What is Cinematography - Header

Making films isn’t just an art. It takes years of practice to cultivate a consistent craft and keen eye for filmmaking. It’s what separates great cinematography from cliche movie making. You’ve probably heard the term a million times, but what is cinematography? Before honing a craft, a deep knowledge of what it entails is critical.

Cinematography Meaning

Let’s define cinematography

Understanding cinematography goes way beyond its definition. The dictionary defines it as the “art of making motion pictures.” Okay, well that is true, but what else? 

CINEMATOGRAPHY DEFINITION

What is cinematography?

Cinematography is the art and craft of making motion pictures by capturing a story visually. Though, technically, cinematography is the art and the science of recording light either electronically onto an image sensor or chemically onto film.

It is the creation of images you see on screen. A series of shots that form a cohesive narrative. Cinematography composes each shot, considering, where everything in frame demands attention.

WHAT CINEMATOGRAPHY CONSIDERS

  • Camera placement
  • Camera movement
  • Shot composition
  • Shot size
  • Focus
  • Lighting

While the director makes key decisions regarding the camera, the cinematographer actually makes it happen.

Cinematography Elements

What does a cinematographer do?

A cinematographer or director of photography (shortened to DP or DoP) is the crew chief that presides over the camera and light crews on a film or video production.

They are involved throughout the entire production lifecycle and liaise closely with the director to create the images you see onscreen.

What elements do they consider?  

Let's look to iconic director, Roger Deakins, to see what he prioritizes, and then jump into the technicalities. 

Roger Deakins schools us on cinematography

Camera placement

Where they place the camera greatly affects how the audience reacts to the shot, and therefore the rest of the scene. It can have significant emotional impact or even convey character behavior.

For example, if the story calls for a character to be seen as rude, or ill mannered while out on a date, placing the camera close to the subject’s mouth while chewing would be effective.  

Camera movement

Camera movement can heighten the emotion and suspense in a scene. Choose to move the camera with the characters and gain perspective. Keep the camera static, and now we’re separated from them, peering in. Watch our video on camera movement below. 

StudioBinder's Filmmaking Techniques Masterclass: Camera Movement

Shot Composition

Composition refers to the way elements of a scene are arranged in a camera frame. Shot composition refers to the arrangement of visual elements to convey an intended message.

One visual element that must be arranged particularly is your actors. Where will they be in the frame? Watch our video below on blocking actors. It's also apart of our Filmmaking Techniques masterclass series. 

Learn how to stage your actors

If you're interested, learn how to master shot composition

Shot Size

How much of the scene is actually seen? Are we in a close-up watching a subject’s face change expression?

Maybe it’s an extreme close-up on a subject’s attire indicating to the audience that they should pay attention to this. 

Learn more on shot size and shot type with our camera shots guide.

Focus

Part of a cinematographer’s job is to play with focus to emphasize different aspects of the story. A basic example of this is showing how intoxicated the character is by going in and out of focus. 

Lighting

While there is a separate lighting person, cinematography demands this knowledge. After all, cinematography is what we see on-screen, and how well or horribly the scene is lit is a huge aspect of the craft.

That's a lot to consider! How can you plan all of these decisions, and execute on your vision?

Film Cinematography Tools

Putting theory into practice with shot lists and storyboards

So we just laid out what a cinematographer considers. And it's a lot. All of these components - shot choice, camera movement, lighting, etc. need to be laid out somewhere.

One tool that’s helpful for DP’s (and directors), are shot lists and storyboards. Usually the cinematographer and director work together to lay out their masterplan for the project. 

You can learn more how to make storyboards here, but we laid out an example below to give you the general idea.

Click to view the storyboard

With software it's easier to collaborate with department heads on all of these decisions. As long as they're invited to the project, you can leave comments in real-time, and adjust shots accordingly. 

And keep in mind, as far as other cinematography tools, you can use any kind of camera to shoot a film. If you can’t afford Hollywood’s resources, you can be like Sean Baker and Radium Cheung, who shot Tangerine, an award winning film, on an iPhone.

Up Next

Try These Cinematic Techniques 

Now that you have the basics down, let’s expand your knowledge a bit. Our next post explores craft tips you didn’t learn in film school. We go deeper into the elements of cinematography that will not only inform your craft, but inspire you to start shooting. 

Up Next: Best Cinematography Techniques →
Solution - Shot List and Storyboard

Showcase your vision with elegant shot lists and storyboards.

Create robust and customizable shot lists. Upload images to make storyboards and slideshows. 

Learn More ➜

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