Brendan Shick | Freelance Film, Broadcast, & Digital Media

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Why Slow Motion Looks Awesome: The Reason You Didn’t Think Of

Aug 22 2011 by Brendan Shick Add Your Thoughts

Ever watch one of those slow motion compilations, usually showcasing the Phantom line of high-speed HD cameras? Assuming you have, you were probably stunned at how different the world looks when slowed way down (if you haven’t, check out the compilation videos from Tom Guilmette, a cinematographer whose blog I closely follow, embedded later in this post).

In the world of cinematography, it’s not uncommon to hear people raving about the ability to shoot at 2,000 frames/second or greater. Most of the discussion, however, revolves around one of two things: either the amazing ability of today’s cameras to capture scenes at such high frame rates or the sheer amazement of what you can see in slow motion that you can’t see in realtime (popular television shows like Mythbusters have encouraged both viewpoints among the general public).

However, when you watch high-speed footage with a more critical eye, I believe there is another reason that we’re impressed with it that I’m sure not as many people have considered: depth of field.

[vimeo w=601&h=338]


Watch pretty much any compilation of slow motion shots you want. Which shots stand out as the best ones? What I’ve discovered in my experience is that the best shots are almost always the closeups. Naturally, these are likely the shots with higher focal lengths and therefore, generally speaking, the shots with the shallowest depth of field. This got me thinking – is there a connection between awesome slow motion and depth of field?

The answer from a technical standpoint is, of course, yes. Shooting at higher frame rates necessitates a quicker shutter speed, which requires a wider aperture to compensate. Hence any properly exposed slow motion shot will have shallower depth of field compared to the same shot, captured at normal frame rate (24, 25, or 30 fps) under the same lighting conditions.

Yet the question of why certain shots look better than other is primarily an artistic one. That is, the settings you use (provided they display a professional level of competency and understanding of the equipment) shouldn’t matter as much as the motivation behind one’s decision to use those settings. Thus the question remains: is the shallow depth of field one aspect of why slow motion is so appealing to so many audiences?

I certainly think it is a massively overlooked piece of the equation. That’s not to say that shallow depth of field is inherently a good thing. In fact, in the post-DSLR revolution world that we all live in, shallow depth of field has become a massively overused gimmick much of the time. However, like anything else, to truly establish the artistic merits, we need to ask what motivates the cinematographer’s choice on a scene-by-scene and shot-by-shot basis.

[vimeo w=601&h=338]


Admittedly, the shallow depth in most slow motion shots is probably based on technical limitations, not an artistic choice. Shooting at 2,000 fps requires a tremendous amount of light to properly expose, often even when shooting with a wide open aperture on prime lenses. Affording the rental costs of a high-speed camera is one thing, renting and powering the lights required to expose the same 2,000 fps shot and still have a wide depth of field is another thing entirely!

But imagining an ideal world where a cinematographer could easily do this brings to mind some interesting thoughts. If I could light a 2,000 fps shot at f/2.8 or at f/11, all other thing equal, which would I choose. Now we are truly asking about motivation for the shot while putting technical challenges and limitations aside.

I think this is a situation where one should still opt for the f/2.8 due solely to its shallower depth of field. Think about it – one of the key motivations of how much depth you want in an image is how focused you want the audience to be on a particular subject in the frame. When shooting in slow motion, you almost always want the audience focused on a very specific object – typically, whatever object is in motion. For example, an heirlom vase falls and the editor cuts to a tight slow motion shot – the entire world seems to revolve around the vase for this moment, not the table from which it is falling – the vase is the only thing in focus because it is where you want the audience to have their focus. So even if I’m shooting in bright sunlight I’d want to shoot this shallow? Yes, and if need be, break out the ND filters!

In short, I think that most slow motion shots are made better by the technical limitations of exposure, which impose certain beneficial artistic choices on all cinematographers, even those cinematographers who might not otherwise think or choose to lower their f-stop, add neutral density filters, or use a longer lens to create those same beneficial results in a less restricted environment.

Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.

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