Above photo by Reneé Thompson. Portfolio @shop.aenl.co/portfolio
Written by Arledge Armenaki
I want to talk about image exposure in the filmmaking process. Exposure is the lightness or darkness of the image in your viewfinder or monitor. During my career as a cameraman, I have set the camera’s exposure a zillion times. Getting a good exposure is very important every time you set a shot.
Tip # 1
A good exposure is when the mid tones are clearly represented, and the overall image is not too dark or too light. That is the area of the image that is between black or dark areas and white or the highlights. Right in the middle is the midtones. The camcorder has a built-in light meter that measures bright areas, shadows and midtones. Exposure is largely based on midtones.
A Gray Card represents middle gray, your midtones and it is an inexpensive professional card that will help you with your exposure technique. You can buy one for under $10 at any online camera store. It can also be used for “White Balancing.”
Tip # 2
Most camcorders have “AUTO” automatic or “MAN” manual exposure settings.
If you use “AUTO”, you may have mixed results because the camera is often fooled as to what is the right exposure setting. Very bright or dark back grounds or areas of the frame area will influence the exposure in “AUTO” mode and give you a false reading.
Manual exposure is the best way to work. I set the baseline settings before the shoot and then adjust the field settings on location using the on-screen exposure guides.
In “MAN” you control all the settings. This can be a bit overwhelming, so let’s take them one at a time.
Tip # 3
First, set your baseline settings before you go out the door for your shoot. The base line exposure settings are ISO, Shutter Speed, Zebras and Gain. ISO is the exposure sensitivity of the chip or sensor of the camera.
Most camcorders have a range from 400-800 ISO. To know what your cameras chips ISO is look in the manual.
Many DSLR cameras have an adjustable ISO range. A Rule of Thumb for DSLR owners: 100-200 ISO for outdoors, 400-800 for indoors daytime, 800-1200 for night or dark environments.
Shutter Speed determines the amount of time the light is exposed to the sensor, and it is measured in fractions or degrees.
Rule of Thumb when shooting 24P: set your shutter 1/48 shutter, 30P = 1/60 shutter speed.
Zebras appear in the viewfinder. The settings are in the cameras menu. Set the Zebras to 90% for general usage.
Overexposure will then trigger the zebras in the monitor or viewfinder when something is overexposed or too bright.
Gain is an adjustment that boosts the video signal. Unless you are in a very dark environment, set it to “0” zero, and leave it alone.
So now we have set the base settings we need to go to location.
Tip # 4
You are on location, and you are setting up the camera and trying to get a good exposure. When you are working outdoors, use the viewfinder while you are setting the exposure and focus, and then use your monitor for framing.
A guide for your Neutral Density settings (ND): Off for inside, 1- for bright interiors 2- for open shade, 3- for the sun.
Then, set the camera “AUTO”, and point the camera at a gray card or a neutral object that has a large midtone range that is in the same light as your subject. If you don’t have a gray card, frame up green grass or a brick wall or an asphalt driveway. Now hold the camera’s frame and change from “AUTO” to “MAN” manual. The camcorder will hold the auto exposure setting, as you are move to manual. Frame up the subject and look at the highlights areas of the image. Now you are in the right exposure range and ready to make adjustments.
The on-screen exposure guides are Zebras, Histogram, and Reflectance %.
Tip # 5
Now we are going to adjust the aperture (iris ring) that reads in “F” stops on screen to fine tune the exposure. First, we will look for zebras in the viewfinder. Don’t worry they are not recorded in the video.
The brightest areas like the sky or a lamp in the shot will have zebra lines – ignore them. You are only concerned about your subject: the most important part of the image.
If you are filming a person or landscape, then look at the brightest part of the subject. If zebras are on the subject, then adjust the aperture or “F” stop until the zebras just disappear in the viewfinder.
Tip # 6
In DSLR cameras, adjust the aperture while viewing the histogram so that the mountains are in the middle. The histogram image has ridges or mountains.
Adjust the Iris/aperture so the slope of exposure does not slide off on end or the other. Keep the mountains in the middle. Now some cameras have a reflectance or % meter built into the camera. I will adjust the Iris/aperture so the reflectance is reading 50% when framing a gray card or 70% when framing a human subject.
So now you know how to set your camera for a good exposure.
Have a great shoot.
An award-winning cinematographer, Arledge Armenaki has more than 30 feature film and documentary television credits and decades of behind-the-camera experience. Not only has Armenaki worked on films such as “South of Hell,” “Club Fed,” “Howling V” and “Dennis the Menace,” but also on documentaries such as “Focus on Africa,” which chronicled photographers’ efforts in Tanzania and Kenya to save African wildlife. He recently served as director of photography for “Wesley,” a feature film about the adventures and challenges of religious leader John Wesley. Reviewers have described the historical drama as “beautifully filmed” and the “best film of its type.” Film festival awards recognizing Armenaki’s work include Best Cinematography for “A Letter From my Father” and the North Carolina Filmmaker Award for “Surrendering in a Champions World.” In addition, Armenaki has helped train many other cinematographers. He served as head of the cinematography program in the Department of Film at the Brooks Institute of Photography, where Armenaki himself earned his Bachelor of Performing Arts in 1974. He completed a one-year fellowship at the American Film Institute and was the founding cinematographer and filmmaker in residence at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Armenaki currently is an associate professor of cinematography in the School of Stage and Screen at Western Carolina University. www.arledgearmenaki.com