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Video Shooter Second Edition Storytelling With HD Cameras

Video Shooter Second Edition Storytelling With HD Cameras

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Published by Luis Bond

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Published by: Luis Bond on Jul 20, 2012
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08/15/2013

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In most cases there is little to
gain from increased gain. Camera
gain controls the sensitivity of the
imager in analog terms by regulat-
ing the level of signal amplifica-
tion. In most cameras, gain may
be raised or lowered by selecting
a low, medium, or high setting at
the side of the camera body. When
gain is raised, the camera’s sensi-
tivity and ability to capture detail
is also raised but unfortunately
along with the noise. Then, when
compressing for the Web, DVD, or
Blu-ray, the increased noise can
contribute to a maelstrom of ugly
picture defects, as the encoder is
unable to separate unintended
noise from intended image detail.

When shooting in low light, increased camera gain should be the last resort,
not the first, to achieve an acceptable range of gray tones. Many cameras
offer increased gain up to 18 dB or even higher (Fig. 6.28), the copious
noise at this level making such scenes suitable only for down-and-dirty news
or surveillance applications.

Each 6 dB increase in gain, nets one-stop advantage in exposure. In
broadcast cameras, digital super gain provides greatly improved function-
ality with less noise, the camera boosting the signal in the digital domain
where the noise can be more effectively isolated from the picture information.
Digital gain can produce markedly more usable images than the traditional
analog method of amplifying the entire signal, desired or not, emanating
from the imager.

Some shooters prefer working with negative gain, which deepens the blacks and
helps obscure the noise in weak shadows. Many recent camcorders including
the Sony XDCAM EX feature a 3-dB setting, which decreases the camera’s sen-
sitivity a fraction of a stop along with the noise. The trade-off may not always
be viable.

Rather than resort to increased gain, my approach to shooting in low light often
entails undercranking the camera, that is, recording at a slower frame rate. 5

This

5

Shooting at less than normal playback speed (24, 30, or 60 fps) produces accelerated motion on screen;
capturing a scene at higher than normal playback speed, i.e., overcranking produces a slow motion effect.

FIGURE 6.26

Undercranking can create amazing images in very low light. In Terrence
Malick’s
Days of Heaven (1978), the actors slowed their performances to
compensate for the 6-fps camera intended for 24 fps film playback.

FIGURE 6.27

In many models, gain
values ranging from
3 dB to 18 dB can
be assigned to the
L/M/H toggle at the
side of the camera.
Not all cameras
feature a negative gain
option.

Video Shooter: Storytelling with HD Cameras

138

strategy obviously doesn’t apply in dialog scenes or when shooting with a tape
or disc-based camera that records in any case “over 60 fps,” but it does work well
with the new solid-state camcorders. Undercranking at 12 fps and recording
in native mode proportionately slows the scan rate of the imager and effectively
doubles the camera’s low-light response when compared with operating at the
normal 24 fps.

I’m often amazed by the degree of cheating we shooters can get away with!
The great cinematographer Néstor Almendros shooting late after dusk would
slow down his actors in combination with a slow cranking camera to gain the
additional exposure. The technique used in the famous locust scene in Days of
Heaven (Fig. 6.26) significantly extended the storytelling window, effectively and
remarkably, well into the Magic Hour.

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