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Weekly Video Tip: Advanced Lighting Concept – Neutral Density Filters

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By Stephen Schweickart

The first video of our Advanced Lighting series taught you how to slap some gels on your lights and keep your color temperature in check. This time around you’ll be slapping even more gels on your lights to keep their intensity in check. Jeez, these lights sure take some policing to get right, eh? Anyway, we’re talking about ND or Neutral Density filters, and their job is to keep parts of your scene, or your whole scene as we’ll get into later, from being too bright.

ND gels work a lot like color temperature gels in that you just clip them onto your lights for them to do their job, but obviously we’re dealing with brightness, not color, so they have very different functions. These gels are available most commonly in three grades, .3, .6 and .9, each getting darker as the number rises. So the higher the number, the more it’s going to knock down the intensity of the light. If your backlight is putting too harsh a rim on your talent, stick an ND on there to help bring it down a notch. Simple.

But what if your whole scene is too bright? Well there’s a solution for that too! And I don’t just mean that you need to suck less at lighting. That’s not doable. There are ND filters available that screw right onto the end of your lens bringing the brightness of your entire scene back from that “surface of the sun” look we’re trying to avoid. The ND lens filters come in the same intensities as the gels, though you can find different grades if you try.

Let’s look back on one of our old videos about depth of field. We tell you here that one of the factors that determine your depth of field is your aperture. So if you have to close down your aperture to knock down the brightness, you start to deepen your depth of field and lose that filmic look that blurring parts of your scene gives you. Sticking an ND filter on your lens saves you from having to do this and preserves that deliciously shallow depth of field all amateur movie makers, including you newbies are looking for.

If you want to get real fancy, you can even find gradient ND lens filters that start at a certain intensity on one side and taper off at the other. These are perfect for keeping your skies from being totally blown out when filming a landscape or any scene where you’re seeing a lot of this bright blue dome around the Earth. When it comes to exposure, the name of the game is CONTROL. If you can’t control your light, it will control you and let me tell you, it will NOT be gentle.

Stephen Schweickart is the co-founder of VScreen. For more information on this topic, visit VScreen’s site at http://www.vscreen.com/.

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