"#AskCybel" Installment #6 - How to be a Union Set Photog & Filming Dark Skin for Low Light Scenes
Photo Credit: S & A

"#AskCybel" Installment #6 - How to be a Union Set Photog & Filming Dark Skin for Low Light Scenes

nullRead installment 1 here (on Canon log, waveform monitors & hiring the best documentary DP); installment 2 here (on lighting dark skin, SLRs and recreating ‘Sex and the City’); installment 3 here ("#AskCybel" Installment 3 – on "Midnight in Paris" and Getting Paid to Travel Internationally); installment 4 here (On Intelligently Filming Sex Scenes and Becoming a Key Grip); and installment 5 here (First Time Shooting a Doc in China and Film Set Politics), if you missed them any of them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Before you dive in, here’s a reminder of my initial announcement, to remind you what this new series is about, and, for those who may just be joining us…

Her much-anticipated monthly columns on all things cinematography, have contributed much to this blog’s success in a myriad of ways, since she started penning them in 2012, much to the appreciation and education of the many who read each and everyone – the two most popular likely being "The Art of Lighting Dark Skin for Film and HD" and "A Cinematographer’s Plea to the Budding Film Auteur: Move Your Camera." Cybel Martin’s pieces have been so widely-read, so much that even the late Roger Ebert, before his death last year, shared one of them on Twitter, which we were all incredibly appreciative of, given the many hundreds-of-thousands of followers he has. Needless to say, that specific post was at the top of the most visited S&A articles for that year (2012). Cybel has already covered a lot of ground since her first post, and in order to assist in ensuring that she continues to inform and delight, we both agreed that a bi-monthly column – in which she’ll essentially hold court, fielding specific questions from YOU, the reader – was a great idea! So, you’re encouraged to email any cinematography-related questions (whether you’re a pro filmmaker, or just getting started, or somewhere between) to Cybel at AskCybel@gmail.com. I’m sure she’ll really appreciate it if you kept your questions direct and professional. She’ll then publish bimonthly posts, answering as many questions posed as she’s able to. Obviously, your participation is necessary to maintain this new series; so don’t hesitate to use it, otherwise, it’ll go away! This is something we’ve never done before, so we might make adjustments along the way, if necessary, as engagement evolves. In the meantime, "Ask Cybel" at AskCybel@gmail.comYou can also be anonymous, for those who don’t want their names published.

Here’s installment #6, with 2 questions, from Johnalynn and Alan.

Ask Cybel #6 on "How to be a Union Set Photog and Filming Dark Skin for Low Light Scenes"

Hi Cybel.

First off, thank you for taking the time to answer questions.  

I’m researching a career change into Unit Set Photography.  I’ve been a photographer for twelve years and an Editor for ten. I was reading that a lot of USP are members of 600 IATSE.  Do you have any advice for someone who’s wants to venture into that but hasn’t logged the hours to join a union?

Thank you in advance.

Johnalynn Holland

Hello Johnalynn

Its taken me a while to respond to this question because I really wanted one of my professional set photographer friends to share their two cents. As the expression goes, that’s been harder than “herding cats.”

I’m going to give you some guidance to get you started but keep in mind I am non-union as well. Hopefully others can share advice in the comment section. My understanding is there are different ways to enter 600. You can amass the necessary hours, be “walked in” (on a non-union shoot that goes union during production), be invited by the union or be hired by a Producer of a union gig who insists you are the only person for the job.

Until then, simply start working on non-union shoots to gain the professional on-set experience, log hours and most importantly make connections. Every film, whether union or non-union, wants and needs an USP for both promotional materials and “behind the scenes” shots.

Perhaps your biggest hurdle, when dealing with the uninformed non-union filmmaker, will be how to educate them on why you should be hired and paid for the gig. Detail your professional experience, the gear you have and show off your clever and intuitive compositions. You can offer much more than a PA taking stills with their iPhone or 5D.

Also familiarize yourself with set-etiquette to develop a good reputation. If you take strong photos, but forget to say “flashing” before a shot, we hear your shutter during a take or you carelessly get in the crew’s way, your name will not be passed on.

I wish I could support you with more concrete advice to get into 600. However, I did find this forum that should give you some insight into the maneuvering and potential politics involved.

Best of luck.


Do you have any tips for lighting actors with darker complexions in scenes that are supposed to be low light/simulate the nighttime?

In a similar vein, do you have tips on shooting actors with darker complexions in scenes involving interplay with shadows, a la classic film noir-styled shots?

– Alan

Hello Alan

Without knowing the context of the story, what camera you are shooting on nor your budget for post, it’s a challenge to give tips beyond what I shared in my original article.

Let’s suppose you have no budget for post and are working with limited gear. Some lighting set-ups to play with:

Backlight your actors with your largest light. This will be your "key light". Depending upon your camera settings, you might be able to read a little definition in their faces without a fill light. Or use beadboard to add the smallest amount of fill without it being obviously “lit”. It’s a very simple yet dramatic set-up for nighttime or film-noir inspired scenes. You can accentuate the mood with colored gels. Personally, I’m not a fan of the doubled up CTB for moon look. It screams 80s. But play around with and test different color correction and party gel combos.

Similar to above, you can use a hard-edged light with colored gels but with a neutral fill light (no colors). The neutral fill with allow your audience to see some facial expressions while the gelled hard light creates the mood or simulates a light source (moon, street light, fire). Depending upon your location, this can work for both night time or stylized images. This probably wouldn’t work in a location with white walls (light bounce).

Another suggestion for low light scenes: Try lighting your actors only with a large soft light, add colors to mimic the moon, street lamp etc and control the light throw with black wrap and flags. Most importantly, under-expose the actor’s faces by a few stops for the low light level look. Control your light spill and increase the contrast in your camera settings for a noir look.

Black/brown skin absorbs light and transmutes it’s quality and color in a really magical way not replicated with light skin. You can create extraordinary images with under-exposure, a little diffusion to soften the look, perhaps some Christel Blue?

For more advanced tips, research the lighting practices of DPs: Bradford Young, Ellen Kuras, Tim Orr and John Alonzo for starters. Also study photographers: David Alan Harvey, Gordon Parks and Steve McCurry. I admire their approaches to lighting dark skin.

Remember : Practice. Shoot. Be bold. Repeat.

As always, I encourage readers to offer additional tips in the comment section.

See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com. Chat film with me at @cybeldp.

Email questions for #AskCybel at AskCybel(at)gmail.com. Indicate if you’d like your name published or kept anonymous.

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