This post was inspired by a discussion on another forum. One of the things that tends to differentiate the movie look from a typical video look is exposure range. When you watch a typical TV soap, documentary or news programme the pictures are normally bright and vivid. Most TV is watched in rooms with daylight coming through windows or artificial lighting giving at least moderate ambient lighting, so when you sit down to watch a documentary you don’t want too dark an image. In addition a lot of television “action” takes place in daylight. As a result most television programming is exposed to give a bright image.
A feature film on the other hand is often watched in a dark cinema or at home in the evening where light levels may be lower. As a result you can use lower brightness images with fewer issues. In fact it does seem to me sometimes that the term “Blockbuster” means a movie where the story will take place almost entirely in the dark. What’s interesting is to look at faces and skin tones. We know how bright faces normally appear to us in real life so they make a good exposure reference. In television it’s quite normal to expose faces somewhere in the region of 60-70%. Many video camera operators will use zebras set to 60-70% to expose faces. If you look at a typical movie though you will find that faces are generally exposed a little lower.
Looking at the image above you can see that for the day time shots faces are falling between 45 and 60%. Now before you all rush out and shoot everything a stop or two lower than perhaps you would normally, you need to put this in to some context. Movies have big lighting budgets and they get extensively graded so they will generally have tight control over the contrast ratios of the entire shot, a luxury you may not have when shooting for news and docs. You probably don’t want faces at 55% if the rest of the scene has lots of much brighter areas. But what it does show is that you don’t always have to follow the video convention of skin tones at 60-70% and this might help in a difficult lighting situation where dropping skin tones a little may help with highlights. If you are looking for that movie look a lower overall exposure may help you achieve it. As always with conventional video it is highlights that that give the biggest problems as if you clip them they are gone forever and no amount of grading can get them back. On the other hand a little bit of under exposure can normally be recovered without too much of a problem. For night scenes and low key scene exposures may be a little lower still, but not by that much, you don’t normally want faces getting so dark that you can’t see them.