Cinematography encompasses many different film techniques. From the lighting to lenses to camera movement and more. For aspiring cinematographers, this can be an intimidating art form. Where does one begin? What follows are cinematography techniques that cover all aspects of the job, including resources like video breakdowns, E-books, and links to many articles on cinematography. Let’s get into it.
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Before the cameras roll, there is much to decide, organize, and plan. For example, you’ll want to visit shooting locations with the Location Scout, Director, and Assistant Director to discuss everything from lighting schemes to the required camera gear.
Then the preparation continues with a shot list and storyboard. Making a shot list includes more technical information like shot specs, special equipment, and the estimated time required for each shot. This is key when creating a shooting schedule. Here’s an example made with StudioBinder’s shot list software.
For a complete guide to scheduling, download our FREE E-Book: A Filmmaker's Guide to Shooting Schedules.
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From budgetary restrictions to aesthetic preferences, there’s a lot to keep in mind. Find the camera that will satisfy as many of these considerations as possible.
FILMING TECHNIQUES — lenses
Tell a story with lensesThere are many types of camera lenses, and each brings its own unique characteristics to visual storytelling. Watch this video for an overview of the main types and their qualities.
Perhaps the key characteristic is the focal length of a lens.
On one end of the lens spectrum, there are wide-angle lenses with shorter focal lengths. These have a wider field of view and exaggerate motion. Because they have to “bend” light to capture those wide angles, there is noticeable distortion the closer you get to the subject.
On the other end, there are telephoto lenses with longer focal lengths. These lenses have a smaller field of view and you lose depth in the image but they can capture subjects at a greater distance.
Another important consideration would be whether to shoot with spherical or anamorphic lenses. As we explain in our video, there are a few key characteristics between them, including lens flares, bokeh, distortion, and focus.
Finally, one more key decision is whether to shoot with prime lenses or zoom lenses. Primes have a fixed focal length and a reputation for being sharper (although this is changing). Zoom lenses, on the other hand, can move between multiple focal lengths.
Download our FREE E-Book: Camera Lenses Explained for a deeper dive into lenses.
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Every type of camera lens has distinct qualities and visual characteristics that every image-maker should understand. Download our FREE e-book to get in-depth explanations on prime vs. zoom lenses, anamorphic vs. spherical lenses, wide angle, standard, telephoto and even specialty lenses that all tell a slightly different story.
Exposure & Cinematic Techniques
Embrace the effects of exposure
The three mechanisms in charge of creating exposure are the aperture, the ISO, and the shutter speed. Otherwise, these are known as the “exposure triangle.” But beyond using these settings to find proper exposure, there are additional cinematography techniques involved.
The aperture is an adjustable opening in a camera lens that controls the amount of light to pass through. And a secondary effect is the amount of depth of field — or the range of focus in front of the camera.
How a DP handles depth of field is a major element in telling a story visually, as we explain in this video.
ISO relates to the “sensitivity” of the capture medium (either celluloid film or a digital sensor). Film stocks are made with different “speeds,” or characteristics of their photochemical emulsions. ISO for digital sensors, on the other hand, is an adjustment of how much the signal (light) reaching the pixels is amplified.
But there are also filming techniques to play with related to ISO. Watch this video to find out more.
Shutter speed is how long the film or sensor is exposed to light. In film cameras, this is a mechanical window that opens and closes in fractions of a second. In digital cameras, this is simply how fast the sensor turns on and off.
But what shutter speed also influences is how motion is recorded. Specifically, the amount of motion blur in a shot. Shorter shutter speeds create less and longer speeds create more.
Watch this video for examples, techniques, and how this works.
Exposure settings are about much more than exposure. These three mechanisms provide more visual storytelling opportunities to achieve the desired effect.
For more cinematography techniques, download our FREE E-Book: Exposure — The Ultimate Guide.
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The Exposure Triangle is something every photographer and cinematographer needs to master. Download our FREE e-book to get in-depth explanations and tutorials on topics like aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and how to balance these settings to nail perfect exposure every time.
Filming Techniques — Lighting
Master cinematic lighting
Of the elements that constitute the art of cinematography, lighting cannot be understated. Without light, we have no image. Needless to say, there are many cinematic techniques related to lighting, and these are just a few. In this video, we lay out the basics of film lighting, including the qualities of light, cinematography terms you should know, and concepts like practical lighting vs. motivated lighting.
For brighter, cheerier stories, high-key lighting is often used. Conversely, a descendant of art styles like chiaroscuro and tenebrism, low-key lighting is a common way to present darker, more dramatic narratives. Different lighting scenarios might call for the harsh shadows created by hard light, or the blended shadows created by soft light.
The cinematography techniques in the following video cover all these topics, including shooting day vs. night and interior vs. exterior scenes.
For more film techniques with lighting, download our FREE E-Book: Film Lighting — The Ultimate Guide.
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Filming Techniques — Color
Play with color
Since color was introduced with processes like Technicolor, it has been a crucial part of cinematography. While highly subjective, there’s no denying that color theory in film is put into practice all the time.
For example, in this video, we break down the Wes Anderson color palette and how he uses bright and saturated colors to offset his darker subject matter.
There are two ways color is considered when crafting imagery: through the production design (sets, costumes, props, etc.) and through the lighting (color temperature). And no matter where color appears in your project, it provides a massive amount of storytelling material.
An early decision to make when using color is to decide on which color scheme will best help tell the story. If the script would benefit from bold, primary colors, you might consider a triadic color scheme. Or, if the mood you’re aiming for is more solemn and dramatic, something like a monochromatic color scheme might work best.
For more film techniques using color, download our FREE E-Book: How to Use Color in Film.
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Composition Cinematic Techniques
Bend the rules of composition
Composition is how all the elements are arranged in an image. There are many “rules of composition,” like the Rule of Thirds, positive and negative space, and the Golden Ratio. But you shouldn’t feel obligated to always obey them. Here’s a breakdown of the most common and effective cinematography techniques in composition.
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Cinematography Technique — Size
Select your shot size
Related to composition, the shot size has a big impact on how a particular image or moment is to be understood. The great Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot.” In this video, we cover all the major shot sizes along with their storytelling benefits.
Of course, there’s no such thing as the “correct” shot size for a given moment, and there is plenty of creative opportunity in experimentation. For example, you can use a cowboy shot outside the Spaghetti Western subgenre to evoke a similar feeling.
We did a deep dive into all the ways to use a close-up. You’ll see the countless variations and how they tell a story of their own.
Here’s a storyboard with all examples of the shot sizes. Click the image to explore the entire collection, and download a PDF for reference.
Check out our Ultimate Guide to Camera Shots with over 50+ shots, angles, and movements for further inspiration.
Framing Cinematic Techniques
Determine the framing
Camera framing is all about creating relationships between characters. For example, having two characters in the same frame (a two-shot) focuses our attention on their relationship, which can be anything from romantic to antagonistic. A group shot can create a sense of unity, while a single shot isolates a specific character.
Watch this video for a full explanation with examples.
Framing is also a way to create a connection between the audience and the characters. An over-the-shoulder shot (OTS) is a common way to cover conversation scenes that makes us feel we’re included without breaking the fourth wall. An insert shot allows us to see what a character is looking at. And a step beyond that is the point of view shot (POV) in which the camera’s field of view belongs to a character — so we can see through their eyes. Learn the many applications of the POV shot in the following video.
Up next, we’ll cover how camera angles influence visual storytelling.
Cinema Techniques — Angle
Find the right camera angle
Both the shot size and camera framing is augmented by the various camera angles. For example, depending on the context, a Dutch angle can elevate panic or a compromised mental state. A low angle is often shorthand for a confident, powerful character. Conversely, a high angle literally looks down on a weak or vulnerable character. Explore all these angles and more in the following breakdown.
Overhead shots are also called “god’s-eye-view” shots because they assume a heightened and almost “divine” perspective. And there is a subtle difference between placing the camera parallel with the eyes or the shoulder. A shoulder-level shot tends to feel more natural but an eye-level shot can create a stronger connection between the audience and the character.
Move the camera purposefully
Moving the camera may be visually exciting, but it should always be done with a purpose that serves the scene. One false move and the fragile suspension of disbelief can be shattered. For a full breakdown of all the main types of camera movement, check out this video.
Tracking shots keep us in lockstep with a character. An arc shot is ideal when you want them to feel trapped or surrounded. Pan shots are a great way to reveal landscapes, and tilt shots work well to emphasize the height of a character, building, etc. The dolly zoom is a specialty shot that signals a major emotional shift, as explained in this video guide.
Of course, shooting with a static camera that doesn’t move at all is always possible. To move or not to move, that is the question.
Cinematography techniques wrap-up
We’ve covered a lot in this article, but there really are a lot more film techniques to learn. Watch the rest of the videos in our Shot List series, including episodes on frames rate, camera focus, and camera gear. And you should also check out our Cinematography Techniques playlist with breakdowns of some of the best cinematographers, including Rodrigo Prieto, Hoyte van Hoytema, Darius Khondji, Robert Richardson, and more.
Learning cinematography techniques is a life-long venture. Hopefully, we could help move down that path just a little bit.
What does a cinematographer do?
In this article, we really just skimmed the surface of cinematic techniques examples and all the things a cinematographer does in a film. Let’s get into more specifics of their day-to-day responsibilities and creative decisions.