5d camera cake

That Baked in Look

Creating Looks In – Camera

5D Camera Cake

I was second shooting a wedding this year, clicking off max res RAW images and rapidly filling my camera card.  I mentioned this to the lead photographer.  She told me that she had been shooting jpg’s all day, because she doesn’t need the flexibility of RAW.  She knows exactly how she’s going to process the images and space is more important that latitude.

It got me thinking.  She was a professional photographer with a ton of experience; the type of person you’d expect to crave the highest quality and broadest latitude out of her images. But she was shooting jpgs.  And, in a way, that’s what made her a professional.

Back in the day…

When I first started out making movies, consumer and prosumer editing suites were extremely limited.  iMovie was a brand new thing, and a new program called Final Cut Pro was making a splash.  I was taking a broadcast class when Apple debuted iMovie, and I cut several promo videos for that class on our old G3 iMac.  In fact, I was the student who spearheaded our adoption of FCP and pushed to move the studio to digital, non – linear workspaces.

At that time, with non – linear color grading in it’s early stages and DV images captured in such fragile codecs, your options were limited.  Maybe a little white balance correction, maybe a bit of a tint, but that was it.  Push those images too far and they quickly broke down into a mess of ugly pixelation.

The Workaround

As filmmakers, we circumvented our inability to color correct by “baking in” color profiles.  That is, we created the look of the final movie in the camera, while we were shooting.  It was what cinematographers had done for generations.

You set your sharpness, contrast and color balance before you started shooting.  This allowed you to capture dynamically colored images, therefore permitting you to move much faster in post.  Cut, maybe alter white and black levels in your NLE and send the movie on its way.

Slowly, as technology improved, we were granted more flexibility in the images.  You could push them farther, and you could perform real color grades – actually creating a “look” for your film during post production.  This was a boon for amateur filmmakers, as it allowed us to finely tailor the images to suit our needs.  The whole realm of emotional color theory was opened.

The caveat of color grading in post is simple – you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t bake in a look while shooting and generate a different look in post; it’s one or the other.  So, if you want to take advantage of the powerful color tools at your disposal, you have to shoot flat.  Low contrast, low saturation and low sharpness.  Otherwise, you have to push the image even further, past the look you had previously created.  The image quickly falls apart.

The Professional’s Toolbox

I used to be a die hard proponent of “shoot flat, grade dynamic”.  I assumed that in – camera looks were a thing of the past.  But the more work I do, the more I realize that baking in a look still has its place.  Sometimes your deadline is too tight to perform a real color grade or sometimes the client just isn’t paying enough to justify another twelve hours spent in the editing room.

Baking in looks, like everything we do, has its place.  Think of it more like a monopod or macro lens – some shoots will benefit from having it, others will not.  As professionals, part of our job is knowing which toolbox to bring to each shoot.  Baked in looks is one of those tools – use it wisely!

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