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.
Watch: How Roger Deakins Learned to Light
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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?
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.
Taken from the Greek for "writing with movement," cinematography 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.
- Shot size
- Camera focus
- Shot composition
- Camera placement
- Camera movement
While the director makes key decisions regarding the camera, the cinematographer actually makes it happen. One of the major considerations for cinematographers is exposure — the art of manipulating the camera settings to get the desired look of the image.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of cinematography, make sure to download our FREE Ebook on The Exposure Triangle to establish a foundation that all of cinematography is based on.
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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 and liaise closely with the director to create the images you see.
What elements do they consider? We'll cover the basic considerations here but there is a lot more to explain about a cinematographer's duties.
Let's look to iconic director of photography, Roger Deakins, and how he shot 1917 to look like a "oner." As he explains, choosing a camera, knowing the different types of camera lenses, and lighting techniques are all part of the cinematographer job description.
In particular, these choices in 1917 were designed to give us as much of a first-person POV on the battlefield.
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 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.
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.
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. Here's a video breakdown of every type of shot size.
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. There are many types of camera focus available, each with their own particular storytelling value. Here's a breakdown of focus and depth of field.
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.
3-point lighting is a very common lighting setup but there are many styles and approaches to lighting. For example, Rembrandt lighting brings a lot of dimension to lighting a subject's face and chiaroscuro lighting is ideal to convey dark and dangerous situations.
Here's Part Two of our Cinematography Techniques series with one of the best cinematographers, Roger Deakins.
Obviously, you need a camera but what other camera gear should you consider? A Steadicam gives the camera operator tremendous freedom but a dolly shot also gives the shot a distinct look and feel. Here's our ultimate guide to camera gear and how each piece of equipment can be used to tell a different story.
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, but we laid out an example below to give you the general idea.
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.
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.