You’ve figured out how to rig for an overhead camera shot but how hell do you light your subject when you’re looking straight down at it? Good question. We're going to show you how and more.
In our overhead rigging video, we showed you some film grip techniques for rigging overhead camera shots. It was well received and prompted some questions.
Serial Killers Documentaries asked how to light an overhead top-down shot for cooking videos. He’s using a Canon 70D with a 35mm Rokinon, great lens, and he would like some pointers.
What? What’s the matter? Yes, his channel deals with serial killers and now he’s branching out to cooking. The man has an interesting range of hobbies.
Let's break down the points here to lighting, depth of field, and ISO
How do you light for overhead rigs? Great question. You’ve moved your camera drastically, pointing it straight down at your subject. How the hell do you light it? Simple, exactly the same for all your non-overhead shots except for one light.
You see, just because you’re pointing your camera straight down doesn’t mean the sun has changed. It’s still coming into your windows at the same angle. Your viewers can tell you’re using a top-down shot and expect the sun to come in at the same angle to your subject.
So what light is the exception here? Your fill. Remember a fill lights purpose is to add light to the shadows. To fill them in too the degree you desire, setting the contrast range for your image. It can come from any angle. In my room here it does, off the walls and ceiling. But when I add fill light I try to add from the direction of the camera. This means it fills the shadows the camera sees, the ones I care about.
So to fill for an overhead shot, raise and position your fill light as close to your camera as possible. This might be tough because your table is in the way. Down sweet it, close is good enough.
You can also bounce your lights into the ceiling to fill from there. At times I do both.
You can also do what I did, put daylight balanced CFL’s into that normally horrible overhead light fixture that you never use. Now you’re useful.
Filling from the side can work also, filling your subject with a card bouncing your window key light back into it. We cover this in our video on tabletop lighting.
Depth of field
Because we're close to the subject in this rig, we have a shallower depth of field, that is the distance between the nearest and farther objects in our shot that is considered in focus.
The farther out you focus, the wider the depth of field you have. The closer, the smaller.
Is there a way to determine what that focal range will be? Yes there are tables for it, I’m going to use this one on dofmaster.com
Our camera, a 70D, is about 2’ 3” off the table surface. Where is that measured from you ask? Good question. The front of the lens? No.
The focal plane of your camera, where it focuses your image, in our case, the digital sensor. Look for this symbol on your camera, measure from there. My C100 has a knob I can hook a tape measure too for that purpose. You gotta love that.
I look up the 70D on a depth of field table for a 35mm focal length. It gives me a focus distance for 2 ft, which is 3” off our table surface. At f/5.6, I see my near and far focus distances, and I realize I have a total focus range of roughly 2”. Okay, that’s small.
What if I show hands coming in or it’s a taller object? If you want them in focus, you’ll need more depth of field.
How do you get it? You either stop down your f-stop, raise the camera higher, or a combination of the two.
At f/5.6, at 2’ we have 2” focal range. Checking our table, at f/8 we get 3.5” and at f/11, 5”. That helps.
If I were to raise the camera a foot, to 3’ 3” I would get the following: at f/5.6 6” focal range, f/8 8” and f/11 12” a full foot.
But I’ve also widened my shot which may be a compromise. I may need to split the difference, maybe raise it half a foot and stop down to f/8.
But wait. It’s easy to say stop down but what if you don’t have enough light to do it, especially when shooting at your native DSLR ISO, in this case, 200?
You can augment your sunny window key with more light just make sure it’s daylight balanced and you use diffusion.
Move them in close to the edge of the frame if you have to get more power out of them.
Another option, you could increase your ISO.
ISO or Film Speed
Normally I shoot with my C100 who’s native ISO is 850. Lets basically 2 stops more light then the native 200 ISO of the 70D and the 5D.
If I up the ISO of the 70D to 400, that’s one stop of additional light, 800, 2 stops. That can make all the difference in those few critical inches of depth of field you need for that overhead shot.
But there’s a give and take here. Higher film speeds meant increased grain because they used bigger grains of silver halide. With digital cameras, it means our version of grain, image noise. We really see it in the blacks
It’s great to have choices but how to do you decide? What are the right settings?
Here’s the thing. Filmmaking can be a very technical craft and it’s easy to get bogged down in those details, at times to a fault. The answer? Shoot tests. Even experienced DP’s with ASC at the end of the name shoot tests. Because in the end, its what you see that matters so choose based on what compliments your video.
I shoot tests all the time, send the raw clips to Spuds to color correct and then grade, to see what will work for the look we want.
It may end up that we want a contrasty look and that I may not need sweat the fill as much when shooting.
Shoot tests at different f-stops to see what depth of field will work for you look.
Shoot tests of the different ISO’s for your camera and your rig. Look at them side by side. You may find that 400 or 800 ISO looks fine, especially if your viewers watch it on a cell phone.
I know at times I talked about focus marks and measuring 2 feet 3 inches and all that but since we don't have cine lenses with really good marks and gradations and a dedicated first AC measuring out everything for us you're gonna focus probably the way I do. So either you zoom all the way into a specific point that you choose to focus on or use the magnify button. In the case of the typewriter, I was using the 5 key. That worked perfectly for to place the focus range where I needed.
One thing to keep in mind when you’re focused in on a point, your range of focus spreads around that point. About 40/60% near/far for focus points closer to the camera. Farther out, the range becomes 1/3 near, 2/3’s far.
Editing / After Effects
Related Pull My Focus videos
Overhead Video Camera Rigs: How to Shoot Straight Down
Lighting Daylight Interiors for Video
Shooting Product Tabletop Shots
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Thanks to Tudor at the Serial Killers Documentaries channel for the question.