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Expose in the Zone - getting the best image for grading.
  • There isn't an "Education" category, but maybe there should be. I would have put this in there instead.

    Many people following this thread - - have heard me talk about the 4 stop (technically 5-stop) "Target Range" (or Target Zone) for DSLRs in which you should expose your scene to get clean images that grade exceptionally well with plenty of detail in the blacks and highlights.

    But I've received so many questions about what exactly I mean by "the zone system" that I put this video together to demonstrate what I mean and why.

    While I only touch very briefly on the actual Ansel Adams Zone System, which is way more complicated than explained herein, if you light and expose your scene using this "zone" technique, you'll never worry about macro-blocking, noisy blacks, or blown out highlights again.

    ...And you'll be able to grade the living hell out of the footage.

  • 146 Replies sorted by
  • @Shian Thanks for sharing this - priceless

  • @shian

    Great video! I had no idea that you could change the mood SO much with grading like that. I always figured that if you wanted a dark scene, you had to shoot in the dark... (or close to it...)

    So, to achieve the look from the still image above, you would for example:

    Use your light meter to take a reading of the brightest part of your subject Use your meter to take a reading of the darkest portion of what is in frame Make sure that it all falls within 4 stops? Then set your aperture on the camera to split the middle?

  • @tcarretti- Well, no, Tony. It's actually much simpler than that. And lucky for you, you're already a CGT member, so when the full tutorial goes live you'll see how I do it. I base all my exposures around the key light for the subject. And like I said in the other thread, I've pretty much abandoned the in-cam meter for my Digisix.

    Ideally, in the shot that I spend most of my time discussing in the video, I would have liked to have had the right equipment to knock down the light on the walls another 2/3 to 1 stop. It would have allowed the actor to stand out a bit more in the shot, and given the overall frame more contrast, but you work with what you have.

    Also I've updated the video for better audio, and added a few more graphics to help explain things more clearly.

  • The zone system was created by Ansel Adams I believe (at least perfected). He's written a few books (The Camera, The Negative, and one called The Print) which cover it in detail. He's a very entertaining read as well as super informative. Even though he worked with film the techniques still apply to digital as well. I highly recommend these books for anyone looking to improve their "eye".

  • Yes, I mention it in the video - it is often referred to as The Ansel Adams Zone System. It was created by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. There's plenty of info about it online as well, but very few videos on the subject of any worth. It took me a while to wrap my brain around it, and I'm hoping the film school helps those like me who learn better from video tutorials than by reading books.

  • Sorry, ya I didn't mean for that to seem arrogant or anything, your post just reminded me of reading the books and mainly how surprisingly entertaining Adams writing was. I definitely agree that videos with examples are much better for learning. This is something I need to go back and refresh on for sure. Thanks for the quick video, I look forward to more!

  • @shian

    Thanks for the response, but I guess I'll have to wait for the film school video. I'm not understanding what you mean by basing everything around the key light.

    I understand to use the light meter reading for the key to set the camera aperture, got that. But how do you know if everything else falls within the 4 stops that you are talking about? Meaning the background, foreground, and other stuff in frame? Do they all have to be lit similarly? Sorry for the absolute newb questions, but this is something I know absolutely nothing about.

    Thanks for taking the time and sharing all this information, I think you're doing a great job and filling a "hole" for people that either don't have the time/money for going to film school.

  • @shian This is really useful, and I think I'll be signing up as a paid member, now that I've found a job. Question though: you're using FCPX in the video, but you also mention AE in the video -- which tools do you use for which parts of the process? Do you ever color grade in FCPX, or does your plugin only work in AE? Do you use Premier as well?

    Edit: I read the FAQ on your site, so it's clearer now. Hopefully there will be enough interest in ColorGHear to make it work in FCPX too.

  • @shian thanks a lot, very usefull! :-)

    I thought I should use the whole (dynamic-)range and stretch out exposure across the full histogram, but the rule you present is more like the opposit:

    Light the scene (highlights and dark areas) but only use the middle part of the historgram (20%-80%). Right?

  • @Psyco if you are planning on doing any serious grading on the image, yes. You'll notice that I actually stretched the 2nd shot from 20-80 to 10-90. And even though it's a dark contrasty shot, I still retain the fine grain and detail in the shadows - no macro blocking, and no mud, and my highlights aren't blown out, which is the first thing to go on Digital video and DSLR footage. Also the histogram will lie to you. on that wide shot, I would have had a histogram that stretched across the full spectrum but the meat of that shot was between 20-80. I would get a meter. Or, if you've got the cash, get a TV Logic monitor - VFM-056WP. My 1st AC won't even show up on a set unless we have one in the package. :)

    Now in natural light, this will be very, very hard to do. It becomes exceedingly difficult to capture the full range of light in nature (22 stops), so you have no choice but to use the full DR of the camera, maybe some gradient ND filters, and do your best to retain highlight detail. It's not such a problem with close-ups, but in wide shots, unless you've got some really big guns (lighting wise) you're not gonna fit your scene into 6 stops, let alone 4. Without HDR, no motion picture production camera in the world can capture the full range of light in the real world. So for now, forget trying to do that, and focus on getting the best looking images into your computer. And then bend them into what you want. When possible squeeze it into the 4 stop range.

    important note this technique is mainly for maximizing control in post. It is better to take the load off the camera and it's internal engine. Give it something it can easily process and write to the card, and let your more powerful and comprehensive render engines on your computer, and algorithms in your software handle the heavy lifting. I'd like to find out from @driftwood what exactly footage shot with this technique is actually doing in the matrix and the quantization in terms of encoding. Cuz I never experience many of the issues others have with their footage, but they are shooting across the full DR, which I hardly ever do.

    @ahbleza - I mainly used X for this video because the WFM has color, so you can more easily see what I'm talking about when referring to different parts of the waveform. I use FCP-X for editing. Xto7 to get it into FCP7. And XML to get it from FCP7 to AE. (Hopefully Adobe will get off their asses soon, and add .fcpxml support like Resolve has, so I can go straight from X to AE.)

    So put simply:

    I edit in FCP-X, Export to FCP7 (using Xto7)

    I export an XML from FCP7.

    I import that XML into After Effects.

    (Vegas users can export an AAF to AE. PP users can simply import their PP project into AE, but all three workflows are lossless.)

    Then I grade and do whatever titles and effects are needed in After Effects.

    And I always render out of AE 32bit 444.

  • @shian Thanks for the info on the workflow! I do my editing in FCPX these days, but was thinking of investing in a separate platform for Premiere and AE, and I can now see others such as yourself think it's a good idea, so I feel better about my decision.

  • I just went out and measured just to be sure my memory wasn't off, and in a medium-wide frame, it is possible to fit the 12.3 stops of light during magic hour into a 6 stop range with just reflectors, which is one of the many reasons so many prefer it. But to get detail on the wet dirt and the shadows outside the reflector's range into the exposure and still retain highlights you'd need need the full 12.3 stops, or some pretty bright lights. But throwing-out all white and black objects, you can get it to around 8.6, which if you remember is where I said the GH2 maxed out for exposure.

    Like I said in the important note - don't get caught up in the 4 stop zone for everything. There will be times when you just can't pull it off. And then knowing the full zone system, and where all your colors are suppose to fall will be very useful. And I'll cover that in the full Zone System tutorial.

  • Very good tutorial @shian.

    This is sort of related. I highly recommend the iPhone app "Pocket Light Meter" by Nuwaste studios. It's free (ad-free version is only .99 cents otherwise) and very accurate. I used the spot meter of my GH2 on an 18% grey card, and when properly exposed (EV at +2/3s) I had my T-stop at 5.6 and my Sekonic L308DC on reflex gave me a reading of f/5.6 and so did my iPhone meter. Very good for doing spot readings, which is very important when exposing "in the zones" as you can check to see how much over/under smaller spots are, without using the camera or owning a spot-meter.

  • @gabel - yeah, ColorGHear users already know - there's a link to it on the tutorial page and here as well -

  • Wow, I missed it. But some great tutorials.

  • I'm not a member, but feel free.

  • Ah, I think I will then, very good tutorial, major kudos!

  • nevermind, I just joined...FB made it easy.

  • Great tutorial.. It's just what I've been trying to do at shoots, although more precise; until now I didn't use a light meter for spot metering, only the gh2 histogram and closeup review of highs, lows, important targets..

  • @Gabel Wow, those douchenozzles over at xxx really can't handle someone challenging their little empire. So, after I got into it with B (Who is not a Cinematographer by the way) over my findings, and then presented proof of what I was saying, which completely countered what he was declaring, they deleted the thread, and claimed I was advertising without their permission. But... before I defended myself effectively no one had a problem with the thread being there. Because... what I'm really doing is threatening their little cottage industry of selling overpriced, shitty, how-to DVDs to noobs. Fucking self-entitled pricks!

    (the findings I'm referring to being from here -

    The whole ColorGHear system, and my tutorials are something they can't get in on, and something that competes with their shit - so they now want me to pay to advertise on their site in order to post videos. Fuck them.

    CGT is also such a threat to Colorista and MB, and so much cheaper, that I'm constantly taking it on the chin like Tesla did from Edison. All their little drones running around trying to discredit me. CGT and CGFS WORK!!! My methods are easy to learn, easy to use, and even beginners can get great results on a gentle learning curve. But they are threatened by more mouths at the table. I am not. I enjoy and invite more competition, it makes me work harder, makes me better, makes ColorGHear better.

    "I know you've taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall always gets bloodied, always. It's threatening not just the way they do business, but in their minds it's threatening the game. But really what it's threatening is their livelihoods, it's threatening their jobs, it's threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it's the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people who are holding the reins, who have their hands on the switch. They go bat shit crazy." - John Henry in 'Moneyball'

  • Bunchapricks. Very thankful for your work here. Solely for the added vocabulary and technical know how not to mention CGT.

  • I saw parts of it, such a shame. Here you come with a great way of working around limitations of a camera, but well...

  • @Shian

    Since the thread was deleted, what was Barry Green's argument?

  • @shian I just found my wife's old Sekonic L398 meter in a drawer. So excited to be able to take incident light readings - and just one experiment on taking incident readings on skin has convinced me of just how much fun and how good this is going to be for working on getting my images properly exposed. Thanks for inspiring us. And I'm going to work the word "Douchenozzle" into my next conversation somewhere, so thanks for that too!

  • @jrd I can't give you all the specifics word for word because the thread is gone now, but essentially I was saying that as a general "rule of thumb" with DSLRs you can estimate that between 20-80 IRE there is about 5 IRE for every 1/3 of a stop (4 stops x 3 = 12 divided into 60 = 5). And not to worry about the falloff and curve inside the range because its so gentle, But I agreed that outside the range it will change rapidly, but by employing my technique you didn't really need to worry about it. And they were trying to say that if you shoot with a cine curve on your camera that it will extend the DR of the cam into the highlights, and that I could not IN ANY WAY use stops as an accurate measure of IRE even inside the range. I countered by saying that it's not pinpoint accurate but it works as a "rule of thumb" and can help you wrap your mind around it in an easy way. And then added my usual statement that maybe the curves work with white objects and chip charts, but not skin tone, and not consistently because the detail just goes to shit on skin tone above 80 on some profiles, and at 75 on Cinema and Vibrant, and then I proved it, basically blowing their argument out of the water, showing their logic to be faulty. (I found that Cinema does a great job of retaining detail on white objects above 80 pretty decently, but not skin.)

    They were basing everything off standard REC-709 specs. And I'm telling you throw those numbers out the window. The mistake most shooters make is they are operating on outdated software. They have years of digital video experience that tells them this is the way video works. I know... I came from the same background, but DSLRs and their compression schemes are a new animal. My system is maybe a little overprotective in terms of detail. Yes there is still detail outside the range I specify, BUT when you start grading, when you start doing SERIOUS grading, that detail will disintegrate almost immediately. Which was my final argument - that I was getting ready to post when the thread disappeared, and I received a PM stating that I was not to mention or try to promote or discuss ColorGHear in anyway on their site unless I became a sponsor. Then they also deleted my post commenting on a thread @IndianaPete created regarding CGT.

    I used to respect Barry. He has always been a champion of indie production and digital video. When I bought my HVX, I also bought the HVX Bootcamp dvd, and found it interesting in terms of how well it taught you to use the camera. A little overpriced in that it was essentially a video users manual. But I was thankful someone took the time to go through the camera, and learn how it worked internally and how best to operate it to it's full potential. So I was a shocked, and a little hurt that I was being BLASTED. And then when I told a colleague who had done some stuff with Barry what had happened he sent me that quote from Moneyball, and I had to agree, that I think I'm really freaking people out with what I'm doing. Almost like I'm telling people stuff they don't want you to know.