.

I agree with your 4 points, especially the highlight on the nose. Also another one to add:

5. If you double back rim light a girl with curly or wavy hair, her hair creates an unflattering pattern on her face.

6. If the backlight is too strong is throws of the contrast of the scene and makes things look muddy and makes it hard to color correct without completely blowing out the shoulders/hair/etc.

I also agree that proper set design and architecture lighting can provide the separation but a lot of the time, for me anyway, I can't rely on the set designer or location. We show up at a location and I have to make the artist pop. Recently I've been using moving backlights so it only comes in every once and a while. ... Though the flashing 9 light/ Dino / Wendy is a hip hop/metal video trope also...

I've read your "love it or hate it" flat frontal lighting post from the Girls Aloud Video. I prefer a well placed sidelight but when it comes to lighting for certain videos you can't escape the look of a soft front light. Again, referencing the majority of fashion photography. Standing in front of a 12' Briese or using a beauty dish over the lens.

Stepping away from performance based music videos...

When I step in to light large exteriors isn't is common practice to place a large very high backlight to wash the floor and rim trees/lamp posts etc. ? Having a slightly cooler backlight and a neutral key is pretty standard for the "night time" feel.

I'm still learning and figuring this stuff out myself.

Matt

PS: interested in other's thoughts...I have these thoughts at least twice a day. Also about top lighting and use of colors in scenes...
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#3 Sam Wells

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 02:51 PM

7. Blue gels

Well you asked !

-Sam
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#4 Justin Hayward

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 03:25 PM

In general I find backlight usually looks the worst when it's unmotivated, but I agree will all your points as well.

My biggest pet peeve is the outdoor shiny board edge light. The sun is clearly coming from one side then there's this desaturated, terribly unnatural edge skimming their ear and cheek, making them look greasy and sweaty. And it usually appears out of nowhere in the close up.
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#5 Nadav Hekselman

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 03:54 PM

I agree with most points.

Usually i turn off all the back lights i created just before starting to shoot. I like it much better like that and slowly I stop using them at all, maybe only in highly motivated situations or beauty shoots like video clips and commercials.
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#6 Serge Teulon

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 04:19 PM

I think that backlight works for certain elements of storytelling but it has become a lazy or sometimes the quickest way to create separation. Of course that is all to do with what kind of work you doing.
I mix between tv work and films, comms etc... and I find that the tv environment, where money is short and time is of the essence, then sometimes the option has to be what I consider the lazy option. I find that most tv work (in the uk) is less attentive to detail...you just have to look at Dr Who as an example. And that is just a real shame as I do believe we have some great technicians!

I just remembered a scene in "The man that wasn't there" where a woman knocks on the door and she has a heavy rim. R Deakins stated in the extras that the heavy rim was just right to depict the feeling that he was looking for in that scene.


S

Edited by Serge Teulon, 07 September 2008 - 04:21 PM.

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#7 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 04:54 PM

When I step in to light large exteriors isn't is common practice to place a large very high backlight to wash the floor and rim trees/lamp posts etc. ? Having a slightly cooler backlight and a neutral key is pretty standard for the "night time" feel.

I'm still learning and figuring this stuff out myself.

Matt

PS: interested in other's thoughts...I have these thoughts at least twice a day. Also about top lighting and use of colors in scenes...


I agree that a top-ish backlight looks really good on nights. In fact, the higher you go, the better it looks to me. That's why I try to get helium balloons or very high cherry pickers/musco's in whenever I can. Unfortunately, the reality is often that you have to light a whole street with one 6K on a super windup stands which isn't nearly as high as it should be. That's when you have to settle for that 6K-just-out-of-frame-backlight that looks really cheap and low budget. But hey, one does as best as one can.
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 06:15 PM

Backlighting can occur naturally so I don't have a problem when it is recreated fairly convincingly using lights. I certainly don't have much problem with shooting sunny day exteriors in backlight.

As for more stylized use of backlights, I tend to be of the school of either use them dramatically or not at all. I tend to not add "hairlights" automatically when doing interior scenes, unless it is motivated by a practical source or I can soften and dim it down so it is just adding some separation. But otherwise, I either like dramatic, almost over-the-top-causing-halation backlights... or no backlights. My gaffer the other day was commenting on how I don't add backlights for night interiors generally, or hang a hard light over the top of a window for day interiors -- I prefer the backlight come through the actual window, for example. But mainly I just want to avoid soap opera lighting, you know what I mean? Occasionally you find yourself falling into those old-fashioned tricks anyway.

Just the other day, I was in an auditorium with no windows for a day scene, and had some brighter, colder daylight coming through some background doors from the lobby (as if it had windows... which it didn't) and I added some coolish soft backlight from a Chimera coming from the same direction, as if the light coming through the doors was softly hitting the actors, which it wasn't either.

The director I am working for right now doesn't like backlights or hard lights in general because he thinks it looks slick and glossy. So when I do use some backlight, I try and make it very soft and motivated. We shot some night exteriors the other day which were reshoots from the pilot made last spring, and rather than go for the big backlight from a condor look, I went for an overhead street lamp look by hanging some coops from a condor over the actor, then put some pools of light in the background. This also allowed the director to do some 180 degree pans without a backlight turning into a front light.

But every project seems to determine the "rules" by which you make lighting decisions, lens choice, etc. On this current project, we are using a 35mm lens 90% of the time, occasionally the lenses close to that (27mm, 40mm, and 50mm.) We've only done one shot with a 75mm lens.
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#9 Stephen Murphy

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 06:00 AM

I'd fall into the Jordan Cronenweth school of backlight i.e i Love it. Lots of it. I even like blue backlight:)
S
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#10 John Holland

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 06:14 AM

If possible my Key is a backlight so there .
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#11 Saul Rodgar

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 12:07 PM

But every project seems to determine the "rules" by which you make lighting decisions, lens choice, etc.


I wholeheartedly agree. Sometimes I use it sometimes I don't, it depends on the subject and project.

But I do tend to like back lighting, even if it creates a "halo of unkempt hair." The sharp shadow under the chin is never pleasing too look at though sometimes unavoidable . . .

In real life, light is very often casting very unflattering and ugly shadows on people, naturally. So nothing spells "lit" more than a perfectly pretty picture at all times.

Edited by Saul Rodgar, 08 September 2008 - 12:11 PM.

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#12 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 05:36 PM

I'm from the school of backlight is necessary. If it can be "motivated" by something else in the frame (like a practical or window source) then great. If not, then there is still need to create separation. The AMOUNT of separation (intensity of the light) is really what... separates :) good backlighting from bad.

Just like VFX, when you notice the backlight, it's bad. If it blends naturally so as to not draw attention to itself, then I've done my job. And that rule of thumb goes for all the other lights too. It's obvious that we use lights to shoot shots, but the ability to use lights but have it seem as though we didn't, is the real challenge.

So, I do whatever I can to separate the subject from the background (IMPORTANT TO DO), but also try equally hard to make it seem entirely natural. Usually this takes little effort. My usual tool is a dimmer which I can use to adjust the intensity fairly easily. Color temperature doesn't change that much to make it undesirable. I also make an effort with bald men to keep that irritating spot off their head by using a C-stand and grip flag to keep the backlight on the shoulders, but take it off the head. It's an extra step but very much worth the effort.

And I believe that's it's important to light well by using a backlight because we are not merely shooting "reality," but creating an image that is meant to send a message. Unless the reality can do that, it is our job as Cameramen to create an image that tells the story that is necessary.
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#13 Daniel Porto

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 10:35 AM

There are better ways to create separation in my book. Also, backlighting makes stuff look artificial and lit many times.


The first thing that comes to mind in order to create SEPARATION from the subject to the background (with no backlight and without increasing the distance between subject and background)...

1. Small DOF
2. Light the subject brighter than the background
3. Light the sjubject and background with different color temperatures

I personally don't mind backlight but like everything with cinematography it depends on the project. I like to keep an open mind and not prejudice myself to particular lighting set-ups (although I have my favorites).
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#14 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 03:32 PM

And sometimes you don't need to have everything separated. I often find you can get a real sumptuous, luxurious look by not separating and just letting things fall off. Maybe that's why I like front light so much - I love how the background just falls off in intensity.

But when I need to separate and don't want to use backlight, I often try to do what I call Oreo-lighting. You juxtapose light against darkness within the frame. So if a face is side lit, I'll light the wall behind the dark side of the face and keep light off the wall that's behind the brighter lit side of the face. Or if you're not lighting you subject, then just light the wall behind and play it as silhouette. Nothing new in this, of course - been done for ages.

There's a very painterly example of this technique in the beautifully shot Black Narcissus by Jack Cardiff, BSC below (if you haven't watched it - do so immediately). Although, to be fair, she does have a very slight backlight on her robe on the dark side, but that's not the reason this image looks good in my opinion - it's because he's separated the wall behind her darker side by lighting it slightly.

Posted Image
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#15 Chad Stockfleth

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Posted 10 September 2008 - 09:04 AM

Funny that you would post this Adam, because I've been slowly coming to the same way of thinking.

I'd been doing a hard scrape/kicker sort of backlight for about the last year pretty routinely but had recently gotten pretty fed up with it and how "lighty" it looks. The spot on the nose is really unflattering.

Couldn't agree more about lighting the wall on the dark side of the face.

Glad you brought this up because it reaffirms my own thoughts!

In the same vein of blue backlights, I really dislike the overly warm, 1k on a dimmer backlight look.

Chad
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