Shooting High Definition

Update: December 7th, 2009

Shooting High Definition

by Geoff Dunlap
Director of Photography
American Production Services

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The introduction of HDTV into the area of field production has been exciting. Initially, what one notices is the stellar improvement in resolution that HD conveys. Television imagery was ready for something improved, impressive, and dynamic. HDTV is all three.
It is a technology that is very easy to like, yet one that must be approached as new, not as an upgrade to Standard Definition Television (SDTV).
Some of major areas to be addressed are:

1.    Aspect Ratio – With a 16×9 aspect ratio, HDTV allows for the planning of scenes and blocking of action in ways restricted by the 4×3 aspect of SDTV. Frame dynamics change and expand with 16×9 composition. Grand vistas or grotesque close-ups play out in new ways with HDTV.

2.    Sets – Increased resolution requires that sets be designed with the understanding that many more details will be seen on the screen. There is no room for sloppy craftsmanship, painting, props, etc. Background details that may have been obscure in SDTV can play very much as foreground in HD.

3.    Make-Up – When the high resolution of the camera is mixed with the lens designed for HD origination, the style and amount of make-up must be adjusted.

4.    Lighting – My experience in lighting for HDTV has indicated that there is a greater contrast range available than in SDTV. The equipment, methods, approaches and ratios that I generally use in film lighting have crossed over nicely into HDTV. Low light conditions are recorded with a truer black range than the noisy, murky, muddy imagery generated in SDTV.
A rule of thumb that I have adopted concerning exposure/aperture is to err in being a little under rather than overexposed. As a result, you will have some image substance with which to work in post-production, rather than a “blown-out” scene in which no detail is retrievable in the over-exposed highlights. Testing, evaluating, and developing knowledge of the set-up parameters of your camera are critical to producing a rich, full palette.

5.    Lens – With the new cameras has come a whole new class of lens–HD lens. They are built similarly to SDTV zoom lens, but what you see and how you use them is different. Because of the critical resolution and detail of high definition, care with focus setting and depth of field is important. Access to a high quality, critical resolution monitor is imperative to properly focused images.
Experimenting with the best range of apertures for your camera and lens is suggested. As HDTV progresses, the marketplace will be filled with prime lenses. Then, even more options for composition, camera movement and placement will be available.

6.    Filters – If you are used to deriving certain effects with certain camera filters, you will need to adjust. Changing the intensity or the nature (i.e. material) of the filter may be necessary to achieve the same “look” you achieved in SDTV.

My recent experience in shooting HDTV for a six-hour PBS public affairs series entitled “National Desk” left me with these impressions: a good “talking head” in 4×3 is better as a “talking head and shoulders” in 16×9 . . . let the image breathe; use less camera movement, let the movement occur within the frame; HDTV is something different in the world of video, treat it as such. Do not look at it, light it, or shoot it as if it is just “improved” video. HD stands alone. The learning curve is stimulating. And the results are rewarding.

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