Cinematography Techniques
These 5 time-saving tips will save you a lot of time on set. Image courtesy Unsplash.

What is at the heart of Cinematography? It really hit me during a casual philosophical discussion. Someone asked me, “What are the things you need in order to make you feel like your week was complete?” I thought about it for a minute, and then listed a few things that came to mind. In the end, though, I found myself suddenly saying, “…to hear, see or read something new that makes me think, and imagine, and feel. I need a good, entertaining story.”

I was attending film school at the time, and my answer was influenced by the teachings. Actually I quite shocked that I had said it. To this day, I firmly believe that a quality story or new take on an old one is very important. Nay, it is an essential part of my life. I need a new tale often or I feel like I’ve missed something. Luckily for me, there are a lot of people with stories to tell.

Visual storytelling

Everyone has at least one good story. Most people, at some point get the itching to share it in one way or another. That’s great if, like me, you love stories. The problem is that by default, most people aren’t very good at telling them. In centuries past, if you learned to tell your tale through song, you were a bard or musician. If you talked through books, you were a scribe, or writer. Today, in a world where images are key, you tell the story in film or video. Getting the best images to drive the story along is the job of the cinematographer.

So just what is cinematography? The Wikipedia definition of cinematography is: “The making of lighting and camera choices when recording photographic images for cinema.” (Cinema being a theater where the motion pictures are shown). Encyclopedia Britannica expands on that: “…the art and technology of motion-picture photography. It involves such techniques as the general composition of a scene; the lighting of the set or location; the choice of cameras, lenses, filters, and film stock; the camera angle and movements; and the integration of any special effects.”

“Cinematography involves such techniques as the general composition of a scene; the lighting of the set or location; the choice of cameras, lenses, filters, and film stock; the camera angle and movements; and the integration of any special effects.”

It’s a very encompassing definition to say the least. Yet this barely scratches the surface of what making a motion picture involves. While it might define the meaning of cinematography, as would a dictionary, this does not portray the scope. On our all too brief journey, we will explore some of the basics and concepts of making a video. Specifically, we’ll be talking about cinematography theory and practice. If you examine the fine details of what’s involved in creating a movie, you will begin to come close to a good definition of cinematography. Let’s talk about what it would take for you to be a cinematographer.

But what is cinematography?

Ready for a shock? We’re going to tell you everything you need to know about cinematography in this one paragraph. Pay attention! “The process of recording your vision will take place strictly within the frame, or field of view. The settings on the camera and its lens determine the frame. Later, you present your piece back to the audience within the frame of the screen.

It sounds pathetically basic, but this is the most important rule a cinematographer needs to understand. You can be subtle or cryptic to your heart’s content. If it didn’t take place within that frame, then as far as the viewer is concerned, it never happened. Now of course there’s more to cinematography than that, but everything else deals with how to optimize the frame and its contents. So, how do you do this? How do you present your story in the best manner possible?

Cinematography is motion

Your frame can change. You can move the camera, swap lenses, change the field of vision, alter the focal length and crop your picture. But don’t make these changes arbitrarily. Everything should be done with purpose.

Always think about information, and how to deliver it optimally. Constantly contemplate how you can best make your audience empathize and sympathize with your characters. Think about how you can reveal the plot as it unravels around your characters. Draw your audience along with them. Consider how pushing the information on the screen can induce states of mind when broadcast. The instant you can no longer optimally provide all the information necessary in your current frame, that’s when the switch to the next shot should take place.

Visualization through the visionary

Director and cinematographer
Photo courtesy Star Trek: Renegades.

“Director of Photography” (DP) is a term often used synonymously with a cinematographer. In practicality, it is a specialized form. Think of them as the person responsible for the look of a film. They work closely with the director to envision the movie. It is their job to not only know how the camera and equipment works, but why things work the way they do. Using this information, they then take the creative details from the director. The DP will decide how to best convey the feel of the film.

Composition is their method. A DP uses the frame to develop style. He or she knows how to use different types of camera shots to move about the scene. They might use a low angle to make someone larger than life, or a high angle to make them appear small and menial. The DP and the director form a team that will make a plan to determine the best way for a character to enter or leave the frame so that action is either flowing and continuous, or jarring and unsettling. The DP knows that if a car exits the frame from the right, it flows better if in the next shot it enters from the left.

“Director of Photography” (DP) is a term often used synonymously with a cinematographer. Think of them as the person responsible for the look of a film.

Likewise, if the camera is moving to the right, they can cause an abrupt feeling if the next shot is moving to the left. The best DPs, like directors, can think like an editor as they shoot. They will prepare their compositions and blocking (movement within the frame) with editing in mind. They are always thinking about what the editor will need and how the story fits together. Together with the director, the DP is the cinematic lynch pin for the entire production process.

Cinematography and technology

Another issue the cinematographer must deal with is the strengths and limitations of the equipment. Even today’s advanced cameras can’t see and record an image the way our eyes can. The frame does not truly represent or accurately reflect our field of vision so the DP will compensate for this inconsistency. One of the most frequent consequences, for example is that we have to make adjustments to the camera each time we change the overall color or consistency of our lighting. This way the scenes will appear as desired, and match from angle to angle, location to location.

The camera/screen combination will make differences in the lighting quite obvious, and emphasizes the base “color temperature“. If you shoot a scene indoors and look through the window, the light outside will look incredibly blue. Our brains have learned to look past this through our eyes. The DP will fix this by placing colored gels over the lights and/or windows or making adjustment in the camera. Ideally he or she wants to even out the color differences so light appears as desired. A worthy cinematographer will understand issues like these. Not only will they overcome them, but be able to use them to their advantage.

Good editing is focused on relationships, relationships that exist between the various clips that make up an edit and the relationships that exists between the different subjects in the content of the narrative. By finding similar qualities in different shots, an editor can identify potential pairings for a match cut.

Contemplation before execution

Experienced cinematographers can think spontaneously and plan as they go. As time permits, he or she together with the director will plan every step of the production process.

The the script, the storyboard, and the shot list are the three primary tools the cinematographer uses. The script tells everyone the important details of the story. The storyboard helps plan the framing of every moment in the script. The shot list shows the ideal shooting order and ensures the right props and actors are on hand for each scene. Let’s take a quick look at each.

The cinematography tools

The script contains the dialog, the character names, locations and essential action for the piece. More of a tool for the director and actors, a good script will also successfully convey the mood of the work without spelling it out. It is the inspiration for the look and the guideline for progression.

Once completed, the team breaks down the script. Each scene (or at least the complex scenes) are then laid out on a storyboard. The storyboard is a representation of the final product before anything is even shot.

At a minimum, you see camera angles and shapes representing the actors and how they are framed. You will also see where they will be in relation to each other. More complex boards will use arrows to show movement into and out of the scene. Some will show camera changes that take place during recording, and position of characters at the location. They might also include essential special effects and even sounds if they are necessary for timing. Think of them as a comic book with instructions on how to the story will look on the screen.

Next steps

When the storyboard is complete, the team will use it and the script to make a shot list. Identical angles are combined and/or placed next to each other, then next to other shots in the same location. Careful consideration is made for continuity, makeup, availability of actors and properties, locations, travel times, equipment and more. In the end the DP will have a checklist of every frame in the production. He or she will know what’s required in each shot, and when, where and with what it will be done.

Though new ideas often spring up during production and modifications made, these documents serve as the foundation for capturing the story in its entirety, ensuring quality and consistency is maintained, and nothing is left out or forgotten. This, along with the cinematography techniques described above ensure that the visionary can effectively bring the story they want to tell to the screen. This in turn, is what will ultimately bring a sense of captivation and wonder to the audience.

Think like a cinematographer

Cinematographers know their trade well, and understand both the technical and artistic processes involved. They can manage the truly collaborative task that movie making is They are not afraid to go it alone when no one else understands. The DP can foresee the final product in their mind and know the equipment it will take to achieve the look they want.

All this information barely scratches the surface of the cinematography process. It’s a beginning; an introduction. Take it and run with it. Seek further advice. There are tons of resources to help you on your journey. Videomaker provides articles, training videos, special events and a vast community of peers to help you at every step along the road to success. College courses and cinematography schools are available for a more formal teaching of the trade. The Internet holds a vast wealth of cinematography tutorials, blogs and essays. Libraries, bookstores, and other trade publications await.

Maybe the best teaching tool is to to watch movies and television. Observe the methods used in their creation. Learn not only the how, but the why of the craft. Making your dream come alive will be as much fun to tell as we all will have watching it. So what are you waiting for? Tell us your tale. Entertain us. After all, we love to hear a good story.

Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today’s advanced manipulation and compositing tools.

Peter Zunitch
I'm a husband and father that likes to hear new stories and explore telling them in any and all forms. I've worked primarily as a video editor in New York's entertainment and corporate realms for over 20 years. I've been lead editor on two television series and lead technical editor on another. Some of my work as been recognized with Telly and Publicis awards. I'm a firm believer that understanding why things work is just as important as how to work them.


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