Shooting in a rain forest is a bit like shooting under water

I just returned from spending the longest night of the year in one of the darkest, dampest places in Washington: the Quinault Rain Forest. Lisa and I spent a couple of days there last year, and discovered it to be a magical wonderland for photography.

When we returned this time, we brought a Speedlight and a 20″ Glow Hexapop, made by Adorama. This is a small and very portable soft box, so it was a small thing to pack it along. But we were really impressed with the results when we used it to backlight our subjects. Just as with underwater photography, subjects that otherwise look monochromatic in the eerie half light come to life with a little pop of strobe. Happy Solstice!

The invisible key to better documentary film interviews

I know the key to better documentary interviews. A silver-bullet technique that has enabled me to make award-winning films like The Coffinmaker and The Metalsmith (both Vimeo staff picks). In the photo above, Scott Berkun is using the technique to interview Martina Welke of Zealyst for We Make Seattle. It’s not difficult. In fact, it involves doing less than what you’re currently doing.

Huh, you ask? How can doing less make my films better? I’m going to share this technique with you in a minute. But first, some background.

When I began making documentary films five years ago, I was coming from the world of still photography. In that world, it’s possible to be a one-man band and do a great job. Not easy, mind you, but totally plausible. Film is a different animal.

Consider for a moment how many balls you must to keep in the air to pull off the simplest of shoots, the interview:

  1. Camera (focus, batteries, monitoring subject movement within frame).
  2. Lighting (changing ambient light, placement of lights).
  3. Sound (levels, distance to subject, mic axis).
  4. Location (noise level, permissions).
  5. Subject (makeup, direction,)
  6. Interview (preparation, full attention, questions, redirect).

And that’s just the production bit. If that all goes well, you get a bunch of footage and audio that you must store on a hard drive, then go to work on. That involves importing into your editing suite, watching it, listening to it, cutting the interview, carefully placing b-roll on top of that to hide your cut points, adding music, color correcting, audio mixing… Whew, it’s a lot to manage.

But let’s stay focused on the production piece. Now, consider that these variables don’t just have to be aligned for a split second, as with a photograph – with film everything has to STAY perfect for the duration of the shoot. If the sun comes out halfway through, you have to change exposure. If the subject gets excited and leans forward, you need to adjust focus. And, all the while you need to maintain human contact with the subject, so they feel you are present in the conversation with them.

It’s too much for one person to manage. Really, it is. Two people can swing it. But one? Forget about it.

Since I couldn’t do it all, I considered what I could NOT do, and still get the job done. Can you guess what that was? For a guy most comfortable with a camera, it was a tough one to swallow. I skipped the eyes and went for the ears.

If you had to watch 30 minutes of someone talking without sound, how long would you watch? Now, if you had to listen to 30 minutes of audio without video, how does that change things? A lot. But wait, you say, we’re making a film, not a radio program! Yes, but if you’re making a film, doesn’t that mean you want to show action? And does a person sitting in a chair really qualify as action?

The key to getting better documentary film interviews is: don’t bring a camera. You heard me right. Leave the camera at home. That way, you won’t be tempted to use it. Instead, you’ll free yourself to think about the story. You’ll connect better with the subject without your eyes constantly wandering away from theirs to check focus.

But what if you have plenty of crew? You should probably still skip it! Here’s why: because most people are intimidated by cameras. They are distracted by thinking about how they look, their makeup, wardrobe, etc. Consider this: How often do you FaceTime someone when you want to call them? I think I’ve used it twice in the three years I’ve had an iPhone. It’s invasive. I’m more comfortable talking as opposed to acting. Same is true in your average documentary interview situation. Take away the camera, and you take away the self-consciousness. Take away the self-consciousness, and you get straight to the good stuff. The scary, emotional stuff.

There’s another benefit to doing interviews without camera: it forces you to shoot better b-roll. In fact, it forces you to think differently about b-roll altogether. No longer is it filler to get you through – it becomes everything! So you have to think of action that can carry the story. And your film just got better.

There’s another benefit: you won’t be able to make the mistake of including too much talking head time, because you don’t have any!

It’s a big commitment. But try it once. You may be surprised with the results.

3 Video Lighting Disasters a Light Meter can Prevent

With digital video cameras, it’s tempting to shoot everything off the monitor. What you see is what you get, right? Well, sort of. I’m thrilled with the exposure tools we have today – in particular the waveform monitor and histogram that Magic Lantern has unlocked on my 5dmkiii. But there are some situations where depending soley on what you see can get you in trouble.

1. It looked good on your monitor when you shot it…but it’s too contrasty (or not contrasty enough) in post. No one knew how the film was going to be graded at the time it was shot, so somebody said “let’s just shoot it flat” (ie, using something like the ProLost picture style). Good idea. But shooting it flat isn’t the same as lighting it flat. For best results, you need to know what contrast ratio to use. And that’s where your light meter comes in.

How to find contrast ratio. Let’s assume a simple interview, with two lights: a key, and a fill. To determine the contrast ratio, turn off the fill light. Point the lumisphere at the key, take a reading and note it. Next turn off the key light, and repeat to read the fill light. You now have two f-stop values, i.e, f/8 for key, and f/5.6 for fill. To determine contrast ratio:

1:1 ratio = lights are the same
1:2 ratio = 1 stop difference between lights
1:3 ratio = 1.5 stop difference
1:4 ratio = 2 stop difference
1:5 ratio = 2.5 stops
1:6 ratio = 3 stops (one half of face is pure black)

On my Sekonic L-358, there is a handy feature for performing this calculation automatically, called “brightness difference” mode. I recommend investing in a light meter that can do this for you, otherwise you have to do some awkward math. And you’re don’t call yourself a filmmaker because you wanted to be an engineer, do you?

So, to avoid this lighting disaster, do some camera tests as described above in advance of your shoot, using several different contrast ratios. Then apply your intended grade to the footage, and see which contrast ratio best gives you the look you’re going for.

Tip: I most often grade with FilmConvert Pro, which is a quick and powerful way to get great-looking footage (esp. skin tones) out of DSLR video. With FilmConvert, I find that I have to shoot at a lower contrast ratio than looks normal on my monitor for best results with many (but not all) of the film stocks.

Side note: Be sure to get a light meter that supports cine frame rates. Many inexpensive light meters don’t allow selecting shutter speeds between 30th/sec and 60th/sec. For 24p video, you need 48th/sec. But it’s pretty easy to find a quality meter used. I was able to find a Sekonic L-358 for $160 on Craigslist, and it does everything I need and then some.

2. It looked good when you shot it…but you can’t repeat it. The director wants you to reshoot a scene – but you can’t remember how you lit it. Or you simply need to match the lighting from day to day on a multi-day project. You’ve got lighting continuity problems.

Solution: The first time you light it, take a light meter reading for each light on set. Record three values: ISO, aperture number, and frame rate. I.e, 640, 5.6.3, 24. That way, when the director calls you a month later begging for a reshoot, you’ll be able to say “no problem.” Lighting, at least, won’t be the cause of any continuity problems.

3. You scouted the location, but when you arrive on the day, your lights aren’t powerful enough to match the window light. Ooops. Had you carried a light meter while scouting, you’d have known what to bring.

When scouting a location, a light meter takes the guesswork out of the process. It also helps you communicate with the rest of the crew, which is invaluable for larger projects where someone other than yourself may be setting up the lights.

And finally, I’ve found that carrying a light meter is a great way to educate the eye. How bright is that overcast day in Seattle? (Almost f/11 at ISO 160 for 24p. Brighter than you might think!) How bright is that fluorescent office environment? Hmmm, f/4 at ISO 640? Hold up the meter, click, and discover that it’s f/2.8 and a half. Having this kind of instant feedback is key to rapid learning. After awhile, a light meter will make you pretty good at this game. And that can’t help but make you a better filmmaker.

Do you use a light meter on your projects? How do you use it?

Big League Cine Summit is Dec. 10-12

Online learning has become a big deal in the era of CreativeLive. But until now, there hasn’t been a multi-day online seminar specifically dedicated to cinematography. Well, that’s about to change. The Big League Cine Summit will bring 11 presenters to your small screen next week for live workshops designed to take your cinematography to the next level. Best of all, it’s free! Check it out:

Day 1: Dec. 10

Lighting with the Sun

Getting The Best Image On Set Using Waveforms

Defining Your Cinematic Style

Filming Fast Action Sports

Day 2: Dec 11

Using After Effects For The Film Look

Product Lighting: How to light Reflective and Clear Objects

From Pre to Post Production on a low-budget Slow Motion Shoot

Day 3: Dec 12

Mastering the art of lighting actors

Lessons From An Indie Film

High-End Camera Moves On A Budget

The Total DSLR Budget Package

It’s clear that this type of workshop is changing the way creatives in niche professions can learn from and be inspired by one another. So I’m looking forward to attending online and learning something new.

5 location lighting problems solved with Switronix TorchLED Bolt

Last summer I DP’d a short film written by Persephone Vandegrift. I’m in the basement preparing to shoot the scene we’ve been saving to the very end, in which Telisa Steen’s character destroys a dollhouse in a fit of grieving for her lost daughter. I’m a little nervous for three reasons. One, there would be no retakes, because the prop would be destroyed. Two, the home owners want us gone in an hour. And three, the ceiling in this bedroom is so low that I can reach up and touch it. So hiding a light is going to be a bitch. And I need something, fast, to separate Telisa from the background. What am I gonna do?

I reached for my “Peacemaker,” the sun gun that’s always within reach: a Switronix TorchLED Bolt. I’ll explain what I did with it in a moment. But first, I’d like to state that this post covers the TorchLED 200. I just learned that Switronix has announced an updated version, the TorchLED Bolt 220, that is 10 percent brighter, $120 more expensive (although B&H has steeply discounted it to $279 through dec. 4), and claims to fix a color mixing issue I discuss below.

The Switronix Bolt LED is hands down the most versatile video light I’ve ever used. In the 9 months since I got my hands on one, I’ve used it like a monkey wrench to fix all kinds of lighting problems. Here’s why:

  • It’s powerful for its size.
  • It’s tiny. So it’s easy take with you.
  • It’s controllable. It throws a tightly focused beam a long way without interfering with other lights.
  • It’s color adjustable. Two knobs allow you to select between 3200k tungsten and 5600k daylight.
  • It’s strong battery powered. L-mount Sony batteries keep you going for more than two hours at full blast, or more than twice that when dialed down a bit. Connect them to a Switronix V-lock battery using the included adapter cable, and you can run all day.
  • It’s inexpensive. About $250 including battery and cables.
Distance TorchLED LitePanels MicroPro
3 ft. f/11 f/2.8
6 ft. f/5.6 f/1.4
12 ft. f/2.8

Just how powerful is it? Take a look at the numbers to the right. I broke out my light meter and compared it to a venerable LitePanels Micro Pro, and got these light meter readings at 50th/shutter at ISO 640.

I recently bought a second one and they go everywhere with me in my camera case. Maybe that’s why they get used so much – they are always handy when I need them. And because they are battery powered, with batteries that last for hours, I don’t have to think about running extension cords when I want to deploy a light. Sometimes that’s the difference between adding a light and getting by without it.

OK, so let’s go back to that low-ceilinged room and see what we can do with it.

Problem 1: Low ceiling – no room for placing backlight without getting it into the shot.

Solution: Hang a Bolt from an autopole.

With the clock ticking, my camera assistant David Fareti was able to attach a Bolt to an autopole with a Matthelini clamp. The only other light with us that might have worked was a Lowell ProLight, but it would be so close to the ceiling that it might have caught the place on fire. And there’s the time it would have taken to hide the power cable. So it simply wasn’t an option. In the end, our shot come up looking like this frame from the film:

Problem 2: Talent shows up for interview wearing wide-brim hat. No time to re-light.

Solution: Place Bolt on stand close to camera lens, at eye level with talent, and dial it to provide -2 stops fill.

We’re filming a series of interviews with legendary graphic designers for the Seattle Design Lecture Series. Our first interview was with April Greiman, who arrived an hour late for the interview wearing this huge hat. We had to roll almost immediately because she was due to deliver her speech in about an hour. Gulp. I knew her eyes would go black under that hat, but I didn’t just want to lower the key and blast light up in there – the only thing worse than under lighting is over lighting. I have learned to keep a spare Switronix pre-mounted on a light stand for just kind of situation. I simply placed it just to my camera left at lens height, and dialed in about -2 stops of light. Like so:

Instantly, her eyes come to life with the catch light in them, and her expression emerges from beneath the brim. Yet, a sense of mystery is preserved. Despite the fact that the Bolt is a small hard light, you can get away with using it undiffused as fill. Oh, and that’s my other Swit sketching her hat and shoulders with rim light.

Problem 3: Strong sunlight on subject needs a quick fill.

Solution: Put Bolt on camera and crank it all the way up.

OK, so I wouldn’t normally light an interview like this. I’m showing you this to prove a point: for ENG-style interviews, the Bolt IS bright enough to fill direct sunlight…if you keep the subject within about 3.5 feet of the camera. For this selfie shot on my 5dmkiii, the Bolt was set to full power at 5600k, the aperture was at f/4.5 with a .9 ND filter (-3 stops) on 50mm lens, at ISO 160. Take that, sunshine!

Problem 4: Need a hair light but must avoid window reflections.

Solution: Clamp Swit Bolt to ceiling-mounted light track.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing New York graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister for the Design Lecture Series put together by Civilization. I used quite a few tungsten lights gelled at 1/2 ctb, to get good color contrast with the blue window light that surrounded him. I couldn’t do what I normally do – place a light on a Manfrotto 420B boom arm for a backlight, because it would have been visible reflected in the glass windows behind him.

Luckily, there was some track lighting in the ceiling behind him, which wasn’t very sturdy. But it was strong enough for me to clamp a Bolt to it with a gaffer’s clamp. Lighting accomplished.

Problem 5: Need a quick kicker to add a little zest to otherwise good looking frame.

Solution: Swit on stand behind and beside talent.

Here’s a shot that already looked pretty good with key light from a softbox, and background light pouring through a doorway window illuminating the books. But this UW professor wasn’t separating enough from her background. The solution was, you guessed it, two Bolt LEDs. The first I hung on a Manfrotto 420B arm which gave her a nice hair light, also illuminating her camera-right shoulder. Then I put a second Bolt on a light stand behind and beside her to camera left. This provided a kicker that also filled in the shadow side of her face a bit, and penciled out her shoulder. Roll camera.

A Phottix FTX2 Flash Bar allows placing two of these lights on a stand (this flash bar, which articulates at base, also allows mounting these lights inside an Apollo soft box). Conveniently, there’s a couple of slots for attaching a shoot-though umbrella. Pairing two lights through an umbrella, at 50th shutter and ISO 640, I get f/5.6 at 3 feet, f/2.8 at 6 feet, and f/1.4 at 12 feet. In practice, though, I rarely use them doubled up – that’s what my other lights (Arri 650, etc) are for, and these little problem solvers are better suited for use as kickers, rim and fill.

The Swit ships with a flimsy shoe-mount adapter, but for use on a light stand, you’ll need a stand adapter that has a ball head, like one of these. The one on the right is a flash swivel tilt bracket that you can pick up for about $12. And the other is a beefier 3/8″ stand adapter paired with a Manfrotto ball micro head that will run you $12 and $99 respectively.

One more small accessory that’s worth having with this light: to soften the light, check out the Airbox.

In practice I tend to use the Swit without diffusion, because I appreciate the beam that it throws. Putting any kind of softener on this light really cuts its output. But, there are times when I just want some soft fill up close, and this has come in handy.

I have found that I need to tuck a sheet of 1/2 white diffusion gel into the sleeve on the front of the box, to get good diffusion. The clear vinyl alone doesn’t quite do it.

So, is everything amazing about this light? Almost. But there are a few things that I’m hoping will be improved with the next version of this light.


The batteries don’t exactly lock into place. You have to be very carefully placing these lights, or the batteries can fall out. I wish it had a positive locking mechanism.
Color mixing isn’t exact. The twin color-temperature dials on the back aren’t spot on with regard to color temp. I’ve noticed that I need to dial up about 1/3rd tungsten to 100 percent 5600 to get good daylight results – otherwise it’s too blue. The 5600k dial should be labeled the 6000k dial.
The diffuser card falls out. As with the batteries, there’s no way to lock the diffuser into place. Both of mine went missing very quickly. The same person at Swit seems to have designed this as and the battery plate. Seems like a small design change could fix both. My email to Switronix asking how to purchase a replacement has gone unanswered.

Bottom line:

Owning this light won’t make you a better filmmaker. Or will it? It’s made me a better one, because now it’s so easy to do the right thing – add that rim light, dial in that fill, tweak that color temp – that I’m actually doing it, instead of thinking about it. Having a Bolt in your bag arms you with a powerful light that delivers on the promise that LED lighting has been whispering for years: cool light when you need it, where you need it, no cords attached.

10 most common audio mistakes in documentary filmmaking

1. Not getting mic close enough. If you audio isn’t good enough, it’s probably because the mic isn’t close enough. Are you trying to get by with an on-camera mic? Get the mic off the camera. Really. At a minimum that will mean using a radio lavaliere. And preferably a shotgun mic operated on a boom pole. Use the hand trick to find the ideal mic position, as follows:

Place your thumb in front of your mouth. Fully spread your fingers at a 45 degree angle. The tip of your little finger is where the boom mic should ideally be, about 6-8 inches away. Of course, it varies with the subject, and with the shot. Sometimes you just can’t get that close without risking getting the mic in the shot. You can get away with 1′ away, maybe even 16″ away. But if you’re regularly 2-3 feet away, background noise is going to color your audio big time. And you can’t remove that in post.

2. Hiding lav on subject produces distracting clothing rustle. I’ve worked with professional sound recordists who tell me hiding lavs is the most challenging part of their job. And it’s true: once you put a lav under clothing, you’re going to have issues. It takes a lot of trial and testing to get it dialed correctly. Sometimes, it’s just impossible. I generally use lav audio as backup, preferring the cleaner sound that comes from a boom mic. But for those times when you’re counting on a hidden lav to pay your bills, here’s how to hide a lavaliere mic.

3. Handling noise caused by changing hand position on boom or mic. OK, you’ve committed to using a boom pole. Your sound is so much better already! But watch out – a low rumble will be introduced to your recordings every time you reposition your hands on the pole. So once you roll sound, settle quickly into a position you can hold for the entire take. It doesn’t have to be like lifting weights. Follow these boom mic recording tips and your audience will thank you.

4. Distracting noise in background. The most common offenders here are refrigerators and HVAC systems. Remember that shotgun mics are directional – so point the mic away from the direction of the noise. Better yet, eliminate it entirely by turning the heat down or tripping the fridge circuit breaker (put your keys in the fridge so that you don’t accidentally leave without restoring power). That’s why getting the mic overhead on a boom pole works so well – because sound rarely comes from below. But even shifting the mic 45 degrees can make a huge difference. Listen carefully before the take begins to find the best mic angle. The more background noise, the closer the mic will need to be.

5. Room is echoey (too “bright”). Small rooms are usually worse than large rooms, and any uncarpeted room with bare walls spells trouble. Basically, you want a room that is “homey”: carpeted, drapes on the windows, plush furniture, bookshelves lining the walls–anything that will break up sound waves. If you have a slight echo, however, it is now possible for you to fix it in post. Check out the Unveil plugin by Zynaptiq. It does magic to dampen slight reverb.

6. Forgetting to record room tone. When your take is finished, the last step is to record what silence sounds like in that particular environment. If you forget, as I still sometimes do, it makes it difficult to edit the dialog. So make it a ritual, like the chant I breath to myself every time I leave the house: keys, phone, wallet. Every time you say “that’s a wrap,” first say “30 seconds of room tone, please.”

7. Audio levels become clipped because of sudden loud noise. You’re recording some dialog and your subject starts laughing. Or cheering. Or shouting. If you have a good mixer, the limiter can automatically catch brief outbursts like this. But if you’re using inexpensive recorders and can’t turn the recording level down fast enough, you’ll get clipped audio. But once the damage is done, is there any way to fix this in post? Yes, believe it or not, there is. Some of the cheering crowd scenes in my documentary Beyond Naked would have been unusable if not for iZotope RX, an incredible suite of repair tools. The iZotope Declipper can rescue even horribly distorted audio.

8. Forgetting to charge/replace the batteries. Yep, it still happens to me. On some inexpensive recorders such as the Zoom H4N, if the batteries die during a take, you will lose the entire recording. So as a way to prevent this from happening, as well as a way to stay more organized, I recommend rolling early and often. On a lengthy interview, for example, don’t just hit record and forget about it until it’s over. At strategic points such as between questions, stop and re-roll. Also, get into the habit of charging/changing the batteries immediately AFTER each shoot. That way, you’ll always be ready to go.

9. Radio interference from cell phones. Almost everyone is carrying a smart phone these days. They stay connected by sending radio bursts that can be audible by a sensitive mic. Before every recording session, pretend that you are the captain of a plane about to take off: ask everyone in the room to put their phones into airplane mode. Not only will this prevent radio interference, but it will prevent your take from being ruined the old fashioned way: when the ringer goes off.

10. Using cheap gear. The difference between a $200 mic and a $1,200 mic is pretty amazing. And since pretty much every video you make from here to eternity will have sound, it makes sense to invest in a quality mic and a recorder that has decent pre-amps. Thankfully, Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to sound gear the way it does to camera sensors. You could easily be using the same mic you buy today in 10 or 15 years. So don’t scrimp on sound.

All I want for Christmas is a Sound Devices 633

Today Sound Devices announced the newest member of their mixer family: the Sound Devices 633. This isn’t just a mixer, though. The reason it commands my documentary filmmaking attention is the 10-track audio recorder the comes built into this small, extremely well-made package. And because it’s Sound Devices, you can bet it sounds as sweet as it looks.

(Wow, somebody in the marketing department at SD has been watching Apple product introduction videos, hey?)

So many small details make this look like a winner: four ways of powering it! You can put to Sony-style L-series batteries on the bottom, and if they die, the AA batteries inside will automatically take over. No need to switch manually from external to internal power, as I currently have to do on my Sound Devices Mix Pre. And if all sources die, it has an internal battery that will gracefully power you down so that you don’t lose the take entirely. Brilliant.

It accepts both SD and CF cards, and you can record to both simultaneously so that you can hand one card to the client or to editor while keeping your own at end of shoot. How cool is that?

Granted, this one is no impulse buy. At $3,095, it’s safe to say that only serious audio pros, or at least sound sticklers like me, will be entertaining a purchase. But who knows what’s next for Sound Devices? Maybe a recorder/mixer in this vein with 2-4 inputs, a 6-channel recorder, in the form factor of MixPre? For about $1,500? That would sure be something.

Beauty lighting on the go with Hexapop Glow

When I was working as a professional photojournalist back in the mid 90s, I hated using on-camera flash. It produced harsh, flat light that I used only when I had no other choice to get the picture. But when it comes to photographing women, I’ve had to learn a new rule: flat light is flattering light.

The simplest way to get flat light is to get the light close to the lens. But then you need to soften the light. And there are plenty of fantastic studio tools for doing this, such as a beauty dish. But what if you’re working on the go? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an extremely portable, roundish light modifier that mimicked a beauty dish, that you could literally pop together in seconds?

Well, now there is. The Hexapop, part of the Glow series of light modifiers made by Adorama makes the old photojournalist in me happy. It hits the sweet spot between light quality and portable convenience.

Here’s a few photos I was able to make with a single speed light and a 20″ Hexapop (actually there was one additional LED light illuminating the background in the red photo-the rest were all just the Hexapop). I really love the hexagonal shaped catchlight that illuminates her eyes. You can tell I had the light very close to the model by the size of the catchlight (the light was within 4′ in all photos).

The Hexapop is right at home on a light stand, too. I like to use it with a Manfrotto 420 combo boom stand, because it’s light enough to hang out on the end of the arm. Used this way, I find it easy to stand just under the light, and then direct the subject to move slightly to one side or the other to get the lighting perfect.

Squeezing the release mechanism collapses all 8 spokes simultaneously, making it a breeze to pack away the Hexapop when you’re done shooting. All parts fit into the included travel bag.

I’m looking forward to using this light both on and off camera.