Low-light filming is about to make a big leap forward

Medium format really teaches patience and waiting for the shot to happen, it’s made me a lot less likely to trip the digital shutter as well. But once you understand it you’ll see 35 as a speedy little shooter with autofocus and the like. But the 120 quality is just majestic.

I’ve been pushing ISO while chasing the Milky Way. But this summer I’m back to star trails I think. I want to work a little slower instead of trying to light paint in 30 seconds.

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This. I shot my last indie film by renting about $110K worth of gear (if bought outright), plus two Canon 5Ds, a mk II and mk III, that my DP and I owned. We wanted to sell it to a network, so we needed a mix of super-polished footage with lots of coverage, plus some guerrilla style stuff like my 5D mounted on a car dashboard at night.

The right tool for the job is always key in indie filmmaking, and the people who are pushing the edges are often doing proof of concept pieces with the technology, like THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE in ambient light, or TANGERINE on tricked out iPhones. The gear enhances those stories, in the way a mix of pro- and consumer gave my story a unique feel that was interesting enough that Showtime bought it. http://www.sho.com/sho/comedy/titles/3416837/alec-mapa-baby-daddy#/index


You might be surprised by how often even major productions lease equipment on an as-needed basis.

My favorite example is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The filmmakers had to rent a multimillion dollar lens from NASA to get a wide-angle cutaway shot of the Bellafonte because there was no other way to capture it in-camera within the physical constraints of a sound stage.

Wes Andersen said it was one of his biggest inspirations for the movie:

Q: What about the cut-away of The Belafonte? Why did you choose to do that?
A: Really, that was something that inspired me to do the entire movie. I had been thinking about how to do that for years and years and I knew it was going to be a huge effort to build something like that. We built it on the biggest stage they have at Cinecitta and it was like five stories tall. At first, we got our camera all the way back and it couldn’t hold it all. So we opened up a side of the wall and got as far back as we could,and we still couldn’t hold it. Then we got these machines that pushed the set four inches at a time over the course of a week all the way up against the wall. And finally, we got this lens from, like NASA or something – the widest lens that you could get - and it just barely held it. And that’s how we got our shot.


I’ll be damned–I always wondered about that shot! Gonna have to rewatch some Anderson films this weekend, I believe.

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It obviously covers a lot of ground, starting at ‘using cellphone camera and such friends as can be arm-twisted into acting’; but given the cost of major studio productions you can presumably remain ‘indie’ well into the six figures, maybe even 7 or 8.


Metaphor-creep, I guess.

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It doesn’t pay, you get investors. Family, friends, credit card bills up the wazoo.

Shit. The budget for Evil Dead was “$350,000–400,000”.


This camera is capable of using ambient light levels down to 0.0005 lux. That’s somewhere between a moonless overcast night sky (0.0001 lux) and a moonless clear night with “airglow” (0.0020 lux). Wow.


I’ve had some luck with night shots by stacking images, or shooting in bulb mode, which is somewhat tricky to keep the camera steady. What ISO do you push the camera to for night shots, and does the image stay free of noise/grain?

And worth every penny!

As for the movie cost breakdowns, here’s number one (in an unnumbered list, to be sure, but still) in the list of ways to cut production costs:

Eliminate night scenes. Shooting at night requires powerful/expensive lighting and the payment of nighttime rates to the crew. Broken Arrow (1996) cut costs by millions of dollars by eliminating the night scenes from the script. Many directors choose to use the "day for night" technique.

Like everything else, it depends. There’s a guideline for star points called the Rule of 500, which is 500 divided by the focal length equals the shutter speed. Wide lenses means fewer star trails are visible at longer speeds, tele lenses will show star trails much faster. So with my 14mm on a full frame I can hold open the shutter about 35 seconds. I like to be lazy and keep it at about 30 seconds through, so I don’t have to dig out my cable release. It’s also a pretty fast 2.8 lens, which means I can push it to about ISO 4000 but stars will be limited, I like to run about 6400 if I can, depending on sky glow.

Now, when I shoot with the 5Dii I try not to push it past ISO 1600, and even that’s pushing it for me. I really use that camera to stack and commit to star trails for the sky these days, or accept there is going to be some motion to the sky. But, by mixing techniques such as light painting and stacking, the results can be worth your time. This is about 20 five minute shots stacked together:

But again, the first answer is “it depends.” A lot of it depends on what you’re going to do with these images. Looking at them on a screen you’re going to be a lot more critical, iPad or 19" monitor, you’ll see all the little noise flaws, you’ll hate it, especially at 100%. But once you print it, even at 11 x 17 you’ll have a lot more forgiveness for yourself, you’ll see the noise a lot less, you’ll accept the piece with its flaws more readily, the way you accepted that 4x6 print from your point and shoot.

So don’t get too wrapped up in grain if your goal is to print. You might find out that it’s more helpful than you think. As a friend of mine says “don’t fear the noise, accept it, work with it.”


No kidding. I was chatting with an artist I commission work from who lives in Brazil. He was complaining about needing a new PC and drawing tablet, and a pack of styluses, and I as a spoiled American just casually said, “well, I’m giving you 200-odd-dollars for this current commission, so that should at least handle a few styluses and maybe a low-middle grade tablet until you can get one that’s nicer right?”. Wrong. Turns out a $150 drawing tablet in the States would be something like $400 in Brazil. I was flabbergasted.

Point being, yeah, I can believe it. Plus hopefully interesting anecdote.


Could you pay in the things themselves? Sometimes this kind of exchange gets more efficient than raw money.

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I offered to just buy him a tablet and ship it, but there were 2 reasons it didn’t work out.

  1. Shipping a single box down there by commonly available consumer-grade services would have cost the same as just buying it in Brazil. Because FedEx and UPS international rates for private citizens is highway robbery.

  2. He didn’t want to get in trouble with customs because either of our governments wouldn’t consider it a gift, but commerce. Which doesn’t worry me, but did worry him.


Sometimes a friend or a friend-of-a-friend happens to travel the right route and can be talked into couriering the cargo.

Handy to avoid customs hassle, and sometimes to obtain stuff that can not be bought directly due to some arbitrary restrictions or would be too expensive that way.

Customs are designed to slow things down and make them more expensive and cumbersome. They can die in a fire.


I don’t necessarily believe customs are entirely necessary in most cases, but the point at least is to protect domestic businesses from competition they can’t possibly hold out against internationally. Other times, the point is to prevent someone from, for instance, setting up a back yard nuclear reactor, or building an ICBM silo.

Sometimes it is a necessary thing. I certainly don’t want Joe Average Public to be able to build a thorium reactor in their garage, whether or not it’s one of the safer variants with the failsafe plug design. Other times it’s entirely an unnecessary economic protectionism racket designed to make, for instance, cheaper, better-made imported cars just as expensive as American cars, in the interest of protecting the auto industry.

At this point, I really can only offer a shrug most of the time when it comes to customs. It usually only affects me in daily life by making sure my imported beer isn’t poisonous, or my imported medications from being radioactive and chock-full of melamine. But occasionally, yes it affects me personally negatively in a direct way.

It’s more often worrisome to me that the use of customs is in the service of transferring wealth to, and propping up the business models of domestic monied interests, rather than trying to regulate products for the sake of “purity and potency”, so that you can know you’re getting what you paid for.

Brazil embarked on a questionably sensible attempt to develop domestic technology manufacturing by taxing the imported stuff to hell and back.

With the occasional exception of an anemic operation that does just enough late-stage assembly to legally qualify, this mostly hasn’t resulted in a domestic tech manufacturing sector. It sure did raise prices, though.

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Doesn’t Brazil have the second biggest Aviation industry in the world? I know that they build the second most small non-military jets. Are they just importing all avionics and flight control systems?

Except that many things aren’t manufactured in Europe/US anymore. Hard drives, most chips… no businesses that could be competed with.

A basement reactor would be actually a fun thing to have. Count me in.

This could be achieved without the annoyance of customs thugs. See the lab that does quality control for Silk Road users. We need fewer customs goons and more such labs. WAY more such labs.

You don’t order many parts from overseas, don’t you?

The smaller Asian/Russian/Ukrainian vendors are reasonable. They write sane value on the packets so they are below limits ($80 pancake Geiger tube sails through as a $10 audio tube like a breeze). The US vendors are “honest” (bleh) and the packets end up with increased delay, need to pick it up at some office which can be a major hassle, and added cost (and paying extortionary fee for metalized fabrics ordered from the US and filling a form (bleh) and waiting in a queue). Guess whom I pick as a vendor when I have a choice…


Hey, this is a great thread to ask-

I have a Sony NEX-5 and i’d like to take some closer-cropped club shots or otherwise minimally lit, what’s the best e-mount lens I could use for stills and video with extremely low ambient lighting (no flash, preferably.)

Is the Zeiss Sonnar 24mm F1.8 something I should check out? It’s a little expensive, but I’m unsure whether it’s the best for what I want, the extremely limited focal range is something to work with, I don’t mind it if it’s the best for interesting lighting scenarios.