Cinematographer Sade Ndya spent her youth traveling the world, observing most of it through the scope of a lens. As a Black, Indian, and Jewish-raised woman of color, Ndya’s unique approach to cinematography portrays a surreal, dreamlike style of imagery. It’s rooted in her personal experiences and passion for social justice. Not only does she provide a voice to the under-represented with her work, but articulates a new visual palette through her approach to dark and brown skin. According to Ndya, lighting Black skin tones is about bringing out the beauty of darker skin rather than over-exposing it.
Meet Sade Ndya
Sade Ndya is a Los Angeles-based cinematographer who also specializes in fine art photography and community organizing. Ndya began her filmmaking career at a young age, first starting with a DSLR. Her desire to capture people with stories to tell, especially through channeling those similar to her own background, establishes a sense of self-actualization in her work.
Ndya tells VoyageLA, “My work stems from my strong advocacy for social justice and revamping notions of black identity through surreal-like worlds and characters that are reflective of my own personal experiences.”
From Film School to Made In Her Image
Featured in the Netflix series Strong Black Lens, Ndya shares her thoughts about film school, “I was fortunate enough to go to film school, but through the process, I felt like there was a lot of lack of resources and even just like concern about telling Black stories and lighting Black subjects specifically. And so, I dropped out and I was working a lot on set and learning from my peers and learning from, like other Black cinematographers that were putting in the work and have been putting in the work for years that I literally just did not know about because we’re not taught about them in film school.”
She hatched the idea for her production company The Red Futon when she was still in film school during a particularly creative session while sitting on a – you guessed it – red futon. Since then, The Red Futon blossomed into a beacon of creativity for local artists, as Ndya and her production company host local art workshops, events, and panels.
Throughout the decades, the film industry has struggled with inclusivity. In order to provide more opportunities for young brown and black girls, Ndya teamed up with Made In Her Image as a Cinematography mentor. Through her mentorship, she introduces her mentees to the world of filmmaking through education, industry opportunities, and other resources to further their learning.
Lighting Black Skin Tones
There are many misconceptions about lighting dark skin, such as using more light. You will see this mistake even with high-budget productions. In fact, it’s an issue that stems from years of under-representation.
In the second episode of Strong Black Lens, Ndya says, “For me, personally, lighting Black skin means specific intentionality behind color and texture. So, different kinds of diffusion, different kinds of glass can tell a very different story. And so that’s why I think it’s really important to do the necessary research behind the scenes to make sure that every technical decision has intention behind it, because ultimately it comes down to perception and how we’re viewing Black subjects.”
In a cinematic series sponsored by Made In Her Image and Panavision, Ndya reveals helpful techniques for how to light dark skin tones and what variables you should consider. For example, in the first part of the series, Ndya explains that there’s no one way to light dark skin. It all depends on the circumstances of your story.
1. Consider Your Subject
Before getting started, she advises that you consider everything from the color undertones of their skin to their face shape and skin texture. By focusing on the subject’s features, it will inform your lighting, color, and diffusion decisions.
2. Always Start with a Practical Source
Ndya recommends always starting with a practical source and cites DP Bradford Young’s work as a masterclass in this area. Practical lighting sources not only motivate your lighting approach but also create color contrast within the frame.
Even before lighting your scene, Ndya notes that you should turn on your practical lights and examine what your eye sees naturally. According to Ndya, this helps ground your work before bringing in additional sources.
3. Create Vibrancy Through Natural Falloff
The key to lighting Black skin tones, says Ndya, is creating a vibrant look. To do so, she typically includes a warm tungsten practical no matter the time of day. But, you don’t need much. Rather than strike all of the lights on, it’s better to embrace the natural falloff into darkness. The light should be used to guide the eye of your audience.
4. Lighting Colorful Scenarios
When you’re working with lots of colors, Ndya says in the second part of the series, that it’s a good idea to use a clean tungsten for your key. She will even pair it with saturated top-fill to inject a more subtle yet colorful falloff. By doing this, you’ll get more accurate color in your skin tones while still maintaining the vitality of a scene.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
The best way to learn and grow in the craft is by deconstructing conventional lighting setups. Ndya developed her own style for surreal scenes. She combines extremely soft, warm glass with heavy filtration (Black Pro Mist of DreamFX) with a hard, direct tungsten source. (Direct tungsten sources could be Lekos or 1Ks through diffusion.) This allows her to bring out the warmth and richness of darker skin tones.
By articulating a visual language for BIPOC stories, Sade Ndya is also developing new ways to improve the way we see skin on the screen.
Sade is represented by The Gersh Agency and her work has been published on platforms like The LA Times, Panavision, Netflix, and Beats By Dre.
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