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Cine Essentials: Metering and Modifying Reflections

Aimee Baldridge

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Scheimpflüg Digital founder and production expert John Engstrom gives a step-by-step rundown of how to meter and light reflective surfaces on a cine shoot.

Handling reflective surfaces can be one of the trickier aspects of doing a cine shoot. They can create hot spots, bounce light and color onto other scene elements, and change unexpectedly when whatever is being reflected on a shiny surface moves or is otherwise altered. Whether you’re using available light or lighting your set, you need to know how to control the shiny parts.

We asked JohnEngstrom, founder of Scheimpflüg Digital, to guide us through the process of metering and modifying reflective surfaces for a cine shoot. 

Tools and Information

You can use this equipment to measure and modify reflective surfaces during a cine shoot:

  • Light meter. To meter reflective surfaces, you should use a meter with a spot metering mode. One that incorporates a viewfinder so that you can pinpoint the spot you’re metering will be most effective.
  • Modifiers. Anything that changes the way the light falls is a modifier. It can be something that shapes the light or changes its direction, or it can be something that increases or decreases its intensity.
  • Light-related apps. These can include apps that provide weather predictions or tell you where the sun will be at any given time. Engstrom uses the Helios sun position calculator app.
  • Tape. Gaffer’s tape can come in handy for securing modifiers.
  • Stands. You’ll need something to hold your modifiers up. It can be a light stand, a C-stand, or your trusty assistant. Different types of modifiers will require different supports. Make sure you have the right supports for all your modifiers.
  • Sandbags. To weigh down the stands so that they don’t fall over, especially in the wind.
  • Clamps. It’s always good to have a few clamps handy, for attaching modifiers to stationary objects and stands.

John Engstrom: “When we’re shooting things that are really metallic and we’re outside on location, that’s when I’ll get out a spot meter and meter the reflections. Taking an incident reading doesn’t really work, because what I’m metering is reflecting the sky or a big building.”

The Process

Meter the reflective surface.

Once you’ve done the general metering for your scene and your subjects, take a look around for reflective surfaces. Look for cars, windows, mirrors, shiny housewares, and people wearing glasses. You’ll need to meter each of these surfaces separately, then decide whether to use a modifier to alter its appearance.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Set your meter to Spot Metering Mode.
  2. Set your meter to the ISO you’re using for the shoot. You should use the same ISO setting for scenes that you want to have the same look, since visual noise increases as you increase the ISO or gain.
  3. If you’re using a cine meter, set the frames per second you’ll be shooting at.
  4. If you’re shooting on film and using a shutter angle other than 180 degrees, use a cine meter that lets you set the shutter angle.
  5. Stand near the camera.
  6. Aim your meter at the reflective surface and take a reading. If it’s a large surface that reflects more than one object, you may need to take more than one reading. Make sure you meter the brightest points in the reflection, so that you know whether they will fall outside of your camera’s latitude.
  7. Make a note of your meter readings. Also note the object that’s being reflected by the surface you’re metering and what is lighting that object. For example, if you’re metering the side of a car parked next to a building, you’ll note that the building is reflected by the surface of the car, and the building itself is lit by available light at 3:00 p.m. Meter the building to be more precise, if possible.

Modify the reflections.

A reflection needs to be modified if it creates any of these problems:

  • It’s too bright. If it creates a hot spot or just a distractingly bright area, you need to reduce its brightness.
  • It’s moving. If there are nearby elements that that are moving and reflect in an element of the scene, they can create a distraction and introduce elements into the scene that shouldn’t be there. Typical moving elements include traffic and pedestrians.
  • It’s distorting other elements. In some cases, reflections can distort or obscure other elements in the scene. This is a common problem with eyeglasses, which can obscure a subject’s eyes or distort the face.
  • It may change over time. Remember that reflections are created by the things reflected. Those things are bouncing light onto the reflective surface. That means if the light on them changes, the reflections will change too. And if the objects move, the reflection will change completely. If you need the reflections to remain stable over the course of the day, or over multiple days, you need to make sure that the objects reflected in them won’t change.

John Engstrom: “When someone is wearing glasses and there are windows all around, we have to get rid of distracting reflections. If there’s lots of movement around the location that’s being reflected in all of those surfaces, sometimes we’ll just hang up black everywhere to take the environment out of the scene.”

There are three main ways you can modify reflections in your scene:

  • Remove reflective surfaces. If you’re able to plan ahead, keep reflectivity in mind when you’re selecting set elements. You can use lensless glasses for characters in dramatic scenes or make sure that any glasses-wearing people who are going to be on screen have anti-glare coatings on their specs. If there are reflective elements in a location shoot that don’t need to be there and can be moved, like a car or a bike, you can just take them out of the scene.
  • Adjust your lighting. If you’re lighting your scene and not just using available light, you may be able to modify reflections by adjusting the position of your lights or using modifiers on them. By using a modifier to change the way light is falling on the object that appears in the reflection, you’ll change the reflection it creates. You can tone down the intensity of a reflection by using a diffuser to bring the light level down on the object that appears in the reflection. You can also use a flag near your light to keep it from illuminating the object altogether.
  • Create reflections. To have the most control over how a reflection looks and be able to replicate it at different times and in different locations, you can create the reflection yourself. You do this by putting a modifier between the object that appears in the reflection and the reflective surface. The modifier itself will appear in the reflection, instead of the object.

You can use a light-toned diffuser surface to bounce a nondescript but relatively bright reflection onto a reflective surface, or you can use a black cloth or flag to create a darker, less obvious reflection. You can also use a modifier to suggest an environment that isn’t really there, by creating light reflections that resemble reflections of bright windows or dark reflections that resemble the horizon or a dark structure like a building.

John Engstrom: “We create fake reflections all the time. On a car, we’ll use negative fill. We’ll put 50 feet of four-foot Duvetyne up to create a horizon line on the car. You can’t just aim a light at a car like you can a person. You have to put things around the car and light those things.

We were shooting a woman on top of a four-foot mirror ball once. Talk about a disaster. Everything was so bright. They wanted the sky to reflect in it, but it was a gray day. We had to set up blue seamless cloth all the way around it, so that it would reflect into the mirrored ball. It was very tricky.”

After you’ve modified the reflections, meter them again take notes. Meter the objects that appear in the reflections, too, and make notes on your modifier setup. That way, you’ll be able to replicate the scene or the look of the lighting when you’re shooting at another time or in another location.

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