Low Light Will Guide You Home

The tricky task of lighting by moonlight gave DOP Mark Payne-Gill the know-how to bring something truly groundbreaking to UK television

Last year, Astronomy aficionado and DOP, Mark Payne-Gill, was approached by Apple TV to lead the visuals on its new blue-chip natural history series, “Earth at Night in Color”. What the series is about and how it looks can easily be deduced from the title. However, how it was achieved is much less apparent, with all conventional methods of shooting at night completely thrown out of the window.

“Offspring Films, the producers, didn’t want to use infrared, thermal imaging technology or any other tech that would help the image become clearer in the dark,” explains Payne-Gill. “They said the only source of light, unless otherwise impossible, could be from the moon.”

Even before testing which camera sensors could perform well in low-light conditions, there were immediate creative concerns. Too much exposure could render the images as looking like day, and there was also the question of how to grade it.

“We were very blatant about how we framed the shots,” says Payne-Gill. “We needed to keep referencing the stars with wide shots so the audience was consistently reminded about the fact it was filmed at night. It’s a difficult thing to do, because it’s never been done before – or at least, it’s never been applied in this way.”

Other constraints came from frequent inclement weather conditions; with snowstorms and cloudy skies, the light from the moon was limited. Nonetheless, this gigantic reflector in space was largely on their side. He explains: “The moon gave us a two-week window – when it was past the first quarter, through to the full moon and up until the last quarter – and we found that, with the right camera and lens, we could work well within this time frame.”

While musing about the harsh working conditions, Payne-Gill recalls the exhaustion felt while filming kangaroos in Australia. “We were staying at a lodge in a park that the roos inhabited, so we had
the luxury of being able to take a time out if the clouds suddenly came in. But we’d always have to stay alert and be ready to mobilise for when they came past, which they often did quite speedily. It was really hard work and very ambitious, but we pulled it off and created a beautiful series that went against convention.”

Testing and Investing

Payne-Gill actually tested seven cameras before finding one up to the job, with the Sony AS7 II and Canon ME20F-SH competing against each other in the final round of testing, where he filmed a bird in flight inside a darkened studio.

Canon ME20F-SH

“The most important thing for me was that I found a camera able to deliver the best results in low light,” he explains. “And even though the AS7 II performed remarkably well, there were too many artefacts that rendered it unusable for our needs. We were pushing exposures to absolute limits and we needed to be able to go as hard as we could to extract the image without compromise. Even though the AS7 II is a considered 4K camera, it had an electronic pixelated look when cropped into the final image. The ME20 is only HD, but still managed to deliver detail in the bird’s feathers.”


However, since “Earth at Night in Color” was always destined to be a 4K production, choosing to use the HD ME20F-SH was quite a bold thing to do.

“Fortunately, there was an objective approach and were happy to go with the camera that produced the best image without getting too hung up on the whole resolution debate. We definitely pushed boundaries, but why go for a 4K camera just because it’s 4K if it doesn’t pick up as much detail in the dark?”

Throughout the testing process, Payne-Gill was in close contact with
CVP’s Aaron George, whose expertise and relationship with the people at Canon enabled him to promptly get answers about any technical questions regarding the camera. “Having Aaron as a gateway
to Canon was valuable because the prep time before our first shoot in Zambia was incredibly tight – and, thankfully, there were no delays to filming,” he says.

CVP was also able to convert the ME20F-SH’s PL mount to EF, which was necessary for Payne-Gill’s lens choice. He explains: “I knew I needed a fast lens to be able to expose as much as possible and I had just heard about Sigma’s High Speed Cine Primes. I tested them with a fellow camera operator, who had a superb set of old-school Contax EF lenses, and they provided a high benchmark, along with a set of rented Canon CN-Es. And I found the Sigma lenses performed beautifully for their value, second only to the Contax lenses, of course.”

Payne-Gill invested in a full set of seven lenses from CVP, ranging from 14mm to 135mm, as well as the modified Canon ME20F-SH camera. “I had always wanted to use an ME20F-SH, but I needed a project that would allow me to get hands-on with it in testing. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but combined with Sigma’s super-speed lenses, it’s an incredible tool.”

A Labour Of Love

The techniques that Payne-Gill learnt and applied to the “Earth at Night in Color” – such as using superfast long lenses to capture landscapes and objects that are many light years away while using only the moonlight to light his frames – were later passed on to other projects of his, including BBC Two’s Winterwatch.

Since Winterwatch had a lower production value, much of what Payne-Gill captured was a labour of love, working outside of the budgeted production days.

He explains: “There were only two or three days in the budget, but my colleagues and I spent two weeks working around the weather and the moons to light the scenes. I just wanted to keep going until I filmed something beautiful, because before I know it, I’ll be off travelling again. It’s such a rarity that I get to shoot at home.”

What Payne-Gill caught on camera was indeed beautiful, but it was also groundbreaking, since he was able to show owls hunting at night in colour and off speed, which had never been achieved in this way before. He recalls: “I had this image of owls flying with the stars behind. I caught them hovering and then hunting; diving into the grass to catch food. It was such a treat and it turned out better than I ever could have expected, since we also had shooting stars travelling through the sky at the same time.”

Each episode of Winterwatch included a two-minute interlude where the narrative was hushed and only images of the natural world in the UK were displayed. “We called it ‘mindful TV’ and – as a cameraman – it was really great to do on my own; to provide a visual narrative with no sound, enabling the viewers to stop, switch off and relax,” explains Payne-Gill.

One such sequence of mindful TV involved red stags grazing in the moonlight beneath the shooting stars and celestial satellites dancing above.

He recalls: “It was important to me that I make a connection between the landscape on Earth and deep space, because it’s really not that far away. Just because you can’t see what’s out there with the naked eye, doesn’t mean that nothing exists. I found a great line-up between the Orion Nebula, which is a region that’s 1340 light years away, and from that, I was able to do a focus pull to a barn owl on a post. It’s really quite jaw-dropping actually.

“I realise these short segments of ambient TV wouldn’t have really worked 20 years ago, since nobody had the time to just stop. But now, we’re forced to and I think that can be a good thing.”

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