Exposure Issues

Alex Konveski

New member

I have been going through the forum and found a lot of advice dealing with night exposures and making moonlight look right. I am shooting my first scene on film that is motivated solely by moonlight and am a little worried about making it come out right.

If I am coming from the side and underexpose the key a stop and let the other half of the face go black wont I end up with a very dark image as there is nothing in frame that is at a key exposure? It makes sense though since moonlight should look dim and I'd like to have a image that a person can see but realizes its night. Then I worry on the other hand that 1 under isn't enough and will look too bright.

My second exposure issue is what do you do about neon signs? If your shooting with natural light somewhere and neon signs are on wont they blow out? I was outside with my meter at night on a street and found a 1,000 my stops would be around a 1.4 split but spotting a neon sign I got a 11 so it seems like that would be gone on film. If I was to grab a insert of the sign I guess a 11 would be fine but if I was showing the street and such 11 would greatly underexpose everything.
One-stop under for a highlight is not that dark... but it really depends on what you mean by one-stop under... based on an incident meter reading? Then it depends on the reflectivity of the subject. An actor with very dark skin may require more exposure to hold detail.

Imagine if you did no underexposure for the moonlight side-key... would that feel about right? Maybe it would, there is no right or wrong answer. And the truth is that you could always print it darker. But I generally feel that it should feel a little down, so a stop under is about right for a semi-frontal key. Now maybe for a side-key, if you are pointing the meter at the light, you should just expose it normally.

Keep in mind it's also a balance, do you really want pitch-black shadows or do you want some dim detail in there. Generally a higher-contrast image needs to have somewhat brighter highlights to counteract all of that black.

Also depends on how you are rating the stock -- if you are rating 500T at 320T, then a one-stop underexposure is actually only a 1/3-stop underexposure, so you are pretty safe.

If neon is in the far background, I let it blow-out to some degree so that what's important is the colored light it is casting on the scene, not the sign's color itself. I'd rarely expose for what a spot meter tells me that the tubes are reading... they need to be a bit hot to feel like a light source. Even in an insert, I'd probably open-up one-stop from what a spot meter told me to do. But we are talking film here, with all of its overexposure latitude.

If the neon is more prominent, you either need to dim it or wrap some bobbinet (scrim) around it, or some ND gel. If it's out of focus in the background, you can get away with the gel or scrim. Or raise the overall light level to balance with it. I once did a scene in front of Geno's in Philadelphia, which is tremendously bright at night... I ended up lighting the scene to f/5.6 on 500 ASA film just to hold some of the background detail, to keep it from blowing out.