Being clever with winter light

A film director and producer for over 16 years, Sébastien Devaud is, above all, passionate about images. From shooting and post-producing commercials and music videos in the late nineties he moved into broadcast TV and his work is notable for his use of contemporary lighting and depth of field effects. He also grasped the movie potential of the revolutionary EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera from the outset and today uses the full range of Canon cameras and lenses in all his productions.

With natural light at a premium on the shortest days of the year and our towns and homes decorated with bright coloured festive lights at night, we caught up with Sébastien to get some tips on making the most of winter light in stills and video - and to find out a bit more about his personal imaging journey.

Capturing winter moods

Sébastien was keen to stress the importance of seeing winter weather as an opportunity not as a disadvantage, before outlining three key points to capturing the atmosphere of a cold winter’s day.

© Sébastien Devaud - Canon Explorer. Taken using a Canon EOS C100 with an EF 400mm f5.6L USM lens; the exposure was 1/50s at f/5.6, ISO 850.

“To help you capture the special atmosphere of a winter landscape, use a telephoto lens to create a big contrast between the foreground and background.”

“As usual the magic hours at sunrise and sunset are the best moments to capture the atmosphere of winter’s day. Twilight after the sun has set, but before the dark of nightfall – gives you this special fleeting balance of light and shadow in winter that is really magic to shoot. A snowstorm at that moment can add some dramatic atmosphere to increase the power of your composition. As for sunrise shots, the great thing in winter is that the sun comes up at around 7-8am instead of 4-5am in the summer. So you can get a little bit more sleep!!!

“Your choice of settings can be more complicated to manage in winter, when shooting snow or cloudy skies. It’s better to increase your exposure a little bit, compared to the auto exposure setting, so the snow or the sky appear more white than grey. Shooting in black and white is a good way to enhance the dramatic side of this season, while fog, mist, low cloud or water can also add a particular mood to winter shots.”

© Sébastien Devaud - Canon Explorer. Taken using a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/125s at f/8, ISO 400.

“Captured during the magic hour, the reflection of the coloured sky on the wet beach provides very powerful framing for my real subject – the birds.”

Bright lights...

Sébastien has some very useful tips on the best way to capture the bright coloured lights and fireworks that are an integral part of the festive season.

“The major difficulty in these types of shots is capturing the high dynamic range between the deep dark and the highlight details of the bright coloured lights.

“When I’m shooting movies with Canon’s Cinema EOS system, I always use a Canon Log Gamma profile to get the right exposure. This is the best way to manage and capture high dynamic range and enjoy maximum flexibility and detail in colour grading. If you’re shooting with a DSLR then use a tripod and a remote control to start and stop recording to ensure there is no vibration. To avoid over-exposure, adjust settings manually and use daylight for the white balance.

“Your choice of shutter speed will depend on the results you want but be careful as some poor quality LED lights can give you a flickering appearance. As I mentioned before, the magic hour is the best time to shoot outdoors, while for indoor scenes switching on your ambient lighting will give you the best balance between your bright coloured lights and your background.”

© Sébastien Devaud - Canon Explorer. Taken using a Canon EOS C300 with an EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens; the exposure was 1/12s at f/5.6, ISO 1250.

“The reflection of the coloured lights in the rear window amplifies the movement of the car in this image, which was extracted from a HD movie sequence shot in slow motion to blur the street.”

...and fireworks

“There are again different techniques to shooting fireworks, depending on the result you want to get. You need to use manual exposure settings rather than auto mode to avoid the images being overexposed. My preference is a slow shutter speed of 1/25s or less, maximum aperture for the lens, an ISO of no more than ISO 2500 (to avoid noise) and a daylight white balance. Stabilise your images by using either a tripod or a lens with an Image Stabilizer function.”

© Sébastien Devaud - Canon Explorer. Taken using a Canon XF305; the exposure was 1/50s at f/4, Gain +3db.

“When you’re shooting fireworks it is always better to frame your image with the back of the audience or buildings as the foreground to bring out the full majesty of the spectacle.

"To capture slow-motion it depends on the technical options available to you. With a traditional DSLR, I suggest shooting your movie at 50fps and then conform to 25fps when you’ve finished. You can also play with out-of-focus shots to create a nice bokeh effect or experiment with reflections in water or a mirror.

“Overall I think filming fireworks is somewhat crazy – so my final tip is to turn the camera around to the audience watching the fireworks. Not only can you capture big emotion but you can also put stars in their eyes with some very nice coloured lights reflecting off people’s faces!”

© Disneyland Paris. Taken using a Canon EOS C300 Mark II with an CN-E 30-300mm T2.95-3.7L S lens; the exposure was 1/100s at f/3.7, ISO 1250.

“At the fireworks - or at other shows or events - it is often better to look for the ‘Wow’ effect on the audience and capture the stars in their eyes.”

Different tools – same techniques

Sébastien also highlighted that, whatever tool you are you using, the same techniques apply to capturing tricky winter light.

“With the new generation of products there is now the right tool for everyone to get the best result. So, while I prefer to shoot my movies with the Cinema EOS C300 Mark II and Canon Log, a photographer will choose a DSLR camera and shoot the same scene in RAW format. But as far as techniques go to deal with tricky lighting situations, I don’t think there is any real difference between photography and videography.”

And he had a couple of tips for those who are new to shooting movies on their still camera.
“Back in 2009 I’d have said ‘pay a lot of attention firstly to the focus, secondly to the stabilisation, then to the manual exposure and finally to choosing the right compression for the cameras bitrate recording’.

“These days, things are much simpler. The new generation of Canon DSLRs, includes a whole host of amazing technical assist tools – so you only have to concentrate on your framing. My only other tip is to record the live audio on a separate recorder if you need a professional result!”

Sébastien’s kit bag:

Canon EOS C300 & EOS C300 Mark II
Canon EOS 1D C

EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM
EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF 24-70 f/2.8L II USM
EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM
TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
Extender EF 2x III