5 Things You Can Do Right Now to Become a Better Cinematographer

If you want to up your cinematography game, here are a few tips that'll help you do it.

Whether professional or not, everybody and their mom is out shooting videos and photos. So, what can you do to make your images stand out from the rest? Well, photographer Peter McKinnon has shared 5 simple tips that will help you become a better image maker, tips that primarily center around better ways to approach capturing a scene.

Though McKinnon's video is geared toward photographers, the lessons still translate well in the world of filmmaking. Let's take a look at each of his tips with a little bit of a cinematic twist:

Shoot from different perspectives

There's always another way to skin a cat. Capturing a scene from different angles can not only help you tell your story in a more dynamic way, but it can also help your work stand out from that of others. But I think the main lesson here, which is something McKinnon sums up nicely, is to just be an intentional filmmaker—someone who thinks about their stylistic and technical choices instead of going with what they've always done or what's easy and tried and true. Like he says, take 10 seconds and really think about how you're going to shoot something but for you shoot it.

Create depth

When McKinnon talks about shooting through stuff, the effect he's referring to is depth, which is incredibly important to create when dealing with a 2-dimensional art form like film. Capturing objects in the foreground or background help create the illusion of depth and allows your audience's eye to look into the frame rather than just at it. You can do this by framing up your scene in such a way that there are foreground and background elements, and whether or not you want to shoot with a shallow depth of field to create bokeh, like McKinnon mentions, is up to you.

Think Opposite

A good way to push the limits of your own creativity is to try to do something new. McKinnon suggests thinking of how others tend to shoot a scene and just try to do it the exact opposite (of just differently). For example, think about how standard dinner table scenes unfold: it's usually a series of over-the-shoulder shots of two people sharing some dialog. The fact that the vast majority of these kinds of scenes are shot this way gives you a great opportunity to change it up and try something no one has tried before.

Lighting and composition

I combined the last two tips because they say essentially the same thing: technique is important. Lighting is often the biggest reason why an image looks either good or bad, and composition, if done right, is one of, if not the, the main workhorses of visual storytelling. One thing that will take you to the next level as a filmmaker is ensuring that both of these elements are effective at, yes, making your shots look beautiful, but also, more importantly, at serving your story.     

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Great video. Some random thoughts:

* Shooting through stuff and three-dimensionality...

This has a lot of effects. Eg:
-- It allows you to vary the frame: instead of being stuck shooting 16x9 rectangles, you can now use de facto squares, circles, L-shapes, etc.
-- It allows you to more easily use shallow depth of field, which has psychological effects -- for instance, conveying the way a mind concentrates on one object rather than another. (Or, more crudely, simply raising the production value, impressing people who are impressed by shallow depth.)
-- And V is of course correct that shooting through objects adds to a feeling of three-dimensionality, though the screen in reality is two-dimensional.

Just on V's point... I think the principle here goes back to Renaissance art vs earlier art and the development of perspective in painting: if you include foreground, middle ground and background, you've got an image that feels more three-dimensional, more realistic, than otherwise. Even when shooting something as simple as an interview, you can make it look more 3D and interesting by including a corner in the background, or creating more diagonal lines.

Of course, there are other things you can do to add to a feeling of three-dimensionality, like colour contrasts, or lighting (half the point of a backlight), or overlapping objects. John Alton suggested in Painting With Light that images often look good if the brightest part is in the background, so that you're adding to the illusion of looking through a window into another world. Mascelli in Five C's of Cinematography suggests showing as many sides of an object as possible -- for instance, showing three faces of a cube rather than just one face.

And conversely, if you're Wes Anderson, you might get a comic effect out of making your images look as flat, square and centred as possible.

* Think opposite...

There's a temptation to think along these lines: "I want to shoot object X. Therefore, I'll fill the frame with X." I reckon this is sort of one of the first lessons people learn when taking photos -- pare an image down to its essentials, get rid of clutter, eliminate distractions. And since there's just one object in your frame, well, how do you compose? Natural tendency is either to centre it, or to rule-of-thirds it.

This is a linear, logical way of thinking. There are certainly benefits -- a simplified image often is more powerful; minimalism in general is often powerful. And it goes hand-in-hand with another temptation: shooting close-ups. There's lots of reasons close-ups look good, including: shallow depth of field; easier to frame out mess and to compose; and defamiliarisation (we don't normally see the world in close-up).

But there is a danger you end up with boring, predictable images.

Here's two ways to try to break, or at least vary, this way of thinking.

Method 1: think enviroment first, then think about where to position subject so that it stands out of the environment (because the image still needs a feeling of intentionality to avoid blandness; you still need to signal to your audience what they should be looking at).

Method 2: think "object in context". So, Roger Deakins has said that he's interested in showing people, things in their context. A recent NoFilmSchool post on a Woflcrow video talked about how Hitchcock liked shooting wide shots and mid shots.

It's more difficult to shoot wide than close -- more mess, more chaos, more chance gear and crew will get in shot, more lighting issues to worry about. But if you get it right, you often end up with a more interesting image: there's literally more information and more things happening, and there's semantically more going on, because the context comments on the subject, the subject comments on the context, etc.

Photographers get this stuff more than videographers do. Videographers can string together a sequence of close-ups to tell a story, and probably end up with an awesome, albeit claustrophobic, result. But photographers need to be able to tell a story in a single frame, and are more conscious that single-object images are kind of boring.

December 24, 2016 at 7:02PM, Edited December 24, 7:18PM

Adrian Tan

I always try to give a sense of location or place in a shot. A hint of mountain or building in the background helps with this. I prefer that stories have somewhere that they happen even if it's a personal story. The alternative is "generic North American city" which is dull.

December 25, 2016 at 8:44AM


Taking still photos really improves your video skills, I think. I am convinced that the moment I got really serious with still photography (still as a hobby though) my video work became much better. Taking photos is also a nice way to experiment with lighting - a few small remote flashes are very easy to play with, and they can emit as much light as a huge multi-kilowatt hmi. Only for a split second of course, but that doesn't matter for still photography. That way you can learn how to use super powerful light sources without having to rent a lighting truck ;)

January 5, 2017 at 4:31PM


It's nice how these tips aren't obvious (well a couple of them are, but that's ok, what's obvious to me isn't obvious to everyone and vice versa).

December 26, 2016 at 11:01PM

The Mellow Filmmaker
Filmmaker, Editor, Videographer

Prior to producing corporate, I worked in news. There is no better training ground to develop personal style and take risks (visually). The greatest advise or wisdom I ever received was that it's your responsbility (as a camera operator, photojournalist or shooter) to take the viewer into places they normally could not go. That advise literally rings in my ears to this day when I shoot, compose or block shots. "Can the client or viewer get here with their own eyes?" If so, I look for alternate angles...

December 28, 2016 at 6:00AM

Foundation Digital Media
Who's telling your story?

I think that's excellent advice, and not only for cinematography (as long as the camera work doesn't get in the way of the story). It's also excellent advice for filmmaking in general -- show the audience something new, give them access to, insight into something they haven't seen before (eg, an alien planet, the inner workings of the White House, the moral quandaries of war).

December 28, 2016 at 8:30PM

Adrian Tan

Coming from a news manager, this is so true.

December 29, 2016 at 9:26AM, Edited December 29, 9:26AM

Benja Lockridge

I worked in news too, actually started there - but my first thought on the tips above was "be careful with 'think opposite'". I mean, it's good to have new ideas and new perspectives, but never forget to shoot the standard pictures first. Nothing more annoying for an editor (especially in news!) when the cameraperson was so super-artistic that they didn't deliver any "normal" footage but only artsy "new" compositions ;)
Camerawork is not only art, it is also a craft. Never forget to cover the basics, and then go crazy as much as you want!
In news or for tv formats, always delivering the basics 100% will get you more work. Delivering the best artistic shots will not get you booked again when your stuff is only useable 80% of the time. You will definitely get booked again if you can do both 100% reliably. But the basics and the reliability are more important. And I think this translates to most jobs in film or commercial work as well, nobody wants to take risks these days...

January 5, 2017 at 4:09PM, Edited January 5, 4:15PM


I remember the first time V. Stiviano Renee posted this video. Up next, 8 ways to use your gimbal...

August 11, 2018 at 6:21AM