We photographers are consumed with lighting and light. It’s right up there with where to stand, where to point the camera, and when to release the shutter. In the last two days, I’ve watched two movies with unrealistic lighting – lighting so bad that it shatters the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a movie. The movies, True Grit (the 1969 version with John Wayne, not last year’s version with Jeff Bridges), and Bonnie and Clyde, both stem from the late 60s, when the motion picture industry was beginning the transition to lighting with a greater sense of believabilitly.
Lighting problems of these two movies fall into several categories:
- Overfilling of shadows in outdoor scenes, instead of backing off on the fill light so that its intensity is a stop or two down from that of the main light.
- Filling shadows in outdoor scenes with narrow-aperture light sources such as spots. This causes several visual problems: sweat on the actors’ faces produces totally unnatural highlights, and, even worse, there are sometimes shadows cast by the actors’ arms and hands – shadows from lights that aren’t supposed to be there – that fall on the actors’ bodies.
- Using narrow-aperture light sources in places where there couldn’t be any. I think directors must be in love with dramatic, hard-edged shadows, but it really jangles when, in Bonnie and Clyde night car scenes, where the only stationary light source is the dashboard lights, to have the characters lit by something close to a point source. Many of the interior scenes in this movie have the same problem, sometimes in common with the next category.
- Not keeping track of how many light sources there are supposed to be. In a night scene towards the end of Bonnie and Clyde, the fleeing back robbers lie about twenty feet in front of a car, illuminated by the headlights; the shadows are appropriately crisp, but there is only one set of them.
- Forgetting where the sun is supposed to be. In True Grit, Rooster and Mattie cross a river in the late afternoon. The camera angle is upstream, and the characters are backlit. The next morning, we see the same scene from the same angle, and the characters are still backlit. Another variant of this appears in both movies: having the sun in different places in the middle view and the close-up in a single scene, or having the sun in different locations when switching back and forth between two close-up camera angles.
- A special case of the above, notable for the frequency of its appearance: having the “sun” in a different place for the foreground and the background. Often the sun shining on the background is high in the sky and the main light on the foreground is at the height of the actors’ faces and shining horizontally, making it look like mid-morning or mid-afternoon in the background, and sunrise or sunset (but without the ruddy low color temperature) in the foreground.
- Overlighting indoor scenes when an outside view is visible. In a cabin with only small windows in True Grit, we get a shot where we can see through the door to a perfectly-exposed outdoors. The inside of the cabin is almost as bright as the outside, and there is no indication that any of the light on the people inside the cabin comes through the door.
Can still photographers learn from this (abbreviated) list of lighting horrors? I believe we can, just as we can learn much about how to do HDR right by looking at the many examples of how people have done it wrong. By looking carefully at important classes of lighting errors, we can see how to make our use of light better. And, just like so many manipulations of the world that photographers perform both before and after the shutter is released, if the viewer can figure out what you did, or even that you did anything unusual, you’ve probably not done it right.
When you’ve looked at bad lighting until you can’t stand it anymore, look at some of Gregory Crewdson’s work to see what really good staged lighting can look like.