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Old February 9th, 2005, 10:44 AM   #1
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Tips from a film guy, anyone?

Hey folks-- I've been shooting (stills) product & fashion for a decade+, with a love of tungsten film & hot lights. I've obsessed over color balancing daylight, tungsten, & flash (all in the same shot), I've had to light tiny products and giant airline terminals... I'm a humble guy, but I do know a bit about this stuff. Basically, I have to learn a LOT about DV production in the next couple months and I'm loving this forum.

Scanning these posts, I see a lot of questions about lighting basics... mind if I drop off some hard-earned tips?? We all like to use the phrase "painting with light" and it's certainly an apt phrase; here's what's in my paint-box...

Soft Light: one of the hardest things to get right. Ever wonder why you can't get a beautiful soft light from your large Chimera? Well, move a soft light far enough away from the subject, and it gets pretty hard. Basically, you need a broad, flat "bank" of light, as close to the subject as possible. I've never liked bouncing; wastes some light, hard to control, etc. (OK, priceless in tight corners...) I have had great success with making my own huge banks. Hit the fabric store, and choose some wide-bolt fabric that's fairly sheer and has a good "white" (lots of whites are a bit cool/blueish). Take the bolt into the sun and see how much light passes through it. Buy about 20 yards of the stuff.

You can hang it from boom stands or a ceiling (those cheapie background sets are fab... 2 stands and a crossbar and a few A-clamps. Aim your lights (preferably a broad soft light as opposed to a focused fresnel). You want to aim the light so it fills the panel of fabric but doesn't spill past the sides. Use several lights for brightness or size. Get the fabric as close as you can to the subject while keeping it out of the frame.

Ahh, you say, too much spill? Black foamcore can be leaned against the side stands to make a "box" (get two-sided foam, black & white... cut the sheet into 1' x 5' strips and tape back together, white tape on the front, black on the black side, and accordian it up to travel. Portable reflector AND scrim...) You can also hang black fabric over the white to make strip lights. A TALL strip light is just killer for moody lighting. Extend the "sides" past the fabric for even more of a "box".

Fabric grids are amazing if you can afford them (photoflex makes fairly affordable ones). You don't need a softbox for these... you can stretch & clamp or hang them. Sort of directional-but-soft light. I've seen them cut from foamcore or corrugated as well (think about those moving boxes that are made for your glassware)... not great for location. The fabric grids can just be wadded up and stowed.

I also use some westcott slim-jims. Aluminum frames that connect into different sizes, and I've had little old ladies sew me up strip lights, sheer lights, etc. But I've seen people make frames from PVC, aluminum extrusion, etc. (PVC with conduit glued inside is pretty sturdy, too).

Also, in your fabric arsenal, you should have some sheer, gauzy white fabric. A big bolt of it can be stretched over a daylight set to "dull down" a hot background, or soften light on talent while still looking like direct light (try it, it works great... just a hair softer, and the shadows open up in a natural way). Black mesh (even the plastic stuff they use for shade in nurseries) will knock hard sun down a stop or three, but it'll still look "hard" if you need that. And a few yards of solid black for creating shadows. (If you can afford a giant Matthews setup and all the fabric, ignore all the above...)

White fabric from a hot air balloon manufacturer will take a LOT of heat... use it when you have to scrim hot lights really close. It eats more than a stop, but it's cheaper than a high-heat softbox.

GRIDS GRIDS GRIDS!!! Nothing like an aluminum grid! Especially for back lighting & hair. Speedotron's 11" grids can be clamped to lots of lights, or just stuck on a stand in front of a light. Novatron makes a smaller grid with a square backing plate which will slide right into many gel slots (seems to be more strobe grids on the used market). A grid on a fresnel can be amazing... a sparkly soft light that will still have some killer "pings" on jewelry and hair. Also great for simulating sunlight on a closeup (say, when you cut to a hand writing a letter, etc).

Speaking of, ever take the lense from your fresnels? You don't need 'em for scrimming or bouncing...

BOUNCE WITH GRAY: some gray cards or seamless are surprisingly effective for a more subtle bounce; especially with metallic subjects. An off-axis warm orange card can "paint" cheekbones & facial details in a nice way, too.

STANDS: try to own at least a couple Avenger or Matthews C stands; they're priceless. They're also cheap to rent.

TEST TEST TEST!!! Every fabric or reflector you use will change color temp; know your lights and what gels will balance them. You'll feel like a badass when you can walk into a set and get great color quickly. Learn what lens filters you might need to bring gels and varying light temps together. Buy a cheap 3x3 or 4x4 wratten filter holder for your lens and jump into the world of gel filters... talk about tweaking, and sometimes the only way to deal with flourescents. (Maybe not so applicable in the world of digital white balance, but... you'll learn a lot about color. And if you ever decide to shoot a 16mm project, you'll be ahead of the game.)

WARMING: Light-straw colored gels are priceless for beauty or for an "emotional" feel; I also like a slightly warmer back/hair light... seems to make the subject more dimensional and looks superb on highlighted brunettes or dusky blondes. Sometimes you just can't be warm enough-- especially if you're into the "film look". A straw gel on a grid is sweet.

SCRIMS & FLAGS: You can spend hours playing with black flags to control light precisely. The distance relationships offer a world of possibilities... distant light, close flag (soft light with a hard falloff, nice!)... flag right next to the light... etc. Also, those c-shaped wire frames with black mesh can give you some incredible control... hanging a strip of black mesh close to your subject can give you a nice, soft falloff (just break across **some** of the light beam). Black mesh is tweaker's heaven; you can paint some amazing, subtle shadows with it. Fabric stores have it in several densities; it's cheap enough that you can cut it to whatever size you need. You can even stack it for a graduated flag.

YOU CAN NEVER HAVE ENOUGH STANDS... (see "scrims" above). Luckily, cheap stands are just fine for many reflector/scrim/flag setups. A few c-stand knuckles will let you attach all sorts of things. Metal tubing make greta lightweight booms if you don't have a matthews budget... for cards & foamcore, anyway.

MIST... a judicious use of smoke machine or "smoke in a spray can" can give you fantastic atmosphere... especially if you use so little that it isn't really "seen" as an effect. Too much and you're in a bad 80's rock video...

ND GELS... These separate the wanna-be's from the real thing. If you can look at a setup and say "that fill seems 1/4 stop too hot" you're getting there. ND gels allow you to fine-tune like crazy-- get some in various stops. And they do seem to cool the temp down, regardless of what the manufacturers say; a very light warming gel will help. Also, keep in mind that in "reality", the darker an electric light is, the warmer it tends to be; little visual clues like this help draw a viewer into a scene.

Perhaps not all of this is applicable to motion; but I've made some successful moving-light rigs with these ideas, too.

Woops, long post... I've spent a lot of cash & set-time testing all-of-the-above in the pre-digital age (man, I've had some lab bills). And I still haven't found anything digital that looks like 400t, pushed a couple stops. Sigh. (Haven't updated my site in forever, but take a look at www.mcarterphoto.com for more ideas). Thanks! MC
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Old February 16th, 2005, 04:09 AM   #2
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dude, thats an awesome post..

tip top tips!!!!!!
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Old February 24th, 2005, 10:04 PM   #3
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Yes, thanks mucho amounts for the tips. I know jack about fabric, so the wife is lending me her knowledge.

Keep the lighting tips coming..and go Cowboys!
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Old February 25th, 2005, 01:25 AM   #4
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Michael,

Welcome to the 'hood. Great post with great ideas... I'm gonna try a few of those out... Where do you get hot air balloon fabric? lol sounds useful.

Your site is nice too... I like the photos... the product stuff struck me particularly... maybe just because I saw it first.

By the way, you said you had to learn DV like there was an external deadline... new job? new project? do tell.

Anyway, thanks for the info and stick around.
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Old February 25th, 2005, 09:21 AM   #5
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Thanks Barry--

Yep, after about a decade of self-employ, my fave client talked me into a "real job"; luckily it's about 70% full-time, full insurance, and my main gig is supposed to be "making really wild viral movies that guys will email to all their friends". My first script is entitled "Lesbian Tupperwear Party"; I think that pretty much sealed the deal... (They make energy drinks). We've also put in a nice ProTools studio, so I get to return to my very-favorite thing, which is writing music.

The product shots you referred to are, to me, such a great example of learning to open your mind up to "organic" things and "mistakes", even when working with all this technology that's capable of such control & precision.

I'd become known as the "fix anything" Photoshop guy, which is fun... but I realized I missed things like waiting for film to come back from the lab (exciting & scary) and process-intensive tasks where you're more involved in getting around the **limitations** of things. I did most of those shots as multiple exposures on tungsten film, with products on layers of glass; I'd focus on a "lit" level, with the "unlit" product backlit. Thus certain things would become shadowy "masks", without the control of, say, adding a drop-shadow in Photoshop. You'd tweak a lot but essentially settle for what you got. You can see some amazing ghosting-effects, that softly "frame" subjects. I shot a lot of things through really cheap magnifying glasses; the color fringing abberations I found to be beautiful and evocative. (I could go into great length about the psychological effect of stuff like that, in it's place anyway). Learned an amazing amount about the physics of lighting, as my aim had to be so dead on. I also used 400 tungsten film, pushed to about 1200. Amazing, delicate grain that looked like pastels on rough paper. Then, I'd dupe those slides onto Fuji velvia 4x5 or 8x10.

The lab said "Ya can't dupe on velvia", but an enlarger with a cheap camera flash duct-taped to the box worked great; yeah, I ate up a LOT of 4x5 polaroid (ow!). But jesus-- that 35mm grain, blown up to sheet-film size on super-saturated stock. Wow. (The 35-adapter guys know the value of duct tape and a "screw those who say it can't be done!" attitude...)

I did some people-shots with a similar technique; now I'm wondering about using something similar for video/film... it will take some sort of rudimentary motion-control and well-rehearsed talent, but I think it could be wicked... and again, other than compositing two layers of video, the "effect" would be in-camera, and thus (hopefully) more random and "organic". Very exciting, to me anyway.

I've also played a bit with shooting subjects **reflections** on 4x5" polished stainless (no double-image like a glass mirror gives in closeup), and shooting it through a crappy, thick magnifying glass. Very very cool...

Really thinking about getting a krasnagorsk 16mm and playing with film for cool, moody, dreamy stuff. As a film & digital still shooter, I LOVE digital for speed and control... but ahhhh... film is luscious, luscious stuff, and there's a real sense of "partnering" with the media that I don't get from electronic things. Oops, I guess I just went into "great length"... i do that sometimes... thanks again! MC
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Old February 25th, 2005, 09:23 AM   #6
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Hot Air Balloon fabric--

I just looked up "hot air balloons" in the yellow pages, and talked to a nice lady who sent me their thinnest white. Kinda thick, eats a fair amount of light, but it's been nice in a tight corner! I think I bought a few yards and it wasn't ridiculously expensive. And yes, she did say it was very flame-resistant, though I haven't pushed it!
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Old March 9th, 2005, 06:49 AM   #7
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really useful information and tips...
cheers!
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Old March 10th, 2005, 01:46 AM   #8
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The big boys talk about using muslin a lot, for both bounce and diffusion.

You can get it pretty cheap (at least at the Joann fabric in my area), like $4-5 a yard.

I believe the unbleached is a little warmer, color temp-wise.

Read somewhere else that besheets make better bounce than diffusion, and shower curtains make better diffusion than bounce.
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Old March 10th, 2005, 09:19 AM   #9
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The best thing to do is take a couple bolts outside into the sun and see what the quality of light that passes through is like; you can get a good feel for how many stops you're losing (just tell the salesperson what you're up to... don't want one of those little-old JoAnne ladies macing you as a shoplifter...) Bedsheets tends to be pretty thick and would generally bounce better. Diffusion fabrics you'll buy at a pro-shop, for butterfly or scrim kits, tend to be some kind of sheer-ish nylon... almost like a very light windbreaker fabric. For really big scrims, I've found some fabric that's just-right opacity wise and also has a bit of stretch to it. The stretchiness is great for pulling it straight, and it also doesn't wrinkle.

Also, try to buy stuff with wide-widths... some bolts are, like, 36" and that's pretty limiting.

I really feel like a lot of stuff is too-scrimmed; if you try something like a gauze or a white net, you get softer light and still keep some of the "real" quality of direct light, with more shadow-modeling. The shadows will be more "open" which is nice (this is really sweet for overhead scrims on sunny days, or to knock down sunlight on a out-of-focus background). You can also stack or wrap such fabrics around your frames, building up layers until you have what you want. And foamcore is still the best bounce, as it reflects all the light back with no pass-through. Having the kind with black & white sides is pretty versatile if you need to block lights off or give a deeper shadow to talent. You can cut foamcore into long, tall strips, gaff tape it back together, and accordian-fold it. Travels easier and will stand up by itself, too. You can even use some sticky velcro and some 1-by lumber to re-stiffen it after it's unfolded.

I wouldn't rely so much on what one hears or reads; see for yourself what works for the effect you want.
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Old March 10th, 2005, 09:40 AM   #10
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Here, found an example on my site...

http://www.mcarterphoto.com/fashion_big/inwood_big.html

Sun was at the model's back, about 9:30 Am... still pretty low in the sky.

A 6' x 6' scrim with white gauze was between the talent and the sun; she still has a nice backlight on her hair & shoulders, and it's pretty "hot"; I wanted her hair to just barely blow out (makes all those curls look nice...) The gauzey fabric was something I found at (yes!) JoAnne, and had the velcro sewn onto it to match my Westscott frame system. (Most JoAnne's have a binder full contacts for grannies who sew... find one who's good at draperies).

Another 6x6 was between the sun and the plants in the background; this one had a full-white 3/4 stop nylon scrim (one of the system scrims, not a home-made) to knock the plants down to minimal hot spots and keep their color intense. The plants were only about 3' away from the talent; this was probably shot around f4 with an 85mm (35mm setup) lens.

Finally, a 3x6 white reflector was off-frame on the right, slightly offset to more behind the table than beside; gives her face & body a soft wash of bounced sun, with the emphasis on her cheekbones; her face falls off just a bit to **her** right side, giving her a nice 3-d quality and looks (to me anyway) very natural. Love that little line of light on her left cheek. I'm a NUT for those little molded highlights around cheekbones, etc... you really **do** have to think "painting".

Both scrims were just held up by assistants, which is often faster & safer than big stands (you REALLY have to watch for the asst.'s shadows though); the reflector was leaning on a c-stand. The setup probably took 8-10 minutes, the longest part being setting up the scrim frames. Then we stood around and waited for hair & makeup to finish...
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Old March 10th, 2005, 01:40 PM   #11
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Michael,

Thanks for the details... that's a great photo and great description. I would love to see a photo of the whole setup. Was this done for hire or do you shoot on spec?

What are the frames you use for the fabric like? I haven't done this, and I think I really need to be versed in it.

How many shots do you take with a setup like that?

Thanks for the education.... how's the DV learning coming?
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Old March 10th, 2005, 02:35 PM   #12
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Thanks Barry--

That was part of an ad for an upscale shopping center in Dallas; I'm basically kinda sorta an ad agency with in-house photography; I design, concept, write, shoot & produce "anything I can write an invoice for".

I use Westcott ScrimJims. They're sqare aluminum tubes that interlock; the basic piece is about 3' long, and you can make 3x3, 6x3, or 6x6 with them. They have velcro all the way around, and the fabrics have velcro edges. Pretty nice for smaller scrims (it ain't a Matthews butterfly!), and they pack quite easily. I've seen people make similar things from conduit, but those conduit elbows are brittle... they're made to be fastened down, y'know! I think Hollaender fittings (also known as speed rail & NuRail) would be promising though. They use aluminum (round) pipe. I've made several tables from the 1.5" stuff (aluminum pipe cuts like butter with a chop saw). They offer a lot of 3/4" pieces as well; they join with allen-head setscrews. I understand large parts of NASA launch pads are made with the stuff... it's robust to say the least.

On a shoot like the example, we'd probably shoot 2-3 rolls in the film age, maybe 100 shots or so digital... move around, different framing, etc. Funny, when I shoot film of stuff like this, I use a basic little manual Olympus digital to dial-in the lighting. Then a couple polaroids to be sure. (To me, that's the real speed of digital still shooting - eliminating the wait for polaroids to process!) I'll probably do the same for DV, it's so dang FAST to balance light & color and try framing & perspective options. Even if the overall DV or film exposure or ISO is way off, the balance of everything should still be very close -- certainly works wonders setting up for 35mm & MF film work!

As for the DV learning.... I'm still up to my neck in Flash content! We're supposed to order an XL2 sometime soon though. Mmmm, gear!!!
Unfinished but you get the idea:
http://www.bookooenergy.com/test.html
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Old March 10th, 2005, 02:50 PM   #13
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Michael,

That is pretty friggin' hilarious... I guess these guys are really going for the edgy market... that should make it a lot of fun.

Good luck and keep us informed.
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