The cinematographer and American Film Institute Conservatory instructor talks about how the role of metering is expanding with new camera technology, how he uses Sekonic's Data Transfer Software to help create visual styles, and what pleasantly surprised him about the DTS program.
Aimee Baldridge: Tell us about the course you teach at AFI, “The Art and Theory of Cinematography.”
Tal Lazar: In the first year at AFI, we go over the basics of camera work, and also get into advanced subjects very quickly. We cover the basics because we want to make sure everyone who comes to AFI understands exposure, how to use a light meter and a gray card, and all those things that it’s necessary for a cinematographer to do. My course goes between the artistic, creative side of cinematography and the technical side, because our profession isn’t just one of these things. You have to have one leg in the technical realm and another in the creative world.
AB: You’ve tested the new Sekonic Data Transfer Software (DTS) and decided to use it with your students. How did you test it?
Tal Lazar: I used AFI’s Sony F65, which is the most advanced camera right now and has a huge dynamic range. The first thing I did was verify that the program sees exposure the same way I do. With the DTS program, you have a chart, you shoot it at different exposures, you bring the image file into the program, and the program gives you a result. I can do that myself by exposing a gray card at half-stop increments and making calculations that in a theoretical way are similar to what the program does. So the first test I did was to compare my manual test results with the software’s results. I found the results were very close, close enough for me to use them and feel confident.
"Ultimately it’s the creative cinematographer
who will make these calls, and not lines of code."
AB: What did you learn about the DTS program when you tested it?
Tal Lazar: Software obviously has no creative judgment. It takes certain information and then outputs the camera curve. The good thing about the Sekonic software is that it allows you to change and adjust, to interpret that curve. It displays it on the screen and gives you suggestions of where underexposure and overexposure are, but you can actually drag the lines and change the values. If from your own experience you feel things should be different, you can change them. That’s very important because ultimately it’s the creative cinematographer who will make these calls, and not lines of code.
I’ve used the L-758Cine light meter with the F65 and the profile created by the program on a short scene we shot in class, and I was very confident using the light meter and not relying on other tools, like a waveform monitor. In a way, we’re going back to the discipline of using a light meter and standing on set and not in front of a monitor. Every cinematographer has their own way of working, but for me it was very relaxing. I was very happy to just be on set with my light meter and know exactly the ability of the camera and what the exposure is when I press the button.
AB: Would you generate more than one profile for a given camera to create different looks?
Tal Lazar: I have to redo the camera profile for a given camera for every movie I shoot. There will never be one profile for the F65, for example. I’ll test a certain look and translate that into adjustments to the camera profile in the DTS program. So I’ll have “F65 for Movie X” in my list of profiles.
The program allows you to create different ratings for the camera in the same profile. So I can test the camera at ISO 200 or 400 or 800, and the profile will update itself when I change the rating of the camera. This is important because we’re now dealing with very flexible cameras and we’re shooting movies outside during both day and night. I might decide to rate the camera differently in different situations. That’s something the software allows you to do in a single profile.
Aside from that, there are lookup tables. Newer cameras, including the F65, shoot raw or log, which basically means that these cameras try to retain as much information as possible from the scene. The idea is that in post, you have all the information you need to retain detail, whether it’s in a bright window or a dark corner. However, if you look at the original image, it’s gray and flat. To save directors and editors from having to deal with images that look like that, we use software to create lookup tables (LUTs).
When you apply an LUT, it makes images look as close as possible to how they should look in the end. That affects exposure, because you’ll expose differently if you’re shooting a movie that you want to have, for example, a desaturated look with high contrast, than if you want a look with very low contrast. One of the things you could do with the new software is shoot the test chart, apply a lookup table to it, and then input it into the DTS program. The result would be that in your light meter you’d already be looking at the end of the process. You could create an image that’s closer to the way it’s going to look in the end.
AB: Do you think that kind of raw video file processing capability will become more common in lower-end cameras too?
Tal Lazar: I think the philosophy of retaining as much information as possible is already there. High dynamic range (HDR) capture has recently been introduced into the motion picture world from still photography. Raw and log shooting is becoming available in prosumer and lower-end professional cameras like the Canon C300 and Sony F3. We’re shifting from getting the look we want on set to having the ability to manipulate an image in post.
Is that always the wisest decision? That depends on your workflow. You don’t always have access to an elaborate postproduction facility and hours to spend on color correction. Sometimes you’ll still need to shoot a scene just as it looks, especially if you’re shooting for television or the Web.
In both cases, using a light meter is beneficial. If you need to shoot accurately and have very little postproduction, then using a light meter lets you be very accurate in your exposure. If you need to retain as much information as you can, then a light meter lets you work efficiently on set.
"The fact that cameras are more flexible
allows us to make more decisions.
That’s where the DTS program and the
light meter come in."
AB: Has the role of metering changed as cameras have become more powerful?
Tal Lazar: The fact that cameras are more flexible allows us to make more decisions. That’s where the DTS program and the light meter come in. Once I’ve gone through the process of coming up with a visual style for my movie, I need to have a method to execute that, because I’m not going to stand on set and for every image think about all the reference images I looked at and all the processes I’ve gone through with a director. There’s simply not enough time.
Yes, you shoot some charts and the program does its magic and some numbers come up, but I’m more interested in the fact that you can adjust those numbers. I know what the software’s judgment of this format is, but I’m not just interested in what is technically correct. It’s also part of my job to take the normal, the correct, and the standard, and to steer away from them and find new things, to find ways to use these things in a very specific way for the visual style of the movie that I’m shooting now.
AB: How do you develop a visual style for a movie?
Tal Lazar: It all starts with a very creative exchange with the director. We’ll e-mail each other photos by photographers or painters; we’ll go to galleries and concerts. We’re dealing with a medium in which we don’t always want to put what we feel into words. We try to give each other the experience of what it is exactly we’re looking for.
Once we’re there, it’s my job as a cinematographer to take those ideas and turn them into things that are very, very practical. I need to take the feeling I discussed with the director and translate that into dollies and lamps and cameras. For me to do that, I need some help, and the light meter is the known and tested tool for that. But the software actually allows me to have more flexibility. Rather than just finding the limitations of the camera—which, again, is also important—I’m able to apply to this tool a certain way of looking at things. When I’m using my light meter and the software, I know that I calibrated my tools to be consistent with the visual style I’m aiming for.
AB: Did you make any other unexpected discoveries in the Data Transfer Software?
Tal Lazar: I didn’t expect to see the sensitometric curve displayed. That was very exciting for me. It’s not really necessary for the user to see it. But it’s like a language. It’s a way I understand visually how a camera responds to light. You can draw a lot of conclusions from that alone, even without exporting the profile to a light meter.
AB: How would you use the sensitometric curve without the meter?
Tal Lazar: The chart gives me a lot of information. Where does compression begin? Where do I want my skin tones to be? Where is the center? The curve always begins almost flat and then becomes very steep and then becomes flat in the highlights. That change of angle is where things can look very, very different. If it’s a little sharper in the angle going into the highlights, that indicates rollover into highlights. All these things you can find out only by looking at charts, and the Sekonic software generates them.
AB: How would the curve help you place skin tones, as an example?
Tal Lazar: The center of the curve is usually a straight line, or less angled than the highlights and shadows. This indicates to me that the mid-tones will have less visible artifacts than the extreme highlights or shadow areas. The decision where to place skin tone really depends on the story of the scene. Sometimes it will be in the center part of the curve and other times it will be extremely underexposed, by choice. The curve helps me by making me aware of how far I can go before the image quality decreases or information is completely lost.
One of the things we teach at AFI is how to read sensitometric curves. We start looking at the chart and saying, “I’m ok with putting the skin tones at -4 stops, even though I know it’s going to be very dark. But at -6 stops, I don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s already in an area where the angle of the curve has changed in a way that would stop reacting the same way, and this is something I would want to test.”
"Now I’m able to put part of my movie
inside of the light meter."
AB: How do you create a profile with the DTS program that’s going to achieve the visual style you want?
Tal Lazar: In the process of shooting the chart and analyzing information in the software, you make certain decisions. When I’m shooting the chart, am I shooting it with tungsten lamps or daylight lamps? Am I shooting it with filters? Am I changing the aperture? I like to do overexposure and underexposure tests without changing the T-stop, because in certain conditions changing the T-stop affects contrast.
And then the sensitometric curve in the software shows me where I’m placing the brightness information. I decide where on that curve I want to be, where the middle is, and how to distribute the information on the curve. That’s going to affect the look of the movie. It’s going to affect postproduction. So when I’m sitting in front of the program, I’m going to adjust the green lines to create a limit to keep myself from going where I don’t want to be. I’m also deciding how to rate the camera.
The limits of the curve and the rating of the camera sound like very simple settings, but the fact is that I’ll set them differently in every movie, and it’s because of the results of extensive tests and a lot of creative decisions. I couldn’t do that before. I had to just remember those decisions and use the light meter. Now I’m able to put part of my movie inside of the light meter.
Tal Lazar is a director of photography based in Los Angeles, California. With years of professional experience both in the USA and abroad, Lazar shoots both film and digital, and has shot movies in genres ranging from drama to comedy to horror. He holds an MFA from the American Film Institute Conservatory, where he teaches today, and a BFA from Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv.