A cinematographer used to be thought of as a film artist, but cinematographers are creators of original works - whether it's film or video. All of us who use a camera to make original video are artists in one form or another and having good skills in all areas of the production process pays off.
Cinematography is a term that may be intimidating to many of you. However, since you are reading this, you are probably a cinematographer. When making decisions about lighting and camera choices while shooting, you are practicing the art of cinematography. You might not be a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), you are still a cinematographer.
In the American Cinematographer Manual, 9th Edition, cinematography is defined as a creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art rather than the simple recording of a physical event. Cinematography is not a subcategory of photography. Photography is but one craft that the cinematographer uses in addition to other physical, organizational, interpretive and image-manipulating techniques to effect one coherent process.
Some of the basic equipment choices that you make are deciding which lens, filter or lighting equipment will be used for a given shot. Framing and camera movements are aesthetic choices that you make as you practice your technique. These decisions may seem minor (only five examples in the previous two sentences) but each of them require complex considerations among thousands of options. Each decision has an impact on the next. For example, camera movement is complicated when combined with a zoom lens. When considering all the possible combinations, there are literally millions of choices.
You should not be intimidated about this possibly dizzying reality of understanding the role of the cinematographer. You should be encouraged that your diligent efforts are absolutely necessary in order to make a great video. Your cinematography skills are what differentiate you from the millions of people sharing their videos on websites like YouTube and Vimeo.
Shooting video can be a stressful experience especially when you are pressed for time. Your cinematography skills will be abbreviated if you don't take this role seriously enough to allocate ample time to make these critical decisions. You should try to make as many decisions as possible before you begin to shoot. This is why a storyboard is so important to create well before you schedule the shooting. You can do things like frame the shots and plan the lighting on a storyboard. It is far easier to erase a storyboard frame than it is to re-shoot the scene. You can save time by setting up the equipment to match the storyboard just once per shot. This does not mean that you should avoid improvising while shooting.
While pre-production work is important, too much planning can be as harmful as excessive impromptu shooting might be. You need to strike a balance between these two extremes. Cinematography is a skill set that has perhaps the greatest potential to transform you into a highly skilled video producer. Learn all that you can about these choices by research, practice and watching great motion pictures, TV shows and videos. Every minute that you invest in perfecting these skills will pay off.
Matthew York is Videomaker's Publisher/Editor.