Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Backlit Desert Shots

I have a scene in the desert to shoot with four women for a short film. I'm shooting this scene in one day. I feel that the most attractive light for them is to have them back-lit by the sun and fill the faces myself.

My question is that if I block the scene so I'm able to shoot everybody with this "back-lit" look and just cheat the background, will it be too much of a cheat? Or will people watch this and accept the fact that the sun is always behind them?

Thanks, Christopher C. Pearson

I can't address all the issues you raise but I can tell you that at this time of year the sun most closely approximates dropping directly downward out of the sky.

During the winter months the sun drops at the greatest horizontal angle.

Cliff Hancuff

Nestor Almendros, in his book A Man with A Camera, states very clearly that he would routinely cheat closeups so that all the people are backlit within a scene....

So, it is done all the time but it doesn't necessarily mean that the story demands it, does it?

Ted Hayash

A few films to look at where they pulled this off successfully (just off the top of my head):

--The Natural (a lot of the baseball stuff) --some scenes in E.T. --And, I understand (haven't actually seen it yet) The Horse Whisperer (maybe it's a Redford thing).

Seems like the way to do it is establish a big ol' wide shot with your main characters backlit, then do the coverage with pretty long lenses to throw the background totally out of focus.


Check it out, definatly a Redford thing, I think it did not go unnoticed, I can't say Robert Richarson's work was great, he does some much better things, (I think Redford put some pressure on him or something)

Vasco Lucas Nunes

Not if you're good at cheating <g>.

Hey, ""...everybody gets a backlight..."", it's a look. Go for it if you think it sits with your vision. If you're sensitive to the texture of the shots and things feel natural you should be on solid ground.

I don't think it's possible to *cheat too much* these days. There seem to be so many budget restraints and money worries that I believe knowing how and when to cheat effectively is an important part of our skill set.

Granted, it's not always the best way to do things. BUT, knowing how to cheat a turn-around when the chips are down is one of the things that separates the women from the girls. D.P.

Conrad Hall once said that he disliked ""slick"" photography because it was without flaws - which is not how he saw life. And I remember Caleb Deschanel once saying that in every shot there should be something a little out-of-control - I guess he meant that some mistakes are what give life to a shot

I have to agree with David. Thanks everybody for all the input, This has been a tremendous help.

Christopher C. Pearson

Conrad and Caleb are two of the slickest DPs around - perhaps Caleb a little more than Conrad but...If you want grit you have to hire a non-USA, or at least a New Yorker, DP...before you flame me I'm only half serious...

When I was based in the theatre run by Peter Cheeseman (he of the Ayckbourne, Joseph trinity) if he was directing a show he would always leave a scene partially rehearsed. This put the actors on edge and kept them on their toes! It worked for a few nights at least...

When I was starting out I used to fiddle with the levels endlessly. Then a director said stop fidling now or you'll take the life out of it. Took me aback but he made me see light in a different light again.

Nowdays when I light I try not to take too many readings. However, when I operate I still try to do it perfectly and envy those operators who add that little edge to their framing - and they're mostly Russian, Czechs, Polish, Hungarian, English (not so much) and some South American operators. I've often thought of changing the GG markings a little off centre - maybe one day...

It's funny how we all aspire for perfection when we start out but as we get closer to it we start to admire the not so perfect! If it hadn't been for Hollywood or Ridley Scott I would have *known* so many more women when I was younger! :-)

I guess I dislike all backlit scenes for the same reason now. Just my two rupees...

Shangara Singh

London Based DoP/Lighting Cameraman

Ahh yes, but it's been said, you need to know the rules before you can break them. Picasso comes to mind...



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