Filters — or Correct Exposure!
By Art LLOYD, A.S.C
from American Cinematographer April 1942 p.166
GOOD cinematography consists not only in knowing what to do with your camera and accessories, but —and perhaps more importantly — in knowing what not to do. Take the matter of filters, for instance. We all know that filters, correctly used, can do remarkable things for a picture, turning day into night, making clouds stand out, and clearing up the distance of extreme landscape long-shots, and so on.
And that’s just where many amateurs (and sometimes more than a few professionals) go badly wrong. They know that filters can do a lot—and so they try to use filters in scenes where they really aren’t necessarily helpful at all.
The two illustrations on this page illustrate a very common example of this. Anyone who has ever screened many amateur movies has certainly seen plenty of long-shots like the upper picture—
a fairly attractive composition, but with the distant part of the landscape so “washed out” that it’s only a glary white nothingness on the screen.
And if he’s either a professional or one of the more experienced amateurs, he’s had the makers of such shots say to him, “What filter should I use to get a shot like the lower picture?”
The answer doesn’t lie in filtering at all. It’s a matter of correct exposure only. Believe it or not, the only difference between the two pictures is that of exposure! The upper one is badly overexposed; the lower one is correctly exposed— and the difference is fully as great as you could get with any filtering. At about this point, I seem to hear someone saying, “That can’t be the only difference. I expose my long-shots according to the meter’s reading—but I don’t get anything like that lower picture!”
You probably do—but how do you take your reading? Do you take it by simply standing beside the camera, pointing the meter at the scene, noting the brightness- reading, matching the arrow on the calculator dial to that brightness, and reading off your exposure? I thought so! That’s exactly the way that upper picture was made!
You see, you overlooked two facts. First, in an extreme landscape long-shot like that your lens and meter are taking in a tremendous amount of light reflected from a large and very bright area. Second, that dark foreground is likely to produce a rather prominent dark pattern in your meter’s eye, and give it a reading that’s definitely too low to give the correct exposure-value for the scene as a whole.
Luckily, the meter-designers have taken this into consideration, even though too few of us follow the lead they’ve given us. Take a look at your meter’s dial. You’ll notice there are several markings
on it aside from that arrow you generally use in taking your readings. One of them, slightly to the left of the arrow, is marked “A” or “1/2.” If, in taking your reading on extreme long shots like this, you’ll bring that “A” point instead of the arrow to the brightness- value your meter’s indicator has given you, you’ll give your picture just half the normal exposure. For example, with a brightness-value of 200 and a film-speed of Weston 16, which is a pretty fair average for exterior work, taking a reading in the normal way will give an exposure-reading of f:11 at the usual cine-camera exposure of l/30th second. But if you take the reading using that “A” marking, your reading will be f:16—which is the correct exposure for an extreme long-shot under such circumstances.
Try it—and see how your exposure-errors in landscape shots vanish!