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Interview: Cinematographer Eric Steelberg, ASC


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BY Aimee Baldridge September 10, 2014 · Published by Sekonic

The director of photography for films including Up in the Air, Labor Day, and Juno talks about how he uses a meter during preproduction and on set, how he handled the complicated lighting situations in Up in the Air, and the sometimes counterintuitive ways he's used light to communicate moods and themes in his collaborations with director Jason Reitman.

Aimee Baldridge: Why do you use a meter?

Eric Steelberg: When you get into lighting and matching shots, you need to be able to match a key light and match a fill between camera angles. The only way to do that precisely is with a meter. The eye can be tricked very easily. Your monitors can be calibrated or set differently throughout the day, so if you’re judging your image off a monitor only, the monitor can fool you. But a meter will never lie. It can’t be tricked. It’s the one constant that you have on set to help you keep consistency.

Forcing yourself to meter makes you be more precise and less sloppy. I think that applies to the overall look of what you’re doing. Having the discipline of using the meter only helps your work in the long run.

AB: How do you use your meter during preproduction?

Eric Steelberg: There are times I’ll take my meter scouting, just to see what kind of light and exposure I’m getting in a location, to determine how much or little light I’m going to need.

AB: What about during production? How do you use your meter on set?

Eric Steelberg: I use it to set a key light and get that value where it needs to be. I’ll use a spot meter for fill light levels or if I’m trying to judge how bright a window is in the background or how hot something in the background is. I find that I use a spot meter now for digital probably more than I use the incident meter, beyond setting the key light. Once I set a key light, I just use the spot meter.

AB: There’s a particular kind of shot that you had a lot of in Up in the Air, where someone is sitting in an office with a cityscape outside and an interior office on the other side. That lighting situation seems very complicated.

Eric Steelberg: It’s extremely complicated. If there’s one shot where you see outside and also inside, it’s difficult because you’re balancing all those exposures and you’re also trying to control the quality of the light. Is it flattering on the actors? Is it doing what you want it to do creatively and narratively for the story? Psychologically, do you want the inside of the office through the background to be as bright as the office that has all the window light? Will it look weird if the inside office that has no windows is as bright as the office that has all the windows on the outside? Then you have to darken it and determine how much darker is appropriate. 

Up in the Air was shot on film, so it required a lot of careful metering based on what I knew from experience about how things would look, or how the film would handle those exposures. I probably metered the most on that movie when we had those offices with all the windows.

What you have to start with is how well you want to see the outside. You don’t want it perfectly exposed. You want it overexposed. You want to have that exposure fixed at two and a half or three stops over, so if clouds come in, it won’t get too dark outside and look weird. Whatever is two and a half or three stops under that outside exposure is what your key light is going to be at. And then you want everything on the inside of the office to be darker than the key light by a stop. The only way you can do all that is with metering. You need your spot meter and your incident meter to set all those values. That’s the way I operated on Up in the Air for all the office shots.

AB: You sometimes use light in counterintuitive ways, with bright scenes conveying dark moods like loneliness, and dark scenes conveying warmth and intimacy.

Eric Steelberg: I think bright light can be somewhat oppressive. It can make you feel by yourself, like you can’t hide from it. I do feel that can be kind of lonely. I guess it comes from having crappy retail jobs before I was in the film business and being in an office or a work area where there would be bright overhead fluorescents, and how bad and lonely that could make you feel.

Low-key lighting happens to be, in my taste, very warm and inviting. I’ve got dimmers on all of the lights in my house, and when I have guests over I make everything kind of dark and soft, because that’s what I feel is inviting. So I guess that translates into my work. I also don’t like the lighting to be too literal to the tone of the scene or the tone of a character’s mood.

AB: In your movies with the director Jason Reitman, there are a bunch of scenes in dim rooms with lots of reflective surfaces and little lights. What is that about, and how do you set up the lighting for it?

Eric Steelberg: It’s funny, because the one we just finished shooting in Texas with him has those things taken to an extreme like never before. There’s really a lot of dark stuff and a lot of lights, like computer monitors and stuff that we have light bouncing off. I think that’s just a texture that he likes—those dark rooms with bright practicals. It has a very real feeling to him, and he’s always searching for that kind of reality in a location.

In a scene like that, I determine the key stop and then, like if I want to shoot the whole scene with a 2.0/2.8 split, I’ll say the actor’s face is a 2.0 and go from there. Everything in the background I set based on that. If I want a lamp two or three stops brighter than his face, I know what to set it at.

AB: When you’re planning a film with the director, do you have explicit conversations about how lighting will convey its themes?

Eric Steelberg: There are times when a director has a very specific thought and wants to make sure that his ideas are manifested in the final work. For example, in Labor Day, there’s a scene when you see Josh Brolin and he’s shaved. Up to that point, he’s had long hair and a goatee. He comes home one night and his hair is cut and he’s shaved his goatee off, and Jason wanted to make that a reveal. During months of preproduction, he was saying, “I really want to make sure we don’t see Josh. I want to know it’s him, but I don’t want to see his face.” I’d keep coming up with ideas and he kept saying no, and then finally the day came to shoot it and I said, “Here’s how we’re going to do it,” and he said, “Yep, perfect.”

In the scene, Kate and Josh are kind of dancing in the back of the kitchen, and they’re backlit. You see the shape of his head, but we’ve angled the camera in such a way that you can’t tell his hair is much shorter and you can’t see there’s nothing on his chin. He leaves and comes back, and suddenly steps into the light. I had to have this whole part of the kitchen where you know it’s him but you can’t see the detail in his face. Then when he steps into the light it’s a gradual reveal within a couple steps, so it couldn’t be a sharp pool of light that he stepped into. 

AB: That sounds very precise from a metering perspective.

Eric Steelberg: Absolutely. That whole thing was lit by meter and then finessed a little bit by looking at the monitor. With digital, I find myself metering and then doing a final evaluation in the eyepiece or on a monitor, and then sometimes making a final adjustment that I wouldn’t have made if it was film, just because digital can be so much more sensitive. Because of the sensitivity, I find it hard to make dark scenes dark because the cameras just see so much in the shadows. You’re constantly trying to take light away.

AB: With the greater dynamic range of digital, are you using metering to craft the style of the lighting more than to get the exposure right?

Eric Steelberg: Some people make an argument that more dynamic range creates less of a need for a meter, because everything is exposed and all you have to do is ballpark it. But even though everything is recorded, you’re still going to throw half of it away. You’re going to want to be specific with the part of the exposure that you’re going to keep, because once you throw the other stuff away, you’re adding more contrast back into the image. You still want your exposure to fall in the right place once you throw away all that stuff.

AB: If you have a lot of latitude, why not shoot so that you can see everything and craft the look in post?

Eric Steelberg: Part of being a cinematographer is being in control and making decisions about what you want things to look like. It’s not about taking a picture and then figuring it out later. A cinematographer is somebody who from beginning to end comes up with an idea and executes it, controls the idea through every means available, and sees it through with consistency and continuity, in the tone that works for the story. I don’t think you can do that by just capturing it and figuring it out later.

In 2006, Eric Steelberg broke into the feature film world with Quinceañera, which earned both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance. Since then, Steelberg has found success with director Jason Reitman on the films Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult, and Labor Day. Juno and Up in the Air were both Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. He has also photographed Golden Globe and Spirit Award nominee (500) Days of Summer, Bandslam, and Going the Distance, as well as the pilot for Fox’s Lonestar and season two of HBO’s Eastbound and Down. When not involved in feature films, he fills his schedule shooting commercials for some of the biggest corporations in the world. He is a member of the ICG Local 600, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and American Society of Cinematographers.

You can learn more about Eric Steelberg's work on his website.


Featured photographer: Eric Steelberg

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