13 Cinematography Techniques You Won’t Learn in Film School

Cinematography Techniques You Won't Learn In Film School - Featured Image - StudioBinder

You’ve taken cinematography courses, you’ve read cinematography books, you basically know how to be a DOP at this point. But even if you’re already working, you could always stand to learn a few more cinematic techniques and filmmaking tips.


Courtesy of cinematographer Dave Berry, director of indie Something Like Summer, here are 13 of the best cinematography techniques you can only learn from working in the field.

1. Light without a monitor

Your eye should be the final arbiter of whether it looks right not a monitor.

Knowing how to light blind means you can prelight a set, judge already existing practical lighting on a location scout and protects against poorly calibrated monitors.

A cinematographer should be able to judge the creative quality of his lighting just with his eyes. He can judge the technical quality with a light meter.

Incidentally, you should buy a light meter. It’s your best friend — along with these 61 other tools for filmmakers.

Buy a light meter (and practice with it)

A great exercise for practice this film technique is to set-up a shot, choose your shooting stop and then turn off the monitor.

Then use your eyes and light meter to light the scene, including tweaks.  If you did your job right, when you turn on the monitor it will look the way you intended.

2. Hard light is sexy

Lots of people are using LED panels nowadays but it all but eliminates hard light. Use fresnel and pars when appropriate.

Hard light is way easier to control than soft light. Hard lights can be softened, but soft lights can’t be hardened. If you really need to control shadows and keep light from spilling everywhere a fresnel will make you life easier than a kino.

Cinematography Techniques You Don't Learn in Film School - Light Diffuser - StudioBinder

3. Bring a quality still camera on scouts

Bringing a camera on location scouts is so important, we hesitate to even refer to it as a film technique. But it does merit some further consideration.

When all else fails, you can use your phone, but ideally you want a DSLR with the same size sensor as your shooting camera. Most 35mm equivalent cinema cameras have an APS-C (or close to) sensor.

You should also bring a zoom that has the same approximate focal range as the lenses you’ll be shooting on. You can test out different focal lengths and find exact camera positions.


Great film techniques: Make a shot list on your scout

Ideally, you should make a shot list beforehand to know what lenses you need. StudioBinder’s tools allow you to spin off new shots, group and sort your shots by type. You can even add pictures from your scout directly into the app, which will create a storyboard you can show your director.

The Only Shot List Template You Need — with Free Download - Add new shot

In StudioBinder, you can quickly add and organize shots on the go

4. Don't light actors—light the space around them

10 Shooting Schedule Pro Tips to Build Momentum on Set - 02 - Actor Director Film Scene

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

The best work is often created when you think about cinematography techniques holistically.

Lighting the space around the actors means you’re approaching the lighting of all elements as a whole. You start thinking about lighting a look and mood overall.

This film technique also allows for more flexibility in blocking. Thinking about separate lighting for actors leads to lighting very specific marks.

But if the blocking changes then your lighting has to change, and you’re burning daylight on the precious shooting schedule. Sometimes the best cinematography comes from quick adaption.

5. Never say "fix it in post"

The best cinematography creates looks with your lighting and not with DaVinci Resolve. Whatever you can’t capture naturally on-set, often takes way more time and money to recreate in post.

You can avoid this by committing to a creative style and lighting appropriately.

This may mean fighting for extra time when you create the shot list. But creating an efficient shot list is part of your job.

Introducing Shot Lists - Complete Customization, Intuitive Interface - Chart Your Progress

A finished shot list in StudioBinder

Remember, you are being hired for your expertise in cinematography techniques. Your producer will love you for saving him thousands. Post fixes are way more expensive than having the Art Dept touch up a flaw.

6. You're only as good as the team you work with

Especially starting out you may not be the most experienced person on set. In fact the most experienced person may be working for you, with years of filmmaking techniques and experience under their belts.

Your gaffer and key grip in particular are both highly trained creative individuals. Use them to help solve problems. You don’t have to figure everything out on your own.

Check your ego at the door and remember that you are only great because you stand on the shoulders of giants.

How to manage your cinematography crew

Some of the most important filmmaking tips aren’t actually cinematic techniques, but people skills.

Crews respect clear, fast decision making. Be aware of how much work you’re creating for them. They’re happy to do the work but will become unhappy if they find themselves being told to take down a light and then they have to put it right back 15 minutes later.

Efficient cinematographers are the best cinematographers in the crew’s eyes. Because it means good cinematography, fast setups, and finishing on time.

7. Your reel is more important than your camera gear

Things break, gear gets obsolete, and spending 100K on fancy camera gear will not make jobs come to you. You’re a cinematographer, not a rental house.

The best cinematographers can create the best cinematography from any camera they’re handed. The job is to know how to evaluate the limitations and advantages of your gear, reach into your bag of film techniques, and make the best image under those conditions.

Definitely don't go into debt buying camera gear

Some clients don’t realize that a great camera doesn’t equal the best cinematography. And often, it’ll force you to take bad jobs to pay it off.

Fortunately, the ones that end up talking more about what camera you use versus the artistic merit of the image don’t last long.  If you’re organizing your clients with software like Studio Binder, it might be a good idea to create a list of people who you’ve had trouble with before.

8. Good cinematographer reels know when to end

This is more of a job hunt technique than a film technique, but remember that people have short attention spans when designing a reel to send out to jobs or post on ProductionBeast.

Many directors and producers will only watch the first 30 seconds before they decide to keep watching or turn it off.  Even if you’re one of the best cinematographers in the world, you’re looking at 2:30 max.

Also, and this may seem obvious, but don’t put in bad shots–only your best cinematography and exhibit your finest cinematic technique. It’s much better to be shorter than to pad your reel out with bad material.

Check out David Berry's reel above

9. Don't argue with anyone in front of the crew

If you need to talk it out, take it off the set. No one ever looks good calling people out in public. Even if you are right.

This is especially true if it’s cinematographer vs. director.

Directors can get defensive if challenged in front of people, because they look like they’re not in charge. Taking privately eliminates that fear of embarrassment, which means you’re more likely to get your way.

Before you get to set, have some go-to strategies for working with difficult crew.

10. Have and follow a workflow

As cinematographer Art Adams puts it: “Block. Light. Rehearse. Tweak. Shoot. Repeat. Every. Single. Setup.”

It really is that important.  If you can’t light the actors, use stand-ins. Make sure they’re at least same height and approximate skin tone. All the film techniques in the world can’t light someone who isn’t there.

A key part of this is communicating that this will be necessary to the director, 1st AD, and the actors. Everyone wants to work with you, but no one likes be surprised.

Always check the call sheet

The best way to make sure the proper actors and stand-ins will be on set is by checking your call sheet asap.

Find the daily schedule, and if it doesn’t answer your questions, give the 1st AD a ring. That contact information is always listed at the top of your call sheet.

11. Always peform camera tests

Learn how to do traditional camera tests with a chip chart, color chart, and human models, and then do them once you get your hands on the camera.

With proper testing, you can see exactly how the camera reacts before you get on set and determine a lot of lighting and shooting strategies beforehand.

As opposed to on set where you’ll have a dozen people waiting for you to get to know the camera.

For the best cinematography, be sure to test:

  • Different camera settings (ISO, working stop, LUTs, color spaces, etc)
  • Filters
  • Lighting choices (color temps, diffusion, direction, brightness)

12. Choose a working stop

Changing stops shot to shot leads to depth of field inconsistencies, since lens sharpness changes at different stops.

Most lenses are sharpest at 2-2 ½ stops closed from wide open.

For every scene you should be able to choose a single exposure and stick to it for every angle. In some cases stick to a single stop for a whole sequence or the whole show.

Know the trade offs when you pick your stop. Shooting wide open almost always means less sharpness when the lens is in focus, for example.

13. Take creative chances

Push yourself creatively. Playing it safe leads to getting into the habit of average/mundane shooting. Your best cinematography will appear when you think out of the box.

That being said, it’s important to know when to get crazy and when to play it safe. The best cinematography in the world isn’t worth ruining the shoot.

The best cinematograhers...

Are artists, technicians, and managers. It’s a multi-faceted job, and no number of film techniques will make up for hard earned experience that leads to well crafted shot list.

Special thanks to Dave Berry, director of Something Like Summer for letting us pick his brain.

DPs – do you have any filmmaking techniques you learned on set that you’d to add to our list?

Let us know in the comments below!

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Patrick Regan
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Patrick Regan

Writer at StudioBinder
Pat Regan grew up in New Orleans and somehow found himself in Los Angeles. He likes a good story in all its forms and in his spare time, cooks and runs up walls. He writes about tabletop roleplaying games and storytelling at rememberyourdice.wordpress.com
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