The rise of digital cameras has had a profound impact on filmmaking: longer takes, no expensive film stock, instant dailies. One of its most touted benefits is the ability to shoot in low light in ways that were never possible with film. But to do so, you need some know-how. That’s why we collected some knowledge from three Academy Award-nominated cinematographers — Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain), Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network), and Greig Fraser (Lion) — who shared what filmmakers and videographers need to know about shooting digital like a pro in low light.
Why digital cameras do better in low light
First, let’s get a little bit technical. Professional cinematographers often work using photographic sensitometry, which involves referencing a curved graph – often called a “gamma curve” – that tracks how a camera is reacting to exposure to light. In short, it tracks when and how a camera “sees” something. The graph has three parts: the toe, straight line, and shoulder (also called “the knee”).
The toe is the bottom section, and it’s where low light appears (or doesn’t). It’s here that digital cameras have their biggest impact, especially thanks to progress made in latitudes — the distance between toe and shoulder/knee, in which your images can be over- or underexposed and still be visible. “On the toe of a film negative, you have a curve that’s sloping, and it curves into no detail. Digital has more of a straight line into the low-light areas,” says Rodrigo Prieto, who most recently shot Passengers and Silence. “It’s more sensitive to low-light levels.”
Rodrigo Prieto (left) shooting Argo with Ben Affleck. Photo credit: Claire Folger. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
When digital cameras can help most
It’s in that ability to expose for low-light scenes that digital can open up possibilities for cinematographers. Prieto, for example, shot a lot of Martin Scorsese’s Silence on film. But because some scenes called for actors to interact over candlelight and torches, film wasn’t as effective. So he turned to ARRI digital cameras. “What I’ve discovered is that for lower light levels, like candlelight, that’s where digital really shines,” says Prieto.
Prieto’s work on Passengers illustrates another example. For that film, he shot entirely in digital, using the Alexa 65 camera. That was partly to create a “really clean” look that would suit the modern aesthetic of the movie’s spaceship setting, but also because the real sets that Guy Hendrix Dyas built used LED lights, which, Prieto says, “end up not projecting a lot of light for exposure.” But with digital cameras, they could be picked up.
Digital should be a creative choice, not a default
There’s a common trait that ties together Prieto’s digital-camera choices on Silence and Passengers. He chose digital based on what the projects needed, and therein lies a key lesson for anyone looking to shoot digital in low light (or digital at all): it has to be the right fit for what you’re working on. Don’t just use it because you can, or consider it the default way to handle dark scenes.
The film versus digital debate is often reduced to misrepresentative binaries and oversimplified “when X, shoot with Y” formulas. “It’s not either/or,” says Greig Fraser, who most recently shot Lion and Star Wars: Rogue One. “It’s about what I want to achieve visually on a certain project.” Digital is a tool, and you need to choose when to use the right tool for the right job.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser
The challenge of highlights (and streetlights)
Creative choices — going one way instead of the other — come with trade-offs. Digital is no exception. “Unlike film where, when you got to the darkest parts of film, you would pick up a lot of grain and texture, and where you would have so much latitude in the high end, this is kind of reverse,” says Jeff Cronenweth, who has shot digital for David Fincher’s The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. “All of a sudden, you see a lot more information at night, but other things are more problematic that didn’t used to be.”
Prieto agrees. “One weakness with digital on night exteriors where you have low light, is that you also have bright highlights in street signs, shop signs, and headlights,” he says. “You quickly lose the detail because you’re exposing to a low light.” All of that means needing to be prepared. Cinematographers know they’ll have to block, or black wrap streetlights — maybe even ask a city permission to unplug them entirely. For Prieto, it’s something that gets incorporated into his location. “I look around at every street light to understand how they’ll impact the shots and the scenes.”
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth
Be sure to protect your shadows
Another challenge that comes with digital in low light is shadows. On the one hand, you may get more than you want, says Prieto. “Very easily, you start getting lighting environments that aren’t appropriate for the scene and just don’t work. Shadows in the wrong place, and even camera shadows.” On the other hand, you may not get enough shadows, because the cameras are so good at picking up low light that they wipe them out. Those looking to use them for mood will have to work harder to protect them.
Take the eerie abandoned-mall sequence in Gone Girl, which Cronenweth shot for David Fincher. The filmmakers choose 25 smaller lights to help reveal the characters within the vast space of the mall, while still preserving the shadowy pockets they wanted throughout the set. “You have to protect your shadows more in order to maintain your control of contrast,” says Cronenweth. “You have to mitigate some of your highlights and then you have to increase the contrast in your shadows.” Doing that requires what famed cinematographer John Alton calls “painting with light.” Which brings us to one of the most important lessons of shooting digital in low light.
You still have to be a cinematographer
Of course, the ability of digital cameras to capture images in low light doesn’t mean they become glorified point-and-shoot DLSRs. The talents that have long exemplified cinematography still require a shot to be composed, planned, and curated. Digital doesn’t take that away.
“It’s like saying, ‘Oh, now we have this computer that can put notes together and create a lovely melody. We don’t need music composers anymore.’ Lighting is like notes: you place it at a certain place, at a certain height, at a certain quality, and it gives a feeling,” Prieto says. “Digital cameras can capture many different lighting scenarios, but you do need someone to guide and design that light.”
That may be the ultimate lesson in how to approach digital shooting in low light. All of digital’s benefits and challenges still require a filmmaker who knows how to wield it as a tool. Greig Fraser sums it up best: “Having digital at our disposal clearly allows us some opportunities that film never would have,” he says. “It shouldn’t necessarily change intrinsically what filmmaking is, but hopefully, it gives people more options.”