Aliens Might Think The Earth Is Perpetually Dark!

If you were an alien on another planet and had access to nothing but all the latest camera demo or “film-maker” reels on YouTube or Vimeo you would quite possibly believe that much of planet Earth is in perpetual darkness.

All you see is clips shot at night or in blacked out studios. Often with very little dynamic range, often incredibly (excessively?) dark. I keep having to check that the brightness on my monitor is set correctly. Even daytime interiors always seem to be in rooms that are 90% dark with just a tiny, low contrast pool of daylight from a window filling one corner and even the light coming through the window is dim and dull. 

I recently viewed a clip that was supposed to show the benefits of raw that contained nothing but low dynamic range shots where 70% of each frame was nothing but black. Sadly there were no deep shadow details, just blackness, some very dark faces and where there were highlights they were clipped. It was impossible to tell anything about the format being used.

The default showreel or demo shot is now a very dark space with a 3/4 profile person, very dimly lit, low key, by a large soft source. Throw in a shiny car with some specular highlights or a few dim practical lights into the background for extra brownie points. 

Let me let you in to a little secret – it’s really, really easy to make black frames. Want a little pool of light – add a light to your mostly black frame. It’s really easy to shoot under exposed and then as a result not have any issues with dynamic range. It’s really easy to shoot a face so that it’s so dark you can barely see the persons eyes and then not have a problem with shiny skin.

But try shooting someone at a desk in a bright office and make that look really great. Try shooting a proper daytime living room scene and making that look flawless. A summer picnic on a beach with brilliant blue sky perhaps. These are all challenging to do very well for both the DoP and the camera.

We have these wonderful cameras with huge dynamic ranges that work really well in daylight too. But we seem to be losing the ability to shoot anything other than shots that have very low average brightness levels and low dynamic range. They depend on often coloured or tinted lighting to provide some interest in what would otherwise be a very, very boring images. Where are all the challenging shots in difficult lighting? Where are the bright, vibrant shots where we can see the dynamic range, resolution and natural colour palettes that separate a good camera from a great camera? 

Dark is getting very boring. 

6 thoughts on “Aliens Might Think The Earth Is Perpetually Dark!”

  1. omg. no kidding. I’ve been saying the same thing for the past couple years – what ever happened to using midtones and highlights in your frames? nope, we are all super cool DPs and we shoot only mooooooody stuff. you can tell its mooooody, because we only use the deepest darkest 25% of our pixels. while it can be dramatic and necessary, doing it all the time is super boring. oh, wait, there’s a shallow focus hand brushing the top of tall grass in slow motion…

    1. Indeed the internet will be flooded by 120fps clips of hands in grass, walking through grass, skaters, dogs and cats.

      Yes, sometimes this stuff does look cool, but you can’t tell stories when you can’t see what’s going on or entirely in slow motion (unless it’s a zombie movie).

  2. Today I watched a video on a similar topic and someone in the comment section said this: “Scenes should be dark, /screens/ should be bright. If I’m exposing something above 50%, it’s typically going to be practicals, skies, fire light, punchy rim light, etc… nothing belongs up there unless it has a reason to appear bright. Obviously the lighting needs to work alongside composition and movement to create depth, but I also think a strong difference in levels between a lamp and persons face triggers something in your brain that says “That’s how I actually see in the real world!”. It sucks you right into the world that image is trying to show you by saying “hey, this is real”. You just don’t get that with amateur video where most of the image sits at or above 60%… why would a person’s face be anywhere near as bright as a genuine source of light? ” This is a quite terrific theory. It’s cool that the technical progress is moving so quickly and we’re able to achieve more DR than ever before but at the end of the day the feel of an image is one the most important, maybe THE most important aspect. But as always it always depends on the type of video you’re shooting.

    1. If you are talking of standard gammas like 709 etc there are a heck of a lot of things that really, really do belong above 50%. Middle grey will be 45%, skin tones are always around between 1 and 2 stops above that, a piece of paper really should be at 90%. Those relationships cannot ever be changed because they are based on real world reflectivity ratios which never ever change, no matter what the lighting, whether at night or during the day the ratios and brightness relationships don’t change, they are always the same because the relative reflectivity of objects rarely changes. If you are only ever putting skies, fire and practicals above 50% then you are hideously under exposed.

      Human vision works on these very same ratios and whether you are outside on a sunny day or inside in lower light you will always perceive the same difference in brightness between black/middle grey/face/white etc as your eyes adapt to the available light and your iris opens/closes etc just as we do when we adjust the aperture on a camera.

      If you use a light meter to measure exposure the incident readings are based on the average brightness. That average happens to relate very closely to middle grey (18% reflectivity, 45% in 709). That should be telling you that almost half of a typical scene is brighter than 50% and the other half darker.

      Perceptually a face lit by a candle will sit half way between white and middle grey just as the face of a person outside on a sunny day will because the reflectivity of objects doesn’t change with light level.

      Now you can cheat this by splitting the lighting so foreground and back ground are lit differently, so now your scene contains more than one set of contrast ranges, but this is not then representative of the real world. This is really easy to do, but it rarely looks real. Almost always the lower lit elements look un-naturally dark. Now that might be intentional and it might be a creative look you are after, but it won’t look real.

      A lot of amateurs fall into the trap of believing that faces at night are perceived at a lower level than during the day and shoot darker as a result. This isn’t the case, that’s not how human vision works and it’s not how video systems work either.

  3. There are way to many people who think they know what they are doing. It’s not Sony fault that we all own camera’s, but it is our own perception of reality of what film is like.
    Not all films are dark and or gloomy. The laziness of not lighting a scene is what we see are part of the issue. The other is those that think a dark scene is film.

  4. I could not agree more. In such a creative industry I’m always stunned by the amount of groupthink and mindless imitation. Every story is unique and should be treated that way. Thh he Amos for your commentary.

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