Thursday, August 22, 2013

Shooting Flat is the Way to Go!

Shooting Flat - What does this mean?

When talking to professional DP's you will hear the often talking about "shooting flat" or "shoot flat as hell". What does that really mean? In order to not get into a super detailed explanation, I am going to put it in simple terms that hopefully everyone will be able to comprehend and understand.

We like the raw.

We hear terminology about dynamic range of a given camera. Then there is all this talk about shooting raw as well. Even though these terms are many times confused with each other, they both approach the concept. Raw as we know it, basically collects all the data available to the camera's capability. It does not record a picture per-se, but rather simply writes a ton of data about the individual pixels in regards to what each such pixel "sees". The process is pretty straight forward in regards to how it transfers such data to the memory card or recording mechanism you happen to be using. These files on a per image basis can be in the range of 25 times the size of a compressed photo, image or frame. Hence, when shooting raw, one needs high speed and very large recording devices. The assumption is that this raw data shall not be tampered with whatsoever as you record it. Or does it? Ask 20 different experts and you will get 20 different answers. The assumption is that shooting in raw shouldn't tamper with anything. And it doesn't in most cases. Hence, you should have enough data to really work your photo or film/video in many directions and aspects.

Now about that "flat" thing. 

Shooting "flat" means something totally different. As when we say, "shoot flat", it means simply that the "processed" or compressed photo or footage should be as flat as needed or wanted in regards to sharpness, saturation, contrast and color tone. 

Your lens however shall have absolutely no impact on this flat thing unless you decide to put a filter on it.

The lighting shall also have no impact on this either, unless you put filters, scrims or any other light changing device over your light.

The color temperature may have some impact particularly if you use different technologies of lighting. But lets just assume you have your camera set to "tungsten" (hint hint) for your "normal always use" white balance. Okay, that helps a bit to start with. You have a really good chance using that setting for just about everything. And you definitely want to stay consistent with that!

I know, some of you are ready to kick my butt on that statement. But think about it clearly before you do. Particularly if you are shooting a film of some type. When it comes to photos (stills) we can talk about changing white balance constantly.

Now we can start talking about sharpness, saturation, contrast and color tone. These are typically the settings you should have and should be able to manipulate on your camera. If you cannot, then you are quite simply stuck with whatever the manufacturer believes to be a cool setup. If you have a pro-sumer on up brand type camera, these settings should be available. Even on video cameras, not just DSLR's.

What does Shooting "Flat" do?

In a nutshell, setting your settingss to "flat" many times will or can expand the capabilities of the camera. Using default settings of the typical camera will "crush" certain things such as contrast and saturation as well as over-sharpen your imagery as it processes the imagery for that compressed format that it uses.

In stills that format is known as Jpegs (.jpg) and in video, it is known as many format possibilities. If could be some flavor of compressed Quicktime (.mov, mp4 yada yada) to other flavors designed or that may be manufacture specific (AVHC, m2t etc..). These are known as codec or "compression decompression algorithms". The objective simply is to use your preferred "flat" settings to achieve or should I say retrieve as much data as possible knowing that the codec will most likely compress the stuff out of it.

By "turning down" these settings, you could potentially even increase the dynamic range of you camera. And that my friends is what this is really all about.

Think about it this way... If you crank up the contrast for example, you will loose many mid tones or "steps" of gray mixed with color. If you crank up saturation, you are basically eliminating many colors on the visual spectrum due to the fact that you are for example making green so much greener, which in turn takes a lesser green up to the full green which now everything looks like the same green. The same goes for red and blue. I just happened to use green because in typical sensors the layout predominantly has green. But requires a whole different topic. Or if you push the sharpness too much, then you may also be pushing a lot more graininess, chromatic aberrations and possibly cut yourself in the process. Okay, the latter can't happen. But pushing any of these items can literally take dynamics out of your shots. The exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve!

So by cranking down these settings, you are simply heading towards shooting "flat". A bit more dynamic range, more shades of gray and hence, more data to work with.

So Why Isn't Everyone Shooting "Flat"? Or Simply Put; "What's the Downside?"

Well. Wouldn't you like to know. Of course there is a downside. But the upsides make that downside look minimal once you understand the process. The downside is you will need to color grade, or correct your footage. This is however, very advantageous when shooting footage, particularly if you are doing a film of sorts. In the world of still photography, this is done with the Raw Processor found in the Adobe Suites for example. In the film industry this is done with color grading tools or color correcting tools. But if understood, you can very easily match color between two or more cameras provided they are all shooting as "flat" as possible. 

If you ever get a chance to see actual original footage/video from the industry as shot, you will think that it looks literally like crap. It will be flat as hell, almost no color, and even soft in some cases. A professional color grader eats this stuff up! This is what can make or break a scene. Color grading not only makes things look pretty and sharp and and and .. but also can be the actual mood setter for the viewer. 

The bottom line: Shoot flat and learn about color grading, and correction. There are some very powerful tools available for this today. Some are very easy to use and actually come with pre-sets galore, others are totally capable and flexible but may require some stiff learning curves. 

Here are a few such examples:

For quick color effecting and styling (very easy to use too!):

Magic Bullet Looks

A freebie, yet still cool version of the above:
Magic Bullet Quick Looks Free

A very powerful tool (part of Adobe Creative Cloud):

Adobe SpeedGrade CS6 or CC

Some free preset settings for your camera? (Canon DSLRs only):

You can download either or both of these and install them into your Canon DSLR as user presets using the tools that came with the Canon Software for your camera. (on the CD/DVD). You will need a computer, and the USB cable that came with your camera to install these. Also, hop on over the VideoMaker Magazine and check out the video about this topic as well - they tell you step by step how to install these on your camera:

How does all this apply to stock media artists?

If you understand the stock footage world of yesteryear, it was almost mandatory to deliver only unprocessed "flat" footage. Of course, the only buyers back then were film studios and television networks, a.k.a. "professional houses".

They wanted to have as much flexibility with any footage as possible. But they also understood the whole process of shooting, buying, color correcting etc..., they actually needed it that way to make things match to their productions. It was a no-no to deliver any sort of pre-processed footage. It was a requirement to deliver original unprocessed and preferably "flat" footage.

Times have changed. In today's world just about anything goes. Probably due to more powerful software being available that will allow one to just about do anything to any type of footage. But be aware, that the professional world still appreciates unprocessed "flat" footage hands down. So if you are targeting your market to be the professional production world, that usually has significant budgets, then you should at least strive to deliver unprocessed "flat" footage of this nature. It will yield higher dollar sales as well as send a message to the buyers that you are also a professional.

Granted, many buyers today like finished or processed, color corrected goodies as well. But typically those clips are purchased due to time crunch where the buyer doesn't have time to do any post-production color work or quite simply they don't care anymore, or worse yet, don't know how. One sees the result constantly of lousy color work in the typical reality shows of today. But most of all, watch any local indie and you will quickly discover that ones that claim to be DP's, editors etc.. really have no clue and will literally slap together just anything without correction of any kind in sight.

The market now leaves us to question, do correction or not? Shoot normal or "flat". There is no straight answer other than perhaps, "shoot flat, then correct or grade and last but not least, offer up both versions."

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