How dark is dark ?

I love testing at the beginning of a new show.  It’s a time where you can try things out and explore new ideas.  Anything can happen !

I’m testing along with my co-cinematographer Bonnie Elliot on a new U.S series and we started talking about darkness in the context of this new series.

I’ve always thought that there’s real DARK and Film DARK. A lot of directors ask for something to be dark, but of course they still want to be able to see what’s happening.

We came with an idea of shooting a darkness scale with a view to having a starting point to discuss it with the rest of the creative team.

In creating this test we designed it to have constant lighting and to only reduce the “fill’.  We started with the fill at the exposure level that matched the exposure on the lens, and then reduced it in 1/2 stop steps.  We also started with our model, Marianne Carter standing against black before progressing to a background that was white.  You’ll also see a couple of pracs we were testing for the art department.

I’ve always found too that the image doesn’t appear as dark when you have a bright source in frame.  This might be the pracs or it might actually be the back light in this case.  We used a 100W dedo to edge Marianne out.  This remained constant throughout the sequence. Using two of my new favourite KICK lights, iPhone controllable LED  lights by Rift Labs, we set a cyan colour that sort of matched the OSRAM LED prac that was in shot to give us a little colour separation.

The fill was a tungsten parabeam which we then reduced in 1/2 stop increments.

Darkness Scale


A NOTE !  To really get the most from this, you should be watching this on a TV, as in a TELEVISION and not on a computer screen.  If you’re looking at it on a computer screen, then you’re probably wasting your time looking at it !  The way this file is graded was designed for the colour space and gamma of a Television.

Here is a downloadable version.


Shot using an Amira with a Cooke 100mm @ T 2 1/2 at ISO 800.




About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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7 Responses to How dark is dark ?

  1. richreilly says:

    Interesting test. I recently lit a night bedroom discussion/argument scene that had shots at bed as well as standing. Actors were both African American, bedspread brightly colored, walls were white. I didn’t have clear direction on the desired was a struggle to strike a balance. Seeing your test, especially final position against poly, for the content I was working with..I might have done well to explore a silhouette for at least one of the standing angles. I’m a little unclear on what the Dedo was used for as opposed to the kicker near it. Also..curious as to why you are using the term “fill” here. Isn’t the Parabeam a “key”? Any thoughts much appreciated. Thanks,

    • johnbrawley says:


      thanks for commenting. The dedo is a constant reference of a known colour and was also very controllable. The KICK light (as opposed to kicker) was really meant as a nod to the colour of the LED prac in the BG and another way of cutting our actor from the BG. The thinking was to have her start in the DEDO and then when she ends up in her final position she’s cut out by the kick and pracs. But you’ll notice that the dedo still plays a little on her head even in the final position. This is just spill from the dedo itself though.

      The “fill” terminology being at key is really referring to the way we set the exposure which I call the KEY because that’s where the exposure is set ! So the fill light level was initially at the KEY exposure. It’s more my error in how I label things. I honestly don’t really think a lot in terms of “KEY and FILL’ but when I have to start describing them to others like for this post, then I force myself to apply them.

      I’d argue that the key in this scenario is the Dedo as it’s constant, the brightest source and we are changing the fill levels…


  2. richreilly says:

    Ok..thinking about it, the “kick” lights are kind of keys..more in terms of intensity in this case..wrapping a bit on subject from behind…

  3. Nico says:

    Thanks for the test,
    when you write ” The way this file is graded was designed for the colour space and gamma of a Television” are you referring to ITU REC 601..709.. or something else like the 16-255 levels or what? Thank you

    • johnbrawley says:

      This test has been colour corrected and is designed to be viewed in YUV (16-235) and using the gamma of 709. So when you look at something specifically graded to be watched on a television on a computer screen, it tends to look even DARKER and MORE CRUSHED.

      You can easily test this for yourself, by watching the above in vimeo on your computer and then watching on say an Apple TV through Vimeo. They will appear very different. Try it yourself and let me know what difference you notice.


  4. Jimmy says:

    Bonnie Elliot? Sorry never heard of her.
    Not even heard about this feature either. Most likely one of those cast offs that gets shown direct on the SyFy channel on sunday afternoon and only shot on 1080p because they can’t budget for 4k 🙂

  5. Pingback: How dark is dark ? | DIY Video Editing | Scoop...

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