Montag, 7. Oktober 2013

Using the full frame: shooting in super low light

I'm currently working on a longer assignment in Lebanon for the UNHCR, depicting the live and existence of Syrian refugee's who wait out the devastating war in their homeland in neighboring Lebanon. Lebanon's authorities don't want official refugee camps to be set up, based on the fear that it could lead to a similar outcome as Palestinian camps had back in the 70ies ( from 1975-1990 a brutal and very destructive civil war was raging in Lebanon which even drew in Israel and Syria ).

So, pretty much left on their own, these refugee's try to find a place in a society that is made up of only 5 million people but also oscillates between compassion for the blight of the Syrians and the fear that they get overrun ( estimates put the refugees to about 1.5 million ).
The political landscape in Lebanon stays unstable after a short war between Hezbollah and Israel in the mid 2000's and the refugee influx makes many Lebanese fear for the stability of their country.

A week ago we heard about a little unfinished trading center, that was converted into an underground shelter for several hundred Syrians south of the capital of Beirut. The owner of the building decided to let the refugee's use it as shelter and temporary home. A photographer was there before and the visuals looked bleak and frightening. But being an underground shelter I could immediately see that there was very little light to work with. The little bit of light that was coming, could be used for effects and to illustrate the bleakness of this place.

Although we had more standard broadcast cameras to our disposal, like a Sony PMW200, I decided to go for my trusted 5D Mark III. I believe that only a DSLR with its shallow field of depth and its low light capabilities would have been able to capture the scenes. I refrained from bringing extra light, cause out of experience I know that this refugee places are always swarmed with curious children and having to babysit a set of lights next to keeping the children out of the frame would have been a pure nightmare.

The shelter turned out to be some underground storage facility that was refitted by the refugees to house families in little compartments, where up to 10 people had to live in a 7x7 m square , which a little kitchen had to be fitted it.

There are two main tunnels, big enough to fit a car through, which constantly created a lot backlight in most of the shooting scene. That ended up in quiet a lot of changing of angles and positions. But it also enabled us to come with some nice back-light shots that gave nice silhouettes, increasing the eerie look of the scene.

Although the 5D Mark III is pretty good in low light and I brought lenses with wider Apertures, I had to go quiet high on the ISO. That results at times at very grainy images, so NeatVideo has to do a little bit of work here. The results are mainly for broadcasting, so a little bit of grain is not going to do a lot of damage to the end product, but with a low end compression you can have some funny looking artifacts that might be overall distracting. Normally I would not use NeatVideo a lot, cause it increases the render time quiet significantly ( which is bad for news broadcast ) but for features with a not immediate deadline it can be very helpful.

Another element is the sound. In a closed space like this, getting clean sound is very difficult. You better bring some very directional mic's, and even then, you will get some sound reflection on your track. Somebody is always doing something, kids screaming, people shouting...with all this tunnels and caverns, this sound elements will get amplified or carried over longer distances.
So, during interviews, we had to get the people into their "homes" ( which are just compartments with plywood door ). Here we had almost no light except of some weak light bulbs ran on a car battery ( if it would have been a generator you had to take car of that noise source as well).

That is when the 5D Mark III really started to shine. I doubt I could have shot that interviews on anything else then a full frame sensor. The amount of light I needed to get any image was pretty crucial and thanks to the big sensor it didn't look too flat either ( something that happens a lot with the 3 chip cameras ).

Interview shot pre-post. You can see that the sensor struggles with the blacks, after having to lighten the blacks a little...
Now we fixed it thanks to some Luma corrections.

I think true low light work is something that is the true strength of the 5D Mark III, even the bigger guns like a C100 or a PMW200 will struggle with such setups.
Although I have to admit I haven't really figured out to tune my backscreen properly for such extreme low light situations. Despite using a EVF with Zebra exposure simulation, its sometimes hard to find the right exposure.

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