The resolution competition may have cooled in the world of still imagery, but when it comes to digital motion cameras, the drive for more pixels is still going strong. These days, the object of video-pixel envy goes by the name “4K,” indicating a format with a resolution roughly 4,000 pixels wide. And thanks to more reasonably priced 4K-shooting digital cinema cameras from companies such as Red, Sony, Canon and Blackmagic Design, this type of ultra-HD is becoming more accessible to photographers.
While making the leap up to 4K from 1,080-wide HD footage obviously creates a need for more storage space and higher resolution displays, there are also some things to pay special attention to when lighting a scene for 4K.
Fundamentally, lighting for 4K is just like lighting for 2K, only more so. If you are already careful with your HD lighting, it’s time to get meticulous. With 4K, you can see everything, and when you can see everything, all of it had better look just right.
We asked director of photography Timur Civan to give us some tips on lighting for 4K based on his experience shooting both commercial and narrative work in the format. The lesson? There’s no big rule of thumb about lighting for 4K; it’s all about sweating the details.
1. Don’t Light What You Don’t Want to See
This is obviously a good rule to follow with any kind of motion capture, but it’s especially important to keep in mind when the format you’re using shows everything that’s illuminated in excruciating detail. If there are set elements that distract from the story or look fake, bring down the light that’s falling on them or block it with a flag. Just make sure you don’t create an unnatural lighting pattern in the scene.
Conversely, you can increase the brightness in other areas to highlight details that a lower res camera wouldn’t be able to capture. “As you get better tools, you can take advantage of smaller and smaller details in the scene,” Civan explains. “You can light them in such a way that they actually play in the scene, as opposed to not being sharp enough for you to see what they are.”
2. Use Harder Light—Most of the Time
It may seem counterintuitive, but hard light can be more attractive with 4K capture than with lower res formats. That’s because cameras with lower resolution typically apply sharpening algorithms to images, which can create white outlines when direct, specular light is used. Civan notes that sharpening has an especially unattractive effect on the appearance of skin, emphasizing pores and wrinkles. With a 4K camera, software sharpening isn’t necessary, so bright, hard lighting can be used without creating unnatural artifacts.
A hard light can work especially well with products, objects and scene elements, but it can also be used to good effect with people. “When you have the high resolution of 4K, harder lights are somewhat more forgiving on people,” Civan says. “You get less edge enhancement, which is what made soft light become such a big deal with digital.”
However, even though the clarity of 4K is more flattering than software sharpening, the look of hard lighting is often not what’s desired in shots of people, especially those emphasizing beauty more than character. Using a large, diffuse light source with 4K can help you attain clarity without giving too much visibility to skin details. “With people,” says Civan, “we tend to go with a soft backlight and bounced fill.”
3. Bring Out Texture …
When you’re working with a format that can capture minute detail, texture becomes a more effective part of the creative palette. You can draw attention to elements in a scene by lighting them at an angle that makes their surface texture visible. Civan often lights products to bring out surface textures so subtle they would have been impossible to capture with lower res cameras, like the texture of sandblasted glass.
It’s an approach he’s used on larger sets as well. “We were doing a pilot a few months ago and there was a scene where a woman was near a brick wall at night,” he recalls. “We lit it to simulate the nighttime street lamp look, and I had my gaffer push the light almost against the wall to emphasize the texture. In 4K, we were able to see each individual brick.”
Just make sure you keep in mind how the footage will ultimately be displayed. Smaller, lower res output formats often obliterate the textures that can give an image its character when 4K footage is shown in its full glory. If your footage isn’t going to be displayed at full resolution, it may not be a good idea to rely too much on texture to create the look and feel of the image.
4. … Just Not Too Much Texture
With lower resolution formats, it’s mainly brightness and color that cause elements to stand out in a scene and draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject. But with 4K, texture can create a distraction, too. If you want to play down elements of your scene, reducing the amount of texture they show can help. Change the angle of the light falling on them or soften it with a modifier.
If you want to create a softer look with less texture overall, but you don’t want to change the shape of the lighting by using a different modifier, try using a lens filter or even an older lens that’s not as sharp. Civan likes to use a Hollywood Black Magic filter for scenes with people. “It gives the image a very subtle softening and a somewhat antique feel,” he says.
5. Pay Attention to Backgrounds
Shooting in 4K doesn’t just reveal your subject in greater detail; it shows all the details of everything that’s in focus. “That’s definitely a new factor we have to take into account,” says Civan. “The image is so saturated with detail that if you have a deep-focus shot, the detail is overwhelming.” If the background is too much, you can open up your lens to make the depth of field shallower and the focus more selective. You’ll need to adjust your light level to keep the exposure correct, by either bringing down the light level or using a neutral density filter on your lens.
6. Flag Reflections
On any motion shoot, reflective surfaces can create distracting bright spots or reflections of off-set elements. But as Civan notes, with 4K “the fact that you can actually see what’s in the reflection makes things different.” You’ll probably need to flag more reflective surfaces when you’re shooting 4K, so make sure you bring enough stands and material to do the job. And don’t forget a flag for yourself. “We end up draping duvetyne over the camera,” says Civan. “We have to literally hide behind a black flag to at least break up the outline of the cameraman and AC [assistant cameraman].”
7. Check Your Practicals
If you use practical lights that appear in your scene, such as table or floor lamps, make sure they’re not making visible details that you don’t want in the scene. For example, 4K capture can reveal lampshade details that wouldn’t show in lower res footage, and the light from the practical might bring out distracting textures in nearby objects. Civan puts his practicals on a dimmer to make fine adjustments.
8. Match Chroma Key Lighting Precisely
Having a lot of resolution is great for post-production techniques like compositing a background scene with a subject shot separately in front of a green or blue screen. As Civan explains, “the effects people have a field day with it, because they have so much latitude to play around with to refine the mask.” But when it comes to production quality, shooting green screens with 4K ups the ante, making mismatches between background and subject more obvious. Civan also points out that clients who ask for 4K footage are typically working at a high level in the industry and have very little tolerance for imperfections.
To get chroma key footage right, the direction of the light on the background has to precisely match the direction of the light on the subject that’s shot separately. When shooting each background scene, Civan collects detailed information on the levels, direction and color of light, as well as the camera position. Then he replicates the setup precisely when shooting the subject in front of a green screen. “If your angles are slightly off,” he explains, “it just looks like a person pasted onto a background, as opposed to a person standing in the world.”
9. Use Brighter Light to Pull Stills
One of the advantages of shooting high-res video is the ability to pull high-quality stills from the footage. Some photographers even do 4K video shoots with the primary goal of creating still images. If you’re going to pull stills, keep in mind that your lighting will need to be bright enough to shoot at high shutter speeds so that you can freeze motion in each frame. Remember that when you’re using continuous lighting instead of strobes, brighter light often means bigger, heavier, hotter light. Make sure you have the crew you’ll need to handle it all.
Consider how your talent will work with your lighting setup as well. If you’re coming from the photography world and working with models, they may not be accustomed to performing without being cued by the flash of a strobe and the click of a shutter. “A model knows how to create moments, and an actor knows how to create continuity,” Civan explains. He learned how to solve this problem from a resourceful colleague: Get a clicker to cue your model to move through a series of poses under continuous lights.
Watch the video test Civan did using a Red Epic camera and antique lenses below: