Do you want to be a cinematographer? If the answer is ‘Yes, yes, yes’, then welcome to this section all about cinematography. Here you’ll find some free videos, articles and useful resources.
What is a Cinematographer?
Simply put, the cinematographer is responsible for the actual shooting of the film. On a small scale production, they’ll operate the camera and setup lighting equipment. On a large scale production, they’ll work with the camera operator, the gaffer and the key grip.
Cinematographers are sometimes described as the ‘author of the look’. Using cameras and lighting techniques, they bring to life the director’s vision. The director might describe what they want using abstract language, or with reference images. To be a good cinematographer, you need to transform those ideas into a visual style to tell a compelling story.
During preproduction the cinematographer spends time with the director discussing the story and the look of the movie. You need to understand how each scene moves the story forward and what emotions you want to elicit from the audience. To create the mood for each scene, the cinematographer uses all the tools at their disposal: composition, focus, depth, the position of lights and the many ways you can shape light and give it texture.
So, you want to be a cinematographer. But what skills are required? What personal qualities do you need? Here’s some suggestions:
- You’re able to tune into the emotions of a scene and allow that to guide your decision making.
- Either you’re familiar with the visual tropes of the film’s genre, or you’re willing to do the research.
- You can create a solid plan for the shoot. Every time you work on a project, you need to develop a strategy for lighting and shooting each scene. Often the plan is thrown out the window on the day of shooting. But by making it, you’ve become intimately acquainted with the film.
- You need to think on your feet. There’ll be times when a shot isn’t working. In that situation, you need to quickly come up with some new ideas.
- You’re a problem solver. Instead of getting stuck on a problem, you come up with creative solutions.
- You are decisive. You’re someone who puts their ideas into practice immediately.
- You need to iterate. You can’t be perfect straight away, you need to practice and grow. When professional cinematographers aren’t working, they’re experimenting and learning new techniques.
Don’t worry if you don’t have these skills already. They can all be learnt. But you do need to be committed. Committed to hard work, practice and personal growth. Because you love filmmaking, it’s not going to feel like a chore. You’re going to rise to the challenge and have fun on the way.
Camera – the Heart of Cinematography
When you hear the word ‘cinematography’, the first thing that springs to mind is a camera. Pulsing to the rhythm of twenty-four frames per second, the camera is the rapidly beating heart of filmmaking.
We use the camera to frame the characters, tell the story and reveal or hide important details. Throughout the shoot, we make important decisions about camera placement and camera settings.
We need to consider where the camera is positioned in relation to the characters. The height of the camera. The focal length of the lens and how it changes the field of view. Exposure settings and how they impact other optical effects, such as depth of field and motion blur. All of these are creative tools that you can use to tell a story.
Lighting – the Soul of Cinematography
If the camera is the heart of cinematography, then lighting is the soul. That ethereal thing you can see, but cannot touch. Light reveals the shape, colour and texture of the people and objects in the shot. It casts shadows, creates reflections and can be refracted by glass or water.
Because digital cameras perform well in low light, less experienced cinematographers might think lighting isn’t necessary. But there is more to lighting than simply illuminating the subject. Here are the main reasons why we light:
- Illuminating the scene so it’s bright enough for the camera.
- Set the mood and reveal the emotional state of the character.
- Drawing your eye to the important subject in the shot.
- Creating a sense of depth and the illusion of three-dimensionality.
- Showing the audience the time of day, or time of year.
- Make what you see on the screen convincingly real.
- Make the subject look good. We usually want the light to flatter people and show then at their best.
Lighting techniques we use today were inspired by Renaissance painters and slowly developed since the beginning of cinema. As well as creating bright areas in the picture, you are also creating shadows. Don’t light everything flat, make sure there is a range of brightness values throughout the frame.
Cinematography is Technical
While storytelling and artistry is important, there’s a side of cinematography that’s completely technical. Lens focal length, aperture size, video codec and resolution. They contribute to the look and feel of the movie, but they are all technical issues that you need to understand.
When you’re a beginner, all this stuff is a barrier to your creativity. You’ve got an idea in your head of how you want the film to look, but you lack the technical skills to make it a reality.
For some beginner cinematographers, simply learning camera basics is enough. The idea of becoming a master of both camera and lighting feels completely overwhelming. But you don’t have to learn it all on one go, you can gain knowledge gradually. If you’re committed to learning, join the Indigo Film School community. Let’s share this journey together.
Shooting for the Edit
During production, the cinematographer shoots material that can be successfully cut together during the edit. So, you need to shoot with editing in mind. Imagine how the scene you’re working on might look when cut together. For this to be successful, you need to understand composition and continuity.
Continuity can become complex because most movies are shot out of order. Which scenes are shot on a particular day depends on availability of locations, availability of actors, the weather, time of day and complexity of the scene.
When it comes to continuity, the cinematographer is supported by the script supervisor. Their job is to look for and record potential continuity issues. They also have a good understanding of film grammar. But take care when working on a small scale film, the script supervisor might be less experienced.
Shooting for the Colour Grade
As well as shooting for the edit, the cinematographer needs to shoot with colour grading in mind. Work with the colourist to make sure they understand your intention for each scene. Like you, their job is to deliver the director’s vision by enhancing the images you’ve shot. You can make their task easier by shooting scenes that have consistent exposure and colour.
What Makes You Unique?
What makes you unique as a cinematographer is how you interpret the director’s ideas and translate them into pictures the audience can understand. Tap into your own experiences. Consider how a certain camera angle or lighting effect makes you feel. Think about how you can create feelings of tension, excitement or sadness in the audience.
Each genre has its own vibe. You can usually spot a horror film, a comedy or a gritty thriller through its lighting or camera techniques. While you’ll probably want to stick with the genre motifs rather than subvert them, you can still bring your own personality and ideas to the movie.
Use your favourite cinematographers as inspiration. While there’s nothing to stop you copying their techniques, it’s better to study their choices and consider why they made them.
The difference between you and the cinematographers you admire is the budget of the film and the size of the camera department. On a big budget movie, you can throw money at any problems that arise. But on a low-budget movie, you need to come up with cheap solutions.
On a small scale film, the camera department might be you and one assistant. On a big budget movie, there will be you, maybe two camera assistants and even a camera operator. You can rely on the gaffer to manage the rigging of lights and the key grip to manage the support equipment for the camera, lights and lighting modifiers.
There are so many fantastic cinematographers working on movies at the moment. If you aren’t familiar with modern practitioners, look at the credits of your favourite moves. Check out the 21st Century’s Oscar winners so far.
Let’s take a quick look at Roger Deakins. He won the cinematographer Oscar for two recent films, Blade Runner 2049 () and 1917 (). Deakins prefers a more naturalistic and less stylised look to the scenes he shoots. He tends to use tungsten over daylight lamps. These can result in shots that look warm instead of neutral. Deakins often favours wide lenses over long lenses, so he can position the camera closer to the characters, creating a connection between them and the audience.
Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki favours naturalistic lighting. While Deakins likes static shots or smooth camera moves, Lubezki prefers a more immediate, documentary style. He also likes long takes rather than lots of shorter shots. Lubezki won the cinematography Oscar for Gravity (), Birdman () and The Revenant ().
For a different approach, we could look at Natasha Braier. The movies she’s created are very stylised and she likes to use unnatural colours. For the Neon Demon (), she experimented with changing the brightness and colour of lights mid-shot.
While seen as someone who was initially inspired by Lubezki, Bradford Young has carved his own niche in the world of cinematography. Like Braier, he’s experimented with lighting and camera techniques to create a unique look. Young in known to favour close-ups over long shots to make scenes feel more intimate and bring the audience into the heart of the action. In the movie Arrival (), he created a very under-exposed look with soft lighting and negative fill.
As well a modern pioneers, you can learn a lot from cinematographers of the past. Jack Cardiff, for example, was one of the early experimenters in technicolor film. His work on Black Narcissus () and The Red Shoes () would influence later generations of filmmakers. Cardiff took much of his inspiration from the world of fine art. In the documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, he talks about the way Turner captured light and how Van Gough worked with colour.
Greg Toland, who shot Citizen Kane () and Wuthering Heights () was the pioneer of shooting with deep focus. He worked closely with technicians, maximising the light transmission of lenses and creating faster film stocks. This enabled him to close down the aperture and create a deeper depth of field. Toland also developed a low-key lighting style that made dramatic use of shadows.
Vittorio Storaro started working as a cinematographer after nine years or training in photography and cinematography. But after his encounter with paintings by Caravaggio, he realised his artistic knowledgeable didn’t match his technical abilities.
This led Storaro to develop his own ideas about how colour can be used as a storytelling tool. He thinks of light and shadow as the relationship between the conscious and subconscious mind. He thinks of colour in terms of the psychological and physiological affects they have on the audience. This was obviously successful as Storaro won the cinematography Oscar for Apocalypse Now (), Reds () and The Last Emperor ().
The future of cinematography belongs to anyone who can get their hands on a digital camera and a set of lights. While good quality cameras and lenses aren’t cheap, you don’t need to spend a fortune on your first film. Find creative ways to tell stories and solve production problems.
To make a name for yourself and build a career as a cinematographer, you need a portfolio of work that directors simply can’t ignore. Easier said than done I know. But if you want to work with the best, that’s where you need to be.
To keep movies fresh and exciting, the industry needs diversity and new talent with great ideas. There’s always room for nostalgia and remakes. But there’s also a hunger for novelty. The audience wants something they can relate to, but at the same time surprises them with some genuine originality.
Hollywood might not be as ethnically diverse as we would like. But there’s nothing stopping us independent filmmakers from seeking out new voices and different perspectives. Technology is making the world smaller and enabling filmmakers from every continent to share ideas. We enrich our creativity and the creativity of others when we share ideas with filmmaker from different parts of the world.
It’s great to see more women working in cinematography. Inspiring artists like Rachel Morrison who lensed Fruitvale Station () and Black Panther (). Maryse Alberti, who was the cinematographer for Creed () and Hillbilly Elegy (). And Reed Morano who shot Kill Your Darlings () and has recently moved into directing.
Some cinematographers want their work to reflect reality. They prefer a less fussy, more simplistic approach. Others prefer a more romantic, impressionistic look. They like eye-catching camera moves. They experiment with lens filters and lighting effects to transport the audience to another reality. A more idealised world that only exists on the screen.
Often what a cinematographer is striving for is beauty. Looking for flattering ways to shoot actors. Or looking for a great camera position to make the most of a location. Even when making a horror, it’s possible to find beauty in the way you light and shoot the film.
There is no right way or wrong way to make a movie. There is only the approach you take. Are you delivering on the director’s vision? Have you made full use of the camera and lighting to create incredible images? Will the audience love and remember the story?
This article is a quick introduction to cinematography. We’ve looked at what defines cinematography and the skills you need to be successful. I’ve shown that you need to think about what’s going to happen in postproduction while you’re shooting. I’ve also mentioned contemporary and past cinematographers you can look to for ideas and inspiration.
If you found this useful, check out the rest of my fantastic Camera Training videos:
- Don’t ETTR, Use a 50% Grey Card
- Exposure Controls for Video
- Balancing Exposure for Video, Thinking in Stops
- What is ISO?
- White Balance Video like a Pro
- Camera Resolution
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