The DSLR Filmmaker’s Handbook: Real-World Production Techniques, Second Edition (2015)
Chapter 4. Cameras and Lenses on Location
The DSLR movement has exponentially expanded the number of available cameras, lenses, and formats that a filmmaker can work with. It is now more important than ever to understand the tools and be aware of the available choices and the reasons to choose your camera and lenses when shooting on location.
Using Cameras on Location
Before you actually use your cameras on location, there are a few things you need to do to prep the cameras. Prior to stepping on set, you should choose whether to use the factory presets that your camera shipped with or to modify and create your own custom picture style. However, sometimes you may need to create a setting quickly on set to deal with unexpected lighting or look requirements. It is important to be aware of camera models and their settings before you head out onto the set.
Mixing Multiple Cameras, Makes, and Models
If you are shooting with multiple cameras, you should be aware of a few things before you begin shooting. Ideally, on a multiple-camera shoot, you would use the same camera model and brand so that your video images from the different cameras match each other as closely as possible. In some cases, you may not have access to the same camera or model, or you might actually need a different model because of some limitations in your set or shot. Either way, some adjustments may be necessary to ensure that the footage from all of the cameras matches closely.
Matching the Color
How the color in your recorded image looks can be vastly different between camera models or brands. Even different cameras of the same make and model can have slight variances in color. It is important before you head out to the set to set up and test the cameras you will be using and to make sure you set up custom settings to help match the footage coming out of the camera. Remember that this differs from color grading the final edit of the mixed footage. It is always best to start with footage from different cameras that has been matched as closely as possible in the camera before your final color grading. The farther off the color in the footage between the cameras, the more likely you will not be able to accurately match the footage or fix it during the final color grading of your footage.
Figure 4-1: Find the different frame rates at which your camera can shoot in your camera menu.
Matching the Frame Rate
When you select the camera or set of cameras for your shoot, pay attention to the available frame rates at which the cameras can record (Figure 4-1). Some of the cheaper DSLR cameras allow filming only in 30 fps, whereas some of the higher-end DSLR cameras allow multiple frame rates ranging from 23.97 to 60 fps. It is best to shoot at the same frame rate for the entirety of your production. The only exception is a camera that is getting coverage such as a slow-motion shot or a stylized clip to be used as a cutaway for the scene. Editing A-camera and B-camera footage that is shot at different frame rates with synced dialogue is nearly impossible.
Powering Your Camera
Most DSLR cameras were never intended to be used as full-blown video cameras. Using DSLRs in video mode tends to drain the batteries quickly. As a filmmaker, you have these power options to help keep you shooting:
1. Multiple Batteries If you are going to be shooting all day long, you must have more than one battery, or you will waste a lot of time recharging your battery. Also, if you won’t have power to charge during the day, then you will require many extra batteries. For most of our productions, we have seven batteries for our two main cameras and two chargers.
2. Battery Grips Many camera models have battery grips that you can buy or rent. For instance, the Canon 5D Mark III can be paired with a Canon BG-E6 battery grip. The battery grip can take two standard Canon LP-E6 batteries or six AA batteries and add extra battery life to your camera without having to switch batteries in and out. Just note that because shooting video drains the batteries fast, if you are using AA batteries, you will go through a ton of them; it is best to stick with using the two slots of LP-E6 batteries. Also, the battery grip makes the camera itself a bit bigger. For some, the added size and weight are appealing because they can make the camera easier to hold, but for others these additions are undesirable.
3. AC Adapter If you are shooting in a location with available power, then getting an AC adapter can be a great choice (Figure 4-2). The trade-off with an AC adapter is the lack of mobility. You are mostly constrained to tripod shots or dollies with an extension cable.
Figure 4-2: The Canon ACK-E6 AC adapter. Notice the small rubber flap on the inside of the camera that you can move to place the cable. The door for the battery must be fully closed for the camera to function.
1. Battery Pack and Adapter If you are going to be powering your camera, external monitor, and other power-hungry accessories and you won’t be shooting where power is readily available, consider using an external battery pack.
2. Another great benefit of using an Anton/Bauer, IDX, or other professional battery pack is that there is a standard connection, called a P-Tap, that allows you to connect multiple devices without having to make your own custom power cables. By choosing a well-established battery and power system, you can use the standard cables and attachments available in many rental houses around the country (Figure 4-3).
Figure 4-3: P-Tap cable/connector
The availability of power on location can vary greatly. If you are shooting in a remote exterior location, you may be living off battery power only, and if you are shooting inside a house, you may have power outlets every 10 feet. Make sure you don’t overlook having extension cords, power strips, plug adapters, and batteries on hand. Another option is to rent or buy a generator for exterior locations where power is not available. Generators tend to be loud, so if you are shooting sound, you need to make sure you have the ability to place the generator far away from where you are shooting. As added insurance to make life easier on set, it is a good idea to have moving pads, blankets, or other means of setting up a sound barrier between the generator and the shooting area.
Understanding Recording Time Limitations
One major perceived drawback of DSLR cameras is the limitations in recording time for one continuous shot, but this is really a nonissue (unless you are shooting long-format productions such as a wedding or play). A 1,000-foot roll of 35 mm motion picture film will record 11 to 12 minutes of footage and then must be changed. In reality, shooting on a DSLR camera has a similar limitation as shooting film for the duration of a single shot. Most DSLRs limit you to around 30 minutes of recording time and limit the file size as well. You should consult your camera’s manual for specifics.
Note that many recent cameras allow you to take a clean feed out of the HDMI port and use an external recorder. If your camera will give you a clean feed, then the external recorder can allow you to record all day with no limitations (outside the size of your storage in the external recorder).
If you are new to the camera you are using, make sure you find out the limitations for recording. You should always test the limits yourself by recording a video clip on your camera and timing it.
The recording time limitation will be a problem only if the shot you are trying to get is longer than what your camera can handle. However, with the current limitations and the ability to use external recorders, you need to have a pretty compelling reason for letting the recording time limitations stop you from using a DSLR camera for your next shoot.
Managing Memory Cards
Treat your memory cards as you would film stock—like gold. Make sure you have plenty of memory cards so that you don’t have to stop filming while footage is being copied to backup drives (Figure 4-4). Things to remember when it comes to memory cards include the following:
· Make sure you have enough CF/SD cards for the shoot.
· Protect and label your CF/SD cards.
· Back up your footage as often as you can, and make sure to have a safety backup before the card is cleared and sent back into the field.
One thing to note is the read/write speed of your cards. Shooting video requires a card that has higher write speeds than you typically need for shooting stills. No one speed fits all cameras, but ideally you need 60 MB/sec or more. The newer and faster cards will ensure the video is being recorded properly with no lost data.
Another thing to note is that larger-capacity cards can contribute to your camera overheating. Any time you are using anything that allows you to run your camera more frequently and for longer time periods, it can increase the chance of your camera overheating. Make sure you give your camera a break to cool down from time to time.
We discuss managing your memory cards in more detail in Chapter 8, “Organizing and Storing Data in the Field.”
Figure 4-4: Labeled cards in a Pelican hard card case. Make sure to notice the speed of the cards when you use or buy new cameras.
Using Lenses on Location
Using a variety of lenses and perspectives to shape the image is unique to photography and motion pictures. If you were watching a theatrical play or a baseball game in real life, your eye would see everything from a variety of focal lengths but from more or less a single perspective. But in a movie, you see the perspective (or perspectives) that the filmmaker has chosen to tell the story.
Your lens choice will shape how your audience sees the shot and what parts of the image will draw their attention. The lens choice influences not only what the audience sees but also how they feel about the image. Lenses can work like the human eye, but they can also operate in ways that shape the perspective and look of the image in ways that the eye does not.
Normal perspective is more or less how a scene would look to the naked eye. A lens with normal perspective will show images where the size of objects in the foreground and background and the distance of objects between each other look exactly like they do to the naked eye; object size is relative depending on their distance. The size and distance of objects are diminished as they recede toward the background of your shot or your vision. If you are shooting on a full-frame sensor camera, normal perspective would be anything shot with a 50 mm lens.
It is always possible to choose a lens that is normal perspective for your camera and the camera’s sensor size. However, to create the look of your project and to understand the lens choices available, you must be familiar with forced perspective. Long lenses (or telephoto lenses) and wide-angle lenses change the perspective of the image away from normal perspective. Anything that is not normal perspective is forced perspective. Ultimately, you can make many interesting shots by deciding between wide-angle and telephoto lenses to create your forced perspectives in your film.
Probably the widest angle forced-perspective lens that you would use for your film would be a 15 mm lens (Figure 4-5a), but potentially for certain effects you may go as wide as a 10 mm. Any lens between 15 mm and 50 mm will be of varying extremes of your forced perspective (Figure 4-5b).
On the other hand, the longest telephoto or forced-perspective lens you will use will generally be a 200 mm, but in some cases you might want a 300 mm or at the far end an 800 mm lens. Again, any lens between the 50 mm and 800 mm lens will vary the degree of your forced perspective (Figure 4-5c).
Why Pick a 50 mm, or Normal-Perspective, Lens?
Most movies are about people. Our entire lives are about interacting with, talking to, and watching people living their lives. When we watch a movie, we expect to see parts of the movie as we would see them in real life. Both the lack of distortion and the relationship of objects and people to each other help transport the audience into the world of the movie they are watching. This is why many other filmmakers and books will tell you to start with a 50 mm, or normal-perspective, lens. In later parts of the movie, once the audience has connected with the story, a filmmaker can change perspective and play with distorting how the audience perceives their world.
Changing Perspective via Camera Angle, Camera Height, and Lens Choice
The physical position of the camera will affect the look of the shot and how the lens characteristics influence the shot. The angle, height, and distance of the camera from the subject are all important factors as you compose the shot. Knowing how the angle and height of the camera interacts with your lens is useful, but in the end you must remember that even with the right lens, the camera still needs to be properly positioned in the room, set at the right height, and angled appropriately for the scene. Only after you fully understand these elements should you introduce camera movement, and when movement is introduced, you must plan the shot so that the camera angle, height, distance, and lens are conducive to the movement both of the camera and in the frame.
Figure 4-5: Images demonstrating field of view and perspective with (a) 18 mm lens, (b) 50 mm lens, and (c) 200 mm lens
Resist the urge to just set up the camera, look through the viewfinder, and make all adjustments at that height. It is better to determine where and how the camera should be set up than to design the scene around a particular camera placement.
As you plan the shots and block out the scene, note where each actor is physically, and take into account where the action will take place in the scene. After you have these factors in mind, plan the angle and height of the camera to reflect each perspective. This is especially important in suspenseful scenes where a camera height or angle can reveal too much too soon. Changing the angle and height of the camera allows you to tell the story at the pace you choose. If a scene feels like it is unfolding too quickly or too slowly, changing the height or angle to allow the audience to see more or less of the action may be a solution. Even if you shoot the scene with an objective perspective, some camera changes with height and angle will allow you to tell the story and film the details.
Low Camera Height
Low camera height is simply any camera height that is below the eye line of the subject of the shot. It can be so low that the camera is placed at ground level and only the actor’s feet are seen, or it can just be a camera level that is below the eye line. Low camera height can create shots that show the audience an unexpected perspective or provide details that they normally wouldn’t notice.
Low camera height can influence which lens you use in the shot. In general, a low shot will emphasize the foreground with any lens you choose. Often low shots use wide-angle lenses to increase the effect of the foreground emphasis. If you are shooting an actor, the low camera height can have the effect of increasing the size of the lower body and making the upper part of the frame look smaller. The lens choice will affect the look in various ways; a wider lens will exaggerate the size difference, and a longer lens will minimize the difference.
High Camera Height
High camera height occurs when the camera is placed above eye level. This can make the shot feel taller than the actors or make it appear that the audience is looking down on the scene just a little bit or all the way up to a bird’s-eye view. An extreme example of this is an over-the-head shot or an aerial view from a high vantage point. Usually an extremely high camera height can take the viewer out of the immediate action and give a slightly godlike view of the scene. High camera height can also be subtle, such as in a situation where the subject is supposed to look defeated or smaller; a higher camera height emphasizes this feeling. You should use high camera height when the camera is showing the perspective of a character, plane, or security camera, for example, that is supposed to be at a physically high location.
Level or Eye-Level Camera Height
The camera is often placed where the audience perceives the actor’s eye level to be or at the typical eye level of most normal interactions. When the camera height is at eye level and is not tilted, distortion of all types is minimized. At this height (and if the camera is kept level vertically), lines will stay vertical throughout the shot and never converge.
Eye-level height often is not the height of the camera operator but rather should be determined based on the eye level of the actor. For example, if the actor is sitting down, the camera should be placed at the actor’s eye level while seated, not at the camera operator’s level, to achieve a true eye-level view. This is especially important because tilting the camera drastically affects the feel and perspective of the shot, and simply tilting the camera from the camera operator’s height rather than lowering the camera can change the entire feel of the shot.
This height is often used for point-of-view shots. It is crucial that the point of view feel as though it is logically from the eye of the person it is supposed to be portraying. To further enhance the perspective, creative lens users may choose specific lenses, such as using a fish-eye lens with distortion to show that the shot is from a security camera or using a normal-perspective lens to show that it is the perspective of a person viewing the scene.
Tilted Camera Angles at Various Heights
A camera can be tilted from any height. The tilted aspect can give a completely different feel to the shot and, importantly, can also affect how the lens works with the shot perspective. A high-angle shot is any shot where the camera is tilted down toward the actor or down to get the shot. A low-angle shot is any shot where the camera is tilted up toward the actor or upward in the shot. For either of these shots, it does not matter what the camera height is; a shot is considered high angle or low angle based on the degree of tilt, not the camera height.
The degree of tilt can be slight with the camera set at eye-level height and tilted down to mimic an actor looking at a seated subject, or it can be extreme with low angles that start below a subject and tilt all the way to the sky. With all degrees of tilt, it is important that the tilt not be so slight or off-level that the tilt looks accidental or like poor camera setup. The tilt must be uniform and provide a deliberate angle.
When adjusting the angle and height of the camera, using a bubble level will help ensure accuracy.
Objective, Subjective, and Point-of-View Camera Angles
As you plan your shots, figure out whether you want the shot to be from an objective, subjective, or point-of-view perspective. An objective perspective is a shot that shows the view of the audience or an observer to the scene but not from the perspective of anyone in the scene or story. You should devise the shot to feel like it is outside the action but looking in.
A subjective shot is one that shows the perspective of someone interacting within the action or from the point of view of a character in the scene. Here the camera should act as the eyes of the subject from whatever perspective you intend to be showing. This means that angle, height, and perspective are designed to mirror the intended subject’s perspective exactly as though shot from the eyes of the subject.
A point-of-view shot is simply a shot that mimics what the audience would see if they were standing by whatever the character is interacting with in the scene, but it does not exactly mimic what that character sees. Point-of-view shots are almost objective and almost subjective but not either. This sounds confusing but is easy to see in practice. A simple examination of most dialogue scenes likely will demonstrate a point-of-view shot in action. Most of these scenes have shots that switch back and forth from character to character as each actor speaks. The shots are designed to give dynamic interaction but show all characters involved in the action. They do not mimic just one perspective or set of eyes, and also they are not a completely objective, outside-of-the-action perspective.
Shooting with Actors at Different Heights in the Same Scene
Often a scene will have several different heights that are important in the shot. For example, this is common in a dialogue scene where two characters are at different heights within the frame. You can change the camera height to accommodate each character when switching between shots, but you must take more care with switching lenses. When shooting dialogue between two actors, it can be awkward to change focal lengths too drastically. Extreme differences in focal lengths can make the actors appear to not be in the same space.
You can use more extreme differences in focal lengths within a scene when you shoot two actors who are having a dialogue at different heights within the scene. Often you can simply tilt the camera up or down in sequence to indicate the perspective of the actor who is speaking/listening.
When in doubt, if you change lenses, change focal lengths, or tilt the camera, it is often best to keep the camera height the same when you are getting coverage for a scene. This is because a change in both height and lens can make the continuity of shots difficult without careful planning and storyboarding.
Sometimes referred to as canted angles, dutching means the camera is tilted so that the horizon looks tilted or at an angle in the shot. This angle can be used to cause a disjointed image when items within the shot run at counter angles to the camera.
To take the Dutch angle to its extreme, shoot from a low height at a low angle with a wide-angle lens; the entire frame will have a jumbled look, and the entire image will slant. A Dutch angle on items that are not adjustable, such as buildings or interiors of rooms, can provide interesting tilt effects; however, as you shoot, be careful that the tilts will not run counter to each other in edits.
Depth of Field and Focus
When shooting with a full-frame sensor camera, you are able to achieve an extremely shallow depth of field (DOF). This doesn’t mean every shot will have a shallow DOF or that you should have a shallow DOF. However, if you are shooting in low-light situations, it is important to note just how shallow your depth of field will be. If you have a fast lens, say a 1.2 f-stop, you can capture a good image for your scene if there is little to no movement. On the other hand, it can be nearly impossible to keep or pull focus for a shot that has motion or movement when shooting at low f-stops. If you need to use these low f-stops in the shot, it is advisable to plan static shots and not have much motion within the scene. If you are shooting an actor at a distance of 3 feet while at a 1.2 f-stop, you will be trying to focus with a depth of field that is 0.84 inches deep. Without careful planning and practice with your actors, it is likely these shots will produce nothing but unusable footage. If you want movement in the shoot, make sure to plan movement from side to side so the action all takes place in the plane of focus rather than coming closer to the camera so you have to adjust critical focus during the shot.
Regardless of whether you are shooting with a full-frame sensor camera or a crop-sensor camera, you can always use tools to help you cheat the look of a camera you don’t own. You can increase your depth of field on a larger sensor camera by adding more light so you are not shooting near wide open on the camera. Or if you are shooting on a crop-sensor camera and want a shallow depth of field similar to that of a larger-sensor DSLR, you must stop down the camera with ND filters in locations with a lot of light to obtain that shallow depth-of-field goodness in your footage.
Know the Lens’s FLM
Because of the explosion of digital photography and the popularity of smaller camera sensors, manufacturers have begun to develop lenses that are designed for the specific sensor sizes of digital SLRs. In general, a DSLR with a smaller sensor size can use a lens that was designed for a larger sensor size but not vice versa.
Lenses are designed with a minimum focal length multiplier (FLM). A full-frame lens is designed for an FLM of 1 but can be used with smaller sensors. However, a lens with an FLM of 1.6 cannot be used on a full-frame camera.
Interaction of Depth of Field, Focus, and Lens Type
A normal-perspective lens characteristically has an out-of-focus foreground, with the background and middle section of the shot in focus. This type of lens is helpful if you are adding out-of-focus details to be “visual candy” in the foreground but want the subject in the middle of the shot and the background to be in focus.
Wide-angle lenses have deep focus that can include the entire shot or whatever is in the foreground, middle of the shot, and background. If all parts of the shot from near the camera to the background must be in focus, a wide-angle lens is probably the best choice.
Long lenses or telephoto lenses have a narrow area of focus. With a long lens, only part of the shot will be in focus. Often you can choose what part of the shot you want in focus—close to the camera, the middle, or the background—but you can’t pick all three.
Focus on the Eye
When you pull focus or plan the focus points for the scene, make all of your focal measurements exactly to the eye of your actor. As the actor moves, make sure the eyes are in the plane of focus throughout the entire shot. Humans track other human faces effectively, and the audience will immediately notice any problems with focus if the actor’s eyes are not in focus.
Calculating Depth of Field on Set
To calculate depth of field, you need to know three variables:
· Focal length of the lens
· Size of the aperture, in other words, the f-stop
· Distance from the subject to the camera film plane
Figure 4-6: The iPhone depth-of-field application DOFMaster
You can use depth-of-field tables that to determine these calculations. For practical purposes on set, a depth-of-field calculator will be most useful because it can give you calculations for nearly every possible variable. These calculators are easily available in several formats, including for iPhone applications (Figure 4-6).
The depth of field should be expressed as a range showing the closest point of focus to the farthest point of focus available. This area will determine where the movement in the shot can occur and still maintain focus. It is also important to know the range in case the shot requires actors to move into focus or out of focus without camera movement. It is helpful to keep in mind that focus is incremental; it gradually decreases to the point where it is sharp, and it gradually becomes blurred to the point where it is considered out of focus. Usually the sharpest part of focus on an actor should be measured to the eyes.
Depth of field is important to determine focus and not just for technical considerations. It is also important for dramatic purposes because your actors need to know where they can physically play the scene. The depth of field will dictate exactly where an actor can stand on the set, how far they can move forward or backward, and even how far they can turn their head. These issues are exacerbated when shooting at lower f-stops in low light and are complicated when shooting on larger-sensor cameras. If you can’t visually showthe actors where they need to hit their marks, you will not be able to get a scene where your key elements are in focus. This information is critical for camera operators, focus pullers, actors, directors, and extras. Make sure you know the depth of field needed for all your shots; you may need to add light so you can stop down to a higher f-stop and increase the depth of field to get the scene in focus.
Eye Lines of Actors
Where the actor is looking is a critical point for every shot. Often the actor will need to look at something or some other actor, and shots will be cut between an actor looking at someone and the person they’re looking at. The sight line of the actor must match in the cut, or the audience will feel that the actor is looking at the wrong angle or in the wrong direction. Often the actors are looking toward the camera for dialogue or action scenes; they must know where to look to make sure the audience can properly track their eyes.
The first consideration is that an actor’s eyes often convey what the shot is about and must be in focus. For example, if the actor is portraying that he is tense, often his eyes will be scanning all around the scene as though looking for something. Focus on the actor’s eyes and then run through the scene with the eye movement, making sure the eyes stay in focus.
The second consideration is that you must know where actors on set should look to make it appear in the shot that they are looking at the correct height and angle. Often where actors should look is not exactly where they would physically look if the action was viewed with the naked eye in the real world. Experiment with the actors and several shots to make sure they know where they should be looking and that this feels right. This is an area where experimentation will give you the right eye line.
Often there will be an eye-line change in the scene. This can indicate several things but most commonly is used if a second character approaches or if the actor is surprised and looks at the source of the distraction. The camera height should usually but not always stay with the first actor, and often you will pull focus between the first actor and the second actor (or whatever drew the actor’s attention). This focus pull follows the eye-line change of the actor. As with all changes in focus, it must be done at the correct time, and the change in focus introduces the new actor into the scene.
Looking Directly into the Camera
In general, actors do not look directly into the camera, because this can break the feeling that the audience is watching a self-contained story; it can make the audience part of the action, not just in the role of a character but as the audience. When an actor looks directly into the camera, it should be for one of the following reasons:
· The actor is directly communicating with the audience; the character is outside of the story and involved in a bit of meta-theater.
· Subjective camera technique is being used, and the character in the frame is speaking directly to the character whose perspective is being shown by the lens.
· It’s a newscast, interview, or documentary-style shot where it is acceptable that the shot be directed to the audience.
If you are using a reflective surface, watch for any apparent changes in eye line that need to be corrected. Occasionally the actor’s reflected eye line will look “off” from the actual or “cheated” eye line and will need to be adjusted so that the actor’s eyes remain in focus.
Using reflections is a common film technique that you can use to reveal action in an interesting way or to create tension by revealing choice parts of the image. If you are using a mirror or other reflective surface, your lens choice will be dictated by how you are using the surface; often the reflective surface is used to show one actor and then reveal a piece of action taking place behind the actor. The lens must be able to accommodate both planes and still keep focus and accurate spacing. For example, if you use a wide-angle lens, the action behind the actor can appear to be distant, and if you use a long lens, the background may be blurred.
Perceived Distance and Compression
As we said earlier when describing normal and forced perspective, lenses allow the moviemaker to play with distance and depth perspective. Sometimes a lens will compress or widen the perceived distance between objects in an image. Objects in the back of the image and objects in the front can appear to be on similar planes. This illusion is the result of lens choice and object or subject placement in the field in relation to the other objects/subjects and to the camera distance from the objects/subjects. The placement of the camera is a key factor to achieve compression; if the desired compression is not happening, you may have to move the camera back. Compression of distance will happen with longer lenses when the camera is at a distance and can be done for dramatic or visual interest (Figure 4-7a). If you use a wide-angle lens instead, the opposite effect can happen, and the distance between subjects and background will be perceived to be widened (Figure 4-7b).
Figure 4-7: (a) An image shot with a 200 mm lens at a distance; (b) the same shot with a wide-angle lens
There are several ways to use a telephoto or long lens on set that highlight the characteristics of the long lens.
Often when doing a stunt, long lenses are useful for their compression characteristics. These lenses are key to providing the illusion of contact in fighting because the distances are foreshortened; it will look as though actors are actually hitting each other when they are not. The compression will occur for all types of framing, so there is freedom for shots that are framed wide compared to closer-framed shots.
You can also use long lenses to provide a sense of increased speed or motion of any action in the shot. When an object or person is moving within a scene that is being shot with a long lens, that motion can appear to be much faster than it actually is. For example, a long lens will compress the background of the scene and it will appear to be close to the object (such as a car) or a running actor. If you pan with the action of the object or actor, then the background will whip through the frame and help make it appear things are moving faster than they are.
You can use long (or telephoto) lenses to direct the attention of the audience by using focus characteristics unique to long lenses. By putting the background out of focus and using a long lens, you will direct the attention of the audience to the part of the frame that is in focus. Using a long lens allows a small amount of the image to be in focus and the rest of the frame to drop away, focusing the audience’s attention exactly on what you want them to be watching. The human eye naturally seeks out areas of focus or brightness.
Often long lenses are used for close-up shots of actors because they have the ability to keep the actor in focus and provide out-of-focus backgrounds that keep the actor as the visual hub of the shot. Long lenses are often used for shots where you are a distance from the subject or the item that you are trying to keep the focus on, but long lenses are useful even in relatively small areas. You can use a long lens for an actor or object of importance that fills the screen. For example, many shots taken of people riding in the backseat of a car use a long lens on a camera that is positioned in the front seat of the car. Using a long lens in this confined space keeps an actor’s face in focus while visually separating the actor from the rest of the car.
If you want to shoot with a long lens or an extremely long lens to compress the distance between your actors, or between the actors and the background, be aware that you need to back your camera away from the actors. By moving the camera away from your actors, you will be able to keep the foreground and background in the frame.
Wide-angle lenses can be used in a variety of shots that highlight their specific characteristics. Wide-angle lenses can be used to open up the feel of tight or confined spaces. Small or really tight spaces can look bigger when shot with a wide-angle lens because they show more of the location in the frame.
This ability to show a large physical location in the frame is useful for establishing shots or to give perspective. Wide-angle lenses are often used for shots that set the stage or show the realm in which the actors are going to interact. Their ability to show a large part of a physical location and to provide focus on multiple planes allows them to show a lot of action.
Wide-angle lenses can also influence how motion within the frame is perceived. One effect a wide-angle lens can have is making objects physically closer to the camera lens appear larger, thereby influencing how movement within the frame feels. Movement toward the camera will feel faster or exaggerated. The effects of the wide-angle lens will make the movement feel quicker and more intense, especially when the subject is close to the camera and moves toward it. However, most of the time, forward motion must be exaggerated while shooting in order to show up as forward motion on the camera. For example, if the actor is going to lunge at a camera using a wide-angle lens, it may be necessary for the actor to exaggerate the motion and lunge much farther than feels comfortable for the action to show up on camera with the proper feeling of movement. This rule also works in reverse if the actor or movement is going directly backward from the camera.
Sometimes you may want to distort the actor or an object in your scene so that it appears much larger than the background. In this case, you need to move your camera closer to the actor or object.
Blur and Distortion
Bokeh comes from the Japanese word for “blur.” It is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus areas of the frame. If the frame has parts that are out of focus, then how the blur looks will be important to the overall look of your piece.
As light from areas that are not in the depth of field hits the sensor, it forms a circle. The exact shape that the light forms will depend partly on the shape of the iris in the lens itself, but ideally the light should be uniform and circular. These circular images show up in the out-of-focus areas. The shape and design of the lens, particularly with the aperture and the f-stop, impact the look of the bokeh. In general, bokeh that is smooth and enhances the circular effect is desired (Figure 4-8).
Figure 4-8: From a scene in the movie The Shamus: notice the bokeh of the lights in the background.
While on set, pay attention to what parts of the image are out of focus and what colors, lights, or patterns will be affecting the bokeh of your shot. The out-of-focus area of the shot is as important as the in-focus area. The effect of the bokeh is most evident when the out-of-focus areas involve light sources, and adding light to out-of-focus areas can change the visual effect of your bokeh by making it more or less noticeable. If you have lenses that provide beautiful bokeh, it may be worth adding some low-light sources to your background and adding some color that fits your color story to highlight the aesthetics of your out-of-focus areas.
Remember that out-of-focus areas in a frame are a technique, not the point of the shot. No matter how beautiful the out-of-focus areas might be, they are there to serve the action, not be the point of the shot. Many shots in your piece will likely not have noticeable bokeh because deep depth-of-field shots often do not have bokeh that is particularly noticeable. This is also a nice thing to note if you are using lenses that provide less than ideal bokeh; simply design shots with a deep depth of field whenever possible.
The bokeh of a lens can be created or changed into distinct shapes, words, letters, or patterns with an add-on item to the lens. This technique involves creating a matte or glass filter with the desired shape cut out or imprinted in front of the lens. The bokeh then takes on the cutout shape while filming. You can also achieve this effect with a LensBaby lens (www.lensbaby.com).
Types of Distortion
Lens distortion is present in every lens. You need to know what distortion is present in the lens you are using and how to either eliminate the effect in the shot or use it to your advantage. Some lenses produce little distortion, with the most obvious being cinema lenses. Cinema lenses were designed to be used for filming motion, whereas still lenses were designed for taking still images. Some still lenses reduce or eliminate distortion, but you will have to do some research to find which ones work best. A rough guideline is the more expensive the lens, the less distortion there will be.
If you are using lenses that are typically used as still lenses, distortion will be more likely, and what was once a slight aberration in a single frame can be intensified throughout the entire shot. This most commonly occurs in wide-angle lenses and has little to no effect on standard or long lenses.
Wide-angle lenses are useful because they allow a wider field of view; however, they are prone to distortion, which becomes even more distracting with movement. With a wide-angle lens, the subject can appear large, and foreground details are emphasized. The wide-angle perspective may also exaggerate the relative size of the subject in shots. This may work fine on a static shot, but if the camera is panned, the distortion will be exaggerated, and the overall effect could be disconcerting to say the least.
Wide-angle lenses are prone to perspective distortion. If the camera sensor plane is not parallel to the subject plane perspective, distortion could occur. Perspective distortion exaggerates the scale of the subject so that the foreground and the part of the subject in the foreground appear extremely large in comparison to the rest of the frame. As the focal length changes, the subject appears to rapidly decrease in size or curve in a way that does not correspond to the normal view of the subject. Please note that the lens affects not only the distortion in your image but also the placement of your camera. Choosing to place the camera above your subject or below it will have an impact on the distortion or lack thereof in your final image.
Another kind of distortion typical of wide-angle lenses is barrel distortion. Once again, this distortion will be more pronounced as action plays out in the scene or if the camera moves. Barrel distortion is evidenced when lines at the top and sides of the frame bend outward roughly in a barrel shape. If barrel distortion is present, use the lens for a static shot, and keep straight lines away from the edges of the frame. Obviously, if you are looking for a particular effect that is created by the distortion, then it pays to experiment and find a lens that emphasizes the exaggerated effect. Employing a fish-eye or semi-fish-eye lens is a great example of using extreme barrel distortion for an effect.
Pincushion distortion shows up when the center of the image looks pinched inward or when lines at the top and sides of the image are curved inward. This can be a lovely effect, or it can make the audience dizzy as the scene progresses. This kind of distortion is most common with super-wide-angle lenses and some telephoto zooms, usually on the extreme end of the zoom. If you use a converter, the distortion will be amplified.
It is possible to have multiple types of distortion in a single image. Wave distortion is a combination of barrel distortion and pincushion distortion and occurs most frequently with zoom lenses and wide-angle lenses. Outward-bowed parallel lines near the center and lines that are squeezed inward toward the edge of the image define wave distortion.
Chromatic aberration, or fringing, occurs when the colors (different wavelengths of light) are not focused on the same area or when the colors are focused at different lengths or are on different focal planes. Usually these distortions are most common in telephoto lenses or lenses with large apertures (Figure 4-9).
Figure 4-9: Purple fringing is a form of chromatic aberration.
Lens Flare: How to Get It or Avoid It
Lens flare occurs when stray light enters the lens and, instead of progressing in a standard path and hitting the sensor, bounces back and forth, reflecting internally in the lens. Usually this light is outside the picture area and is particularly apt to occur when the light source is intense. The result of lens flare can be streaking; odd light shapes can wash out the contrast of the entire image. Filters can also either reduce lens flare or give the stray light another surface to bounce off and increase the flare. Lens flare is highly likely when a bright light source is to be included in the image.
Lenses are usually manufactured with antireflective coatings to reduce flare. You should give special consideration to wide-angle or zoom lenses, which are more likely to have flare problems. With wide-angle lenses, there’s a greater likelihood of the sun or a bright light source being near the angle of view. With zoom lenses, you increase the potential for light to bounce around, so these lenses are particularly prone to flare. You can also reduce flare by physically blocking the light with a lens hood or flags, changing composition, or moving lights when possible.
If you want flare in the image, do the reverse: use a flare-prone lens, have a giant light source near the light that is producing the image, or use post techniques (Figure 4-10). If you want lens flare, also be aware that the size of the lens iris will change the look of the flare, so if you change the aperture, the look of the flare may also change.
Figure 4-10: Lens flare from the sun captured in camera
An image that is sharp (or has definition) has crisp detail, clearly defined lines (especially on edges), and easily delineated contrast. An image is usually perceived as sharp when the transition between edges has strong contrast. The more gradual the tone transition, the less sharp the overall image will be perceived. Sharpness is a result of many decisions that encompass the entire DSLR workflow; decisions with resolution in the DSLR world include the ISO, the resolution, the lens and lens settings, the contrast and sharpness of in-camera settings, how the image is projected or viewed, and post-processing.
The characteristics of sharpness that concern filmmakers relate to making sure that the final image is able to be shown in such a way that the viewer’s expectations for image clarity and sharpness are met. An image can be in focus but not sharp enough. Though an image can never be too in focus, it can be too sharp.
The resolution in a digital camera is confined to the digital sensor. The more resolution that is available, the higher the level of fine detail that can potentially be captured. A high detail level means that a high level of sharpness can be achieved. Resolution in this context is a measure of the camera’s prowess at differentiating between details in close proximity and is roughly measured by the frame size, pixel type/number, and pixel organization. The type of digital sensor that is in your camera fixes the resolution limit. Although that sounds intimidating, the good news is that if you are shooting on a DSLR camera, it is almost impossible not to have the necessary resolution to produce a sharp image.
To have a sharp image, a certain level of noise or grain is tolerated. However, at some point there will be too much for the viewer, and the image will no longer be considered sharp enough. The ISO choice may influence how sharp your final image appears simply because the level of noise and type of noise can influence how the image is perceived. High ISO settings can result in an image that looks less sharp simply because of the increased noise. Oddly, if an image has too little fine detail noise, it may be perceived as less sharp than an image with a higher level of fine detail noise.
One of the factors for the overall sharpness of your final image is the sharpness of the lens used. Defining lens sharpness involves all of the same factors as defining image sharpness. Lens resolution is about how much detail a lens can capture; can the lens capture the detail in the image? All light that goes through a lens is degraded or blurred even if just infinitesimally, and a lens that has a high resolution will have a better ability to distinguish details. The sharpness of your lens will even affect how the color of your image is viewed; a less sharp lens will not be able to show the minute color detail, and the entire image will lose some of the color range.
Lens sharpness is also a product of contrast; can the lens transmit the difference in tone in the detail of the image? Contrast is usually used as a way to talk about the overall image, but contrast when used in terms of lenses is a bit different. Microcontrast means how well the lens differentiates between small details of similar tones that are next to each other. A lens with good microcontrast would show fine details with high contrast, or a good differentiation between the lightest and darkest parts even within the same tones or hues. For instance, a lens with good microcontrast can show detail within the shadows, not just the difference between black shadow and white light.
In general, many of the lenses available are capable of producing a sharp image; however, even with a capable lens, several factors can enhance sharpness. Some general lens rules are that the better prime lenses will beat zoom lenses at their focal length and that filters can degrade sharpness; if you use a filter, make sure it has high-quality glass.
Microcontrast and Macrocontrast
Microcontrast is concerned with contrast in details or between closely related hues. Macrocontrast is contrast over large areas, in other words, the overall difference between the darkest parts of the image and the brightest parts of the image.
A lens can also influence how clear or blurred the edges are perceived or recorded onto the image. Edge clarity, or acutance, is the third area of sharpness that a lens can influence.
Aperture and Sharpness
Every lens aperture has a sweet spot for sharpness. The general rule is that the lens will produce the sharpest image about two sizes smaller than the maximum aperture of the lens. Diffraction occurs when light passes through a small iris, and this scattering of light makes the image less sharp. Aberrations tend to be the worst at large apertures, and these distortions diminish the sharpness of the lens. These two issues in combination mean that often it is wisest to shoot at the middle available apertures of the lens. Occasionally, in order to avoid the smallest apertures, a neutral-density filter may be helpful. However, it is also true that if you are going to buy a lens that is designed to be fast, the lens will likely be sharp at the maximum aperture simply because the manufacturer has probably designed it with that in mind. In general, test the lenses if you have a specific aperture or depth of field necessary for the shot and you worry about not having a sharp enough image. Often, the overall impression of sharpness is about having contrast in the image between parts that are sharper and parts that are softer.
Other Factors for Sharpness
When dealing with sharpness, it is important to keep in mind what the final image format is going to be and how the resolution needs change depending upon your final format. The sharpness needed to project your movie on a theater screen is different from the sharpness needed for it to be viewed on the Web. The camera likely will have in-camera settings that affect the sharpness of the image obtained, and the settings may need to be altered depending on the shot or the effect. Many post-production aspects can increase some aspects of sharpness, but occasionally if an image is too sharp, post-production possibilities are hampered. For example, post-production can usually increase acutance, but if the image is too sharp, it can be difficult or impossible to appropriately soften it.
Image Stabilization and Vibration Reduction
Figure 4-11: IS switch on a Canon lens
Lenses with image stabilization (IS) technology do have the ability to make movement smoother, and in the event that a handheld camera is the only option, they will be helpful. In general, however, any lens with image stabilization will be less effective than a monopod. Lenses with image stabilization technology also have noise issues that can interfere with your audio because the image stabilization technology uses gyroscopes and motors inside the lens (Figure 4-11). These moving powered pieces also will be a drain on your battery. Additionally, the IS feature is trying to stabilize a still image so if you want a little movement in your video, the IS will actually fight what you are trying to achieve.
The Jell-O effect is a problem with most DSLR cameras. If you are shooting a panning shot from a tripod, using an IS lens rather than a non-IS lens will produce less of this effect in your shot.
Sony cameras have stabilization built into their camera body rather than in the lens like Canon and Nikon cameras.
Figure 4-12: Autofocus/manual focus switch on a Nikon lens
Focus is one of the most frequently discussed issues on a set with a DSLR. An image is in focus when it is sharp and clear. Factors such as monitor clarity, light changes, and operator ability will help or hinder your ability to achieve accurate focus.
Focus without Autofocus
The general rule is that autofocus is not an option (Figure 4-12). This is a good thing. The shot’s focus is the most important part of any shot, and having complete manual control is paramount. Once you decide what the focus should be on and physically set all of the variables, the focus will not change without your control. Often, for a static shot, you will determine where the focus should be; ensure that your subject is within the focal plane, and the scene will roll flawlessly. However, when there is movement or when the shot has a change of focus, it will be necessary to pull focus to keep key elements in focus.
Focusing When Using a Mirror or a Reflection
Focusing on a mirror image can be incredibly tricky because of the light reflection and relative distance created by the mirrored image. If you have any shots that involve focusing on a mirrored image, recheck your focus. Focusing on a reflective surface that has slight movement or is not as reflective as a mirror can be even trickier. In these cases, using autofocus is not advisable; you must use manual focus in order to make sure you are getting the proper area of the reflected image perfectly in focus.
If there is a scene with two actors who are at different distances from the camera, you may want to have both of them in focus. In this case, you will have to split the focus between the two actors. This can be tricky because sharp focus usually depends on exact distances, and the actors may be on the ends of the depth of field.
In many cases, it will be better from a focal perspective to simply shift the focus between the actors throughout the scene or just keep the focus on the actor you would like the focus to be on throughout the entire scene.
Pulling Focus and Follow Focus
Follow focus means forcing the lens to change its focus plane to follow either an object or a person as they move through the shot. The most common shot is when an actor is walking directly toward the camera. As the actor walks toward the camera, they would walk out of the focus plane unless the camera operator (or focus puller) somehow forces the lens to change the focal plane so that the actor remains in focus during the entire shot.
The necessity for follow focus is compounded when shooting in low light or with a camera with a larger sensor. Both will cause the depth of field to be narrow, which means there is less room for error in getting proper focus; it also means you need to change the focus much faster because the depth-of-field plane needs to travel a greater distance than a wider field of view would.
Often the focus will need to change as either the action moves or the emphasis varies. The basic way to do this is to physically change the lens to the proper focus at the appropriate time; this can be a matter of speed, smoothness, and exactness. Often one person will be in charge of changing, in other words, pulling, focus. There can be several focus changes during a continuous shot, and every change must be exactly on for the shot to work technically. It will be necessary for the actors to hit their marks or the action to take place in the position that is planned when the shot is designed; the focus mark’s accuracy on the lens or follow-focus unit depends on the exact position of the part of the shot that must be in focus. Rudimentary marks can be made on the lens for the focus puller to know in what position to move the lens.
For some situations, you can use a follow-focus unit. Lenses can be tricky to adjust perfectly. A follow-focus unit is a geared ring that attaches to the lens and has a system that allows you to note the focus marks so that the focus can be pulled more smoothly, with a decrease in operator mishaps.
For other situations, you can use a remote follow-focus unit. These systems allow the focus to be adjusted by an operator who is some distance away from the camera. The focus marks are set, and the operator adjusts the wheel at the appropriate moment, so the lens adjusts focus.
Methods of Pulling Focus
Several solutions are available for helping you pull focus while you are shooting. You can use a cheap and easy solution if you’re on a budget or buy/rent a complete follow-focus system.
Figure 4-13: Lens with tape and focus marks on it
“Poor Man’s Focus Ring”
If you are on a budget or just don’t like to add tons of additional gear, then making your own “poor man’s focus ring” is a great solution (Figure 4-13). Just place a piece of masking tape or some other lightweight tape around the barrel of the lens.
You now have a focus ring where you can note your focus marks right on the lens. This isn’t a perfect solution, but if you have the time for a few extra takes or don’t want to stand out as a filmmaker in a public area, this is a great technique.
In general, use this method only if it is your only option. Because still lenses are designed for autofocus and for the camera to change focus quickly, there is little distance between focus marks. So, changing focus on the lens by hand means you might have to move the lens a few centimeters to your new focus mark. This is hard to achieve with reliability. If you need to use this technique, then adding more lighting to your scene so you can shoot with a higher f-stop is highly recommended.
Gearing Your Lens on Location
The next step up from taping your lens is to use a lens gear adapter and a follow-focus unit. A lens gear adapter is a round ring that you slide over your lens and fasten to create a geared ring to interact with a follow-focus unit (Figure 4-14).
Figure 4-14: Redrock microFollowFocus gears
Lens gears come in various sizes, so you should measure the circumference of your lens and order the correct size so it fits tightly around the lens. Once you attach the lens gear to your lens, you can hook up a follow-focus system to fit into the lens gear (Figure 4-15). Now you can use the lens more like a professional film camera with a follow-focus attachment.
Figure 4-15: Bartech wireless follow-focus unit being used on the set of Incident on Marmont Avenue
This is a better option than taping your lens, but there are still some limitations. Try to get focus rings that are fat in size, because the fatter the ring, the more distance between your focus marks. This means you are adding more distance between one focus mark and the next. This greatly helps your focus puller hit the marks and have a fluid and smooth motion. Another benefit is that the gears work on still lenses that have no hard stops.
The barrel size of your lenses will vary in diameter, but adapter rings come in a variety of sizes to allow you to attach to different lenses. Some fit better than others, but there is a tendency for the rings to slip a little from time to time. Even a little slip will cause you to have to reset and remark your focus ring. This is also a problem because of the lack of hard stops. If you overshoot your focus, you may have to reset your focus marks because the exact position of the lens’s focus can change on non-hard-stop lenses. If you have time, it is easy to work with these limitations, but if you are really short on time and need a more reliable solution, this is not the best choice.
If you are sure you will be shooting a lot with your lenses for motion work, then you might want to get your prime lenses permanently geared. Instead of using aftermarket lens gear, you can send your prime lenses to a place like Duclos Lenses in Los Angeles and have them permanently attach a gear ring (Figure 4-16). The benefit of doing this is that there is no chance that the lens gear can loosen or slip while recording. Also, there’s one less piece of equipment that you have to take on and off, which can greatly increase the speed of lens changes on set.
Figure 4-16: A permanent gear that is attached to a lens cannot be removed.
Without a doubt, permanent gearing is the best option for accuracy and ease of use. Having a gear physically attached to a lens means that there is no slipping of the gear and that you get repetitive and consistent focus marks. However, this cannot be done to still lenses that do not have hard stops. If you have still lenses without hard stops, then the adapter gears are your best choice.
De-clicking a Lens
Figure 4-17: Zeiss ZF lens
Another result of the DSLR revolution is the influx of manual still lenses being used for motion-picture projects. While the existing manual lenses being used are excellent examples of optical design, they are far from suitable when it comes to mechanics. This is not a comprehensive look at all the flaws when shooting a motion picture with a plastic autofocus lens. We’ll concentrate on one of the quickest and easiest ways to make your still lenses perform more like cine lenses.
There are a few good candidates for shooting motion on a DSLR. Zeiss ZF lenses (Figure 4-17) are a great choice because they are high-quality lenses, they have hard stops, and the iris control is on the lens and not controlled by the camera.
A few other candidates are older Nikon AI-S lenses (Figure 4-18), Leica R lenses (Figure 4-19), and the older, rarer Zeiss/Contax primes (Figure 4-20). All are intended for still photography yet are easily adaptable for motion picture.
Figure 4-18: Nikon AI-S lens
Figure 4-19: Leica R lens
Figure 4-20: Contax lenses
All of these lenses have a common feature: a manual aperture ring that clicks into place at varying intervals. Some click at every third stop, and some click at every half stop. Regardless of the interval, it is an annoying feature that doesn’t help motion-picture shooters at all. This feature is in place for a couple of reasons, mostly to allow the user to feel the clicks and know how many stops are being adjusted without having to look at the scale (assuming you know where you started). Also, some manual aperture lenses are spring-loaded to keep the blades tight and reduce any play in the actual aperture opening. The clicks keep the spring from pulling the aperture closed or open.
Removing the “clicks” leaves a single, fluid movement that allows seamless aperture adjustments. The procedure is different from lens to lens but always requires disassembling the lens to get to the mechanism that provides the clicks. Figure 4-21, Figure 4-22, andFigure 4-23 show how it is done on one particular set of lenses.
Figure 4-21: Removing the mount to access the aperture control ring (courtesy of Duclos Lenses)
Figure 4-22: Removing the aperture control ring to access the click mechanism (courtesy of Duclos Lenses)
Figure 4-23: Dampening the aperture ring for smooth, viscous movement (courtesy of Duclos Lenses)
You are probably asking why this is important. If you need to change your aperture while you are shooting, a de-clicked lens will allow a gradual seamless transition from one aperture to the next. A non-de-clicked lens will jump from stop to stop, giving you an unpleasant and noticeable jump between stops.
So, is the de-clicking procedure a necessity? No. But it makes DSLR footage that much closer to a professional motion picture, a goal all DSLR shooters should be aiming for.
Figure 4-24: Zoom drive
In general, zooming has fallen out of style as a regular cinematic technique. Go watch 1970s movies and TV shows to see brilliant uses of zooming and composition in filmmaking. Today you are more likely to see a quick zoom in (or out), and this technique is more popular in television than feature films. Zooming is also an effective tool in documentary-style projects.
If the shot simply must have a zoom, it may be worth renting a fluid zoom drive (Figure 4-24). This will ensure that the shot stays smooth and that the zoom looks artistic as opposed to accidental.
See Chapter 6, “Lighting on Location,” for more on using zoom lenses for a visual effect.
Variable-Focal-Length Zoom Lens
If you don’t have a fixed-focal-length zoom lens, you must be aware that your exposure will change during your zoom. If you have to do a zoom shot and only have access to a variable-focal-length lens, then you need to work out how to manually adjust your exposure as well as execute the zoom.