27 Dec 2017

The essentials of controlling your exposure part 3: shutter

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The essentials of controlling your exposure part 3: shutter Shutterstock

Neil Oseman continues his in-depth series on exposure techniques. This time by covering shutter speed. 

In the first and second parts of this series, we saw how exposure can be controlled using the lens aperture – with side-effects including changes to the depth of field – and neutral density (ND) filters. Today, we will look at another means of exposure control: shutter angles. 

As with aperture, an understanding of what’s going on under the hood is useful, and that begins with celluloid. Let’s imagine we’re shooting on film at 24fps, the most common frame rate. The film can’t move continuously through the gate (the opening behind the lens where the focused light strikes the film) or we would end up recording just a long vertical streak of light. The film must remain stationary long enough to expose an image, before being moved on by four perforations (the standard height of a 35mm film frame) so that the next frame can be exposed. Crucially, light must not hit the film while it is being moved or vertical streaking will occur.

The mechanical shutter

This is where the shutter comes in. The shutter is a portion of a disc that spins in front of the gate. The standard shutter angle is 180°, meaning that the shutter is a semi-circle. We always describe shutter angles by the portion of the disc which is missing, so a 270° shutter (admitting 1.5x the light of a 180° shutter) is a quarter of a circle, and a 90° shutter (admitting half the light of a 180° shutter) is three-quarters.

The shutter spins continuously at the same speed as the frame rate – so at 24fps the shutter makes 24 revolutions per second. And with a 180° shutter, each 24th of a second is divided into two halves, i.e. 48ths of a second:

  • During one 48th of a second, the missing part of the shutter is over the gate, allowing the light to pass through and the stationary film to be exposed.
  • During the other 48th of a second, the shutter blocks the gate to prevent light hitting the film as it is advanced. The shutter has a mirrored surface so that light from the lens is reflected up the viewfinder, allowing the camera operator to see what they’re shooting.

Moviecam schematic animation

By Joram van Hartingsveldt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If you come from a stills or ENG background, you may be more used to talking about shutter intervals rather than angles. The two things are related as follows:

Frame rate x (360 ÷ shutter angle) = shutter interval denominator

For example: 24 x (360 ÷ 180) = 48

So we can see that a film running at 24fps, shot with a 180° shutter, shows us only a 48th of a second’s worth of light on each frame. This has been the standard frame rate and shutter angle in cinema since the introduction of sound in the late 1920s. The amount of motion blur captured in a 48th of a second is the amount that we as an audience have been trained to expect from motion pictures all our lives.

How shutter angles affect what we see

A greater (larger shutter angle, longer shutter interval) or lesser (smaller shutter angle, shorter shutter interval) amount of motion blur looks unusual to us and thus can be used to creative effect. Saving Private Ryan features one of the best-known examples of a small shutter angle in its D-day landing sequence, where the lack of motion blur creates a crisp, hyper-real effect that draws you into the horror of the battle. The effect has been endlessly copied since then, to the point that it now feels almost mandatory to shoot action scenes with a small shutter angle.

Large shutter angles are less common, but the extra motion blur can imply a drugged, fatigued or dream-like state.

In today’s digital environment, only the Arri Alexa Studio has a physical shutter. In other cameras, the sensor’s photo-sites are allowed to charge with light over a certain period of time – still referred to as the shutter interval, even though no actual shutter is involved. The same principles apply and the same 180° angle of the virtual shutter is standard. The camera will allow you to select a shutter angle/interval from a number of options and on some models, like the Canon C300, there is a menu setting to switch between displaying the shutter setting as an angle or an interval.

Sometimes it is necessary to change the shutter angle to avoid flickering. Some luminous devices, such as TV screens and monitors, or HMI lighting not set to flicker-free mode, will appear to strobe, pulse or roll on camera. This is due to them turning on and off multiple times per second, in sync with the alternating current of the mains power supply, but not necessarily in sync with the shutter. For example, if you shoot a domestic fluorescent lamp in the UK, where the mains AC cycles at 50Hz, your 1/48th (180° at 24fps) shutter will be out of sync and the lamp will appear to throb or flicker. The solution is to set the shutter to 172.8° (1/50th), which is indeed what most DPs do when shooting features in the UK. Round multiples of the AC frequency like 1/100th will also work.

Controlling exposure with the shutter

You may notice that I have barely mentioned exposure so far in this article. This is because, unlike stills photographers, DPs rarely use the shutter as a means of adjusting exposure. An exception is that we may increase the shutter angle when the daylight is fading, to grab an extra shot. By doubling the shutter angle from 172.8° to 345.6° we double the light admitted, i.e. we gain one stop. As long as there isn’t any fast movement, the extra motion blur goes unnoticed by the audience.

One of the hallmarks of amateur cinematography is that sunny scenes have no motion blur, due to the operator (or the camera’s auto mode) decreasing the shutter interval to avoid over-exposure. It is much more preferable to use ND filters to cut light on bright days, as covered in part two of this series.

For the best results, the 180° (or thereabouts) shutter angle should be retained when shooting slow motion as well. If your camera displays intervals rather than angles, ideally your interval denominator should be double the frame rate. So if you want to shoot at 50fps, set the shutter interval to 1/100th. For 100fps, set the shutter to 1/200th, and so on.

If you do need to change the shutter angle for creative or technical reasons, you will usually want to compensate with the aperture. If you halve the time the shutter is open for, you must double the area of the aperture to maintain the same exposure and vice versa. For example, if your iris was set to T4 and you change the shutter from 180° to 90° you will need to stop up to T2.8. (Refer back to my article on aperture if you need to refresh your memory about T-stops.)

In the final part of this series, we’ll get to grips with ISO.

Title image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Neil Oseman

Neil is a UK-based director of photography who has worked in the USA, Europe and Japan. Upcoming features he shot include The Little Mermaid with Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine, and supernatural thriller Heretiks with Michael Ironside. He has photographed another half-dozen independent features, innumerable shorts, several music promos and two multi-award-winning short-form action/adventure series. In the last couple of years Neil has been nominated for nine Best Cinematography awards and took home the gong at Festigious International Film Festival 2016 for his work on the short drama Night Owls. Second only to his love of cinematography is his passion for sharing his knowledge of it on his blog neiloseman.com and his Instagram feed.

Website: neiloseman.com

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