Understanding the Cinematography of Darius Khondji

Darius Khondji is one of the most popular cinematographers today, and he boasts of having worked with some of the greatest directors ever. In this video and article I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Darius Khondji changes his style to suit the movies he shoots. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.

Warning: I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else.

Here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style of Darius Khondji:

Exclusive Bonus: Download your FREE list: 25 Proven DIY and Cheap Lighting Gear that actually delivers cinematic results (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

How he lights faces

Darius Khondji, in addition to the traditional three quarters or side lighting style, also lights directly from the front (a sort of Paramount style). He prefers super soft lights, almost shadowless.

The contrast ratio is typically high, and he hardly ever uses backlight or kickers, but doesn’t shy away from them if necessary.

The way he lights catchlights is interesting. Either the actors don’t seem to have contrived catchlights, or the light is a point reflection. It’s interesting how he achieves this affect with large diffusion sources.

About flashing and silver retention

Flashing

Flashing is the idea of raising the black levels (only, not the mid tones or highlights) of film stock (or digital cameras). You can do this in three ways:

  1. Using a device, either the Arriflex VariCon or the Panavision Panaflasher, etc. To know more about the VariCon, check out this article and video.
  2. Using haze or fog – this has the disadvantage that it lifts everything else as well.
  3. Pre-flashing the negative.

To more about flashing, check out this article.

Silver Retention

This is the process of bringing the blacks back down. The goal is to raise the blacks with flashing to get more shadow detail, and then using the chemistry of silver retention to get deep rich blacks while still maintaining shadow detail.

There are many processes of silver retention, and there are many ‘secret sauces’. Some of the notable ones are CCE, ENR, and so forth. To know more about it, read this article from the ASC.

For those shooting digital, you can still use a flashing device, but log pretty much does it better in all respects. All the standard log curves raise shadows considerably, and it’s a simple matter in post production to get the blacks the way you like.

Lenses and format

His favorite format is anamorphic, and prefers Cooke lenses (or at least older lenses over newer ones). He’s not a fan of the sharp clinical digital look. He also prefers shallow depth of field.

The book I mention in the video is The Americans by Robert Frank.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Darius Khondji’s work, please watch the movies he shot, check out his interviews in the American Cinematographer magazine.