The hardest thing for me to let go of in making the leap from still photography to cinematography has been the shutter speed. Losing the ability to dial that in is like losing a limb. On the one hand, you have aperture size. On the other, you have shutter speed. When you open the aperture, you increase the shutter speed. Everybody’s happy.
With cinematography, you basically get one shutter speed. Ever. Period. That’s the speed that is half your frame rate-assuming you’re going for a film look. This means that if you’re shooting at 24 frames a second, your shutter speed is always going to be set at 48th of a second (or the closest DSLR equivalent, which in the case of my Canon T2i, is 50th of a second). Yeah, I know that you CAN go all Saving Private Ryan and shoot at a faster shutter, but it’s a special effect. You can’t reach for it very often unless you’re James Longly.
So, how CAN you control light? How can you use a nice shallow depth of field in bright lighting situations when you’re stuck with what, to still photographers, is a ridiculously slow shutter speed? You COULD adjust your ISO. But that bottoms out pretty fast. On my T2i, the slowest ISO I can set is 200. If you’re in any kind of sunlight, you’ll be bumping against the slowest ISO you can set, and begging for more.
Cinematographers have solved this problem a long time ago by using something I never once used in all my years a professional photojournalist: neutral density filters. When the sun comes out, the big fat matte box appears on the front of your lens, and starts getting loaded with darkened pieces of glass. They don’t affect anything about the light except intensity – that is, they do essentially what using a faster shutter speed used to do for you (without the motion-stopping side effects).
That’s all great, except for one thing. Using ND, as it’s called, is a pain in the ass. They generally come in 4″x4″ sheets, and require a matte box that costs more than your camera to work. Then you gotta carry around a bunch of them. Then when the light changes you have to swap them out and so on.
Before I continue, I want to raise a second former-photographer gripe about DSLR cinematography. My old Nikon glass is awesome, and works great on my Canon with a $10 adapter I bought on ebay. It’s manual focus, perfect since autofocus essentially doesn’t work on DSLRs when shooting video. But when I dial the aperture, each stop clicks audibly into place. And even if sound weren’t an issue, the sudden full-stop clicks make it impossible to smoothly dial in an aperture, like you can on professional video cameras, which have a continuous smooth iris ring. So we’ve got two serious problems that suck pretty bad. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could regain some of the control you gave up with the shutter dial AND fix the aperture click issue by adding one small piece of gear to your kit?
Enter “The Fader.” After using it for just one day of shooting, I call it something else: The Holy Grail. It’s a filter that looks a lot like a polarizer, with two rotating panes of glass. Only when you rotate it, it gets darker. A LOT darker. In cineamatography terms, it goes from ND 2 to ND 400. Wow. That’s hardly anything to almost complete darkness. And it does it smooooooothly as you can rotate it. See why this is so cool? Because it allows you to set an aperture, say 2.8, and when the sun comes out, you just twist the dial, like you would twist the aperture ring on a video camera, to chill down the exposure to something perfect.
In practice, it’s best to do this between takes. But the fact is, I actually was able to dial in the exposure while rolling using this instantly indispensable tool. It’s got nice grooved edges that make it easy to smoothly twist, and it’s MUCH easier to adjust on the fly than cranking on the clanking aperture ring of my Nikons.
I already feel naked without one of these on the front of my lens. I like these so much, I’m buying one for each of my primes (20mm, 35mm and 50mm). I plan to leave it permanently on the front of each lens (except when I absolutely need every stop out of the lenses when shooting in low light).
Thanks to Ryan Bilsborough-Koo for turning me onto this crazy-sexy device on his outstanding DSLR Cinematography Guide.