You’ve taken cinematography courses, you’ve read cinematography books, you basically know how to be a director of photography (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.
Cinematography is the art or technique of movie photography, including both the shooting and the processing of the image. The style and the special effects associated with cinematography are completely different and unique for each film, based on how specific techniques are masterfully combined by the DOP.
We’ve compiled a list of the best cinematography techniques to put into action on your next shoot.
FREE Download: Cinematography Techniques & Tips PDF
Download a FREE, printable cinematography techniques and tips (PDF) below.
1. Light without a monitor
Your eye (not the monitor) should be the final arbiter of whether it looks “right.”
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 important tools for filmmakers.
Introducing your new best friends.
2. 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.
3. Look through the frame
Even if you aren’t looking through a monitor, it’s vital that you look at your shoot through a frame of some kind. Whether it’s an old-school director’s viewfinder, a still camera, or just your fingers.
This frame is what the audience will ultimately see, and you have to be able to picture what’s going into it. Any device that helps train your eye to think of the world in terms of the frame will make you a better cinematographer in the long run.
Lots of people are using LED panels nowadays but it nearly eliminates all hard light (which may not be the preference). 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.
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.
6. 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.
In StudioBinder, you can quickly add and organize shots on the go
7. Know the many ways you can add depth
All depth in film is, essentially, an illusion. You’re tricking the eye into believing that a flat picture has a third dimension it really doesn’t have.
A shallow depth of field is one of the easiest ways to give a picture depth, but don’t forget that it’s not the only tool you have at your disposal.
There are many ways you can add depth, and moving beyond one trick is essential if you want to move to the next level of cinematography.
Check out this article by No Film School for five ways you can add depth to your shots.
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.
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.
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.
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.
11. Know 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.
12. 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.
13. Don't go into debt for 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.
Technology marches on, as it always does. Aerial drones with cameras attached have gotten cheaper and cheaper, and fly-over shots that were once the providence of well-heeled studio productions are now yours.
But as amazing as drones are, they do have their limitations. Understanding what a drone can and cannot do is important if you want to have a good relationship with your drone pilot.
For example, did you know that most drone cameras currently don’t have zoom lenses?
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
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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. Always preform 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)
- Lighting choices (color temps, diffusion, direction, brightness)
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.
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 cinematographers...
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.
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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