Choosing Among In-Camera and In-Post Imaging Options: What Can Be Done in Post vs. Capture by Ira Tiffen

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, April 2007. Choosing Among In-Camera and In-Post Imaging Options: What Can Be Done in Post vs. Capture by Ira Tiffen. Pages 10 and 12.

In my first-ever seminar presentation, in 1977, I met two newsreel cameramen, who were active in the days of hand-cranked cameras. They told me that they used to get jobs in their very competitive business (the more things change, the more they stay the same) over other cameramen because of their ‘little black box’- their box of filters.

In the era of black and white, they said, you could use a yellow-green filter to bring out more dramatic cloud detail in a blue sky that would be lost without the filter. But you had to know how to do it. And you had to have the filter at the ready. Or you didn’t get the image quality you needed to distinguish your work from the next guy’s. What you didn’t know COULD hurt you, they told me.

In those days, you had to have a pretty clear idea of where you were headed image-wise before you took even the first step. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction later.

Today, technology offers capabilities that didn’t exist not too long ago. With the ‘information superhighway’ that everyone was concerned would numbingly flood our lives with data, we needed only to understand it well enough to know what to save and what to delete. Similarly, there is a plethora of image control choices available to today’s filmmakers that could blind us with options- but again, only if we let it.

So here’s the question: Just what did you know, and when did you know it?

Did you start out with a complete vision in your head, one that was bursting to come out intact, inviolate, and were your skills up to the task of faithfully bringing it to the screen? Or…

Did you begin with a concept, a feeling, a memory, something, but less than a completely conceived path and goal, making it necessary to leave room for creative adjustment as you went along?

If the former describes you, you’re in rare company. It happens, but it often takes intense vision, a team of experienced and talented professionals, suitable budget, luck, and much more.

If the latter is more fitting, you are certainly not alone. While there are many shades of gray between the two situations, the key element is to recognize whether you know enough to make certain commitments up front, or if you need to leave yourself room for fine-tuning later. “Know enough,” refers to two issues here: do you know what you want the image to look like and do you know how to get it to look that way?

Here’s why this is important, and how it impacts your filmmaking process. Let’s consider those newsreel cameramen again. Knowing they wanted to produce a more natural, correctly detailed sky was the starting point. To do this, they had to first learn about the effects of filters, and how to use them to advantage; and they had to plan on bringing the right ones as part of their kit. If they didn’t use the right filter upon capture, the cloud detail would be lost forever. They would not have been able to “fix it in post.”

Additionally, if the sun became brighter than they had expected, they would have wanted to have a neutral density filter available. Being able to handle random changes in circumstances starts by knowing what is variable and what you can do about it. In this case, the newsreel guys had the experience to know up front what they wanted, and how to get it. And, in these examples, they also didn’t have an alternative.

Today, many alternatives exist. But, even now, not everything can be fixed later. To capture those clouds, you would still have to use an on-camera filter.

But if you wanted the sky turned a deeper blue, you could do that readily in post today. The trick is being able to know which decisions have to be made up front and which can be deferred until later.

As the training process for many filmmakers no longer requires lengthy years of apprenticeship, since the technology for capture and editing is now financially within reach of many, there’s often been insufficient opportunity to garner the experience that would allow more confidence in making advance decisions. So there’s a greater need for the ability to learn as you go, leaving room for experimentation and for making subsequent changes. It is also important not to commit earlier to decisions that can’t be un-made later if necessary.

The traditional opto-mechanical color timing of film has its digital analogue in image grading. This provides many new opportunities for color, contrast and brightness control in post. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition, there is software providing numerous variations on many other optical filter effects. You can introduce highlight flare; create smoother, softer facial texture, introduce certain types of ‘star’ effects; create ND and color grads; the list is extensive.

In comparison to optical effects, these digital options offer unique capabilities such as allowing infinite adjustment of grades to precisely tailor the strength of an effect to fit the need. You can mix several effects together without a concern for optical issues like internal reflection, which can be a problem when stacking filters on the lens. You can automatically maintain proper exposure as well without delving into filter factors. And you can decide to change your mind, remove and re-mix effects, as much as time allows.

You can also extensively experiment with digital effects on test images prior to production to help determine the direction to go. Use these tests to develop a consensus on that direction among the responsible parties to minimize debilitating conflicts later.

But these new capabilities also have some disadvantages worth being aware of.

You could paint yourself into a corner by not paying enough attention to prior planning and image capture. Not all things can be fixed later. You also limit your options as it may take most or all of the digital latitude just to correct something that went uncorrected in capture leaving an insufficient amount of adjustment for additional effects.
The real world has an infinite amount of colors and luminance values- once you are in post you are limited to the color gamut of your medium. Digital image control is not infinite- there are limits to its range, and there are things you can do optically that can’t be readily replicated. Some digital effects will introduce increased noise, the rough equivalent of film grain, to possibly detrimental effect.

Having the ability to make changes later in the process also means that you may have new political issues to manage- if you don’t define your image through to the end result, and aren’t around to see it through, it is possible for another to come along and make ‘creative adjustments’ that can be far more invasive than before. This is especially important if your role is primarily to capture the image, and you may have moved on to another job by the time that image is processed.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to take most advantage of the new technology while minimizing the negatives.

Give yourself a hand later by taking the right steps early on. Learn more about what can be done in post and what should be done in capture. Learn how the two can work together to best effect.

As an example, try using half-strength optical filters to help things along. Fluorescent lighting color correction is much easier to manage when at least some of the necessary alteration is performed in-camera. Using half the normal optical filter strength requires less exposure compensation and can significantly assist the post processing.

Flare and resolution control, too, can be enhanced by the mix of milder optical effects plus later digital adjustment. You also lock in a certain amount of the ‘look’ while still leaving room for choices to be made later.

As you go along, experience will help you learn more, and learn it sooner in the filmmaking process. And your answers to the question – Just what did you know, and when did you know it? – will only get better.

In over 30 years of making optical filters, Ira Tiffen created the Pro-Mist, Soft/FX, Ultra Contrast, GlimmerGlass, and others, netting him both a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a Prime-Time Emmy Award. Elected a Fellow of the SMPTE in 2002, he is also an Associate member of the ASC, and the author of the filter section of the “American Cinematographer Manual.”

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