December 17, 2014 at 8:55AM

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Getting good at shooting.

Hi, I just wanted to ask what things to do, or techniques to be good at being a cinematographer, or DoP. I started making films 3 years ago and decided I wanted to be a DoP, I shot a few things, but I don't really know if I am even good, or if I am even doing that right thing, I just wanted to know if there are some things that I can do to improve being a cinematographer or DoP, and also how can I tell if I am improving?

33 Comments

Hi there,
The number one thing is to get constant, honest, reliable feedback, and be able to take it.
I think the first thing to do is to find a community, which it seems you are doing, that is knowledgeable about cinematography. In every art form, its important to share your work with people that you trust to give honest feedback. Its also important to develop the strength to accept that feedback and do something with it, rather than reject it or have an excuse. You can differentiate a pro from a newbie by how they respond to feedback. Newbies make excuses (Oh it looks that way because---- and it wasn't my fault), and pros take a good hard look at their work and what other pros have to say honestly about it, and then they learn from it and make the experience a strength on the next shoot. Present your work to folks who want to break your film down to the smallest of components and analyze it for better or for worse. That takes guts, and its how you improve with practice. I'll take a look at it!

December 27, 2014 at 9:04PM

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Miles Levin
Writer/Director/Cinematographer
118

Many ways to improve. One tip which I do is I *ALWAYS* have a camera with me!

As the more you practice then the better you'll get (including, practicing your photography too helps when you're starting out), and if you have a camera on you, then you are more likely to use it.

You don't have to always lug around a BMCC MFT / Nikon D810 / Sony A7s or whatever. It can be a small, but powerful, point and shoot. Such as a Sony RX100 / Panasonic LX100 / FujiFilm XF1 (which is the P&S I carry myself, only cost US$150 too).

December 28, 2014 at 8:30PM

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David Peterson
Wedding Cinematographer
2302

Keep shooting. You hear it all the time, but it's true. The Beatles honed their sound playing dive bars in Hamburg, night after night (probably 'til their fingers bled as the saying goes), and you know what? The world of music has been forever changed because of it. Any artist or craftsman owes it to themselves to work daily on their talent. Watch this video on Vimeo with a VO track by Ira Glass:

https://vimeo.com/85040589

December 29, 2014 at 1:50AM

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The 10,000 hour rule applies to everything you do or want to do!

Denys Finney

January 3, 2015 at 8:52PM

Man, just shoot everything you see! practice your framing even on your smartphone. Watch a lot of films and play around with natural light and take notice of how light reacts with your subjects because after all lighting is the name of the game. Always have a camera or your phone and just shoot stuff. Don't compare yourself to others, compare your work to your work till you believe you have achieved what you want. Take tips and hints from other Film Makers and from that you create your own style. Again...just keep shooting.

December 29, 2014 at 11:14AM

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Wentworth Kelly
DP/Colorist/Drone Op
2349

Hi guys,
Miles, David, Cameron and Wentworth... what you all are saying is very true. I started shooting video three years back. Then I was scared of operating a video camera!!!! Still I hired a video camera and finished the first video on tyre testing of Ralco. All my learning are from Internet, seeing good and bad movies over and over again, listening to the scores, room tones and so on. Am not a talented person but still am getting lots of appreciations from the client (touch wood). No Film School is one such tutor for me. I do lots of DIY gears for my shooting due to budget constrain. One thing I would like to add is, know the cons of your equipment in depth rather than the pros. This will help you find a way out and get the desired results. As it says - If there is a will, there is a way'
Just shoot man...

December 30, 2014 at 5:17AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
673

Hi,
I also want to say that a DoP also needs to understand the editing software and techniques so one will be able to make an informative decision at the right time. I edit my videos, so I know while shooting what are the areas I need to be careful.

December 30, 2014 at 5:23AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
673

Shoot, edit, eat, sleep, repeat.

December 30, 2014 at 11:19AM

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Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor
1934

Or how film riot says it:
Write, shoot, edit, repeat.

Joseph Gumbleton

December 31, 2014 at 11:22AM

I say this with no venom at all, but if you feel so uncertain and clueless about your present skill & ability levels, then you need to start at "proper" square one—which is get three or four industry standard cinematography and lighting educational books and read them cover to cover. It feels weird to even have to type this out… starting out by buying a few $16 books use to be standard practice. The internet has kinda unfurled a crappy delusional curtain of half-useful pseudo-educational free information that has actually resulted in a lot of people progressing their skills at a much slower pace than if they had just spent a month reading three or four books. If you're broke, you can also try seeing what your library has. Even if they're old and from like the 70s, the info on optics, lenses, editing, etc will still be valuable. Really, books are your answer… then after that, the internet is great for keeping up to date and building on upon your knowledge. And if you read the books first, you'll be able to discern that often a sizable percentage of the internet info is flawed or out of context. Sorry if this sounded jerkface at all, I don't mean to, and I hope it somehow helps.

December 30, 2014 at 11:37AM

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Jaan Shenberger
designer/animator & live-action director/DP
1241

Do you recommend any specific books?

JH Sprenkle

January 1, 2015 at 5:43PM

@JH Sprenkle (not sure how exactly I reply to your reply)…
When I was learning, a long-ass time ago (pre-internet), I didn't actually read any of the standard texts, mostly because I had no way of finding out what they even were, so I can't recommend these based on experience (I haven't read them), but I have heard that "Cinematography, 3rd? Edition" by Malkiewicz/Mullen and the lighting book by Blain Brown are great.

The three books I remember being useful for me personally were "Basic Lighting Worktext for Film & Video" by Richard Ferncase (great, straightforward, with lots of diagrams of setups, but old and thus lacking stuff on newer lighting technology), "Camera Terms and Concepts" by David E. Elkins SOC (just a glossary, but it made me aware of all kinds of camera and production related stuff that I didn't know existed, and more importantly understand/realize why that stuff would ever be needed… if that makes sense), and "The Practical Director" by Mike Crisp (incredibly useful, focuses on logistics and the kind of production problems that are hard to anticipate).

But the most "pound for pound" educational bookstuff for me was the occasional behind-the-scenes candid photos in American Cinematographer magazine that depicted the gear of a scene's lighting setup—because I would then go rent whatever film it was and go to the particular shot and be able to see what the result of that setup. The photos weren't ever "diagram" type photos though. I wonder how many other people did/do the same. I remember wishing they would do more of those… seriously I learned a lot from those. You might be able to find a cheap lot of old issues on eBay, it shouldn't really matter what year they're from… principles of placement, diffusion, bounce, fixture spread/size are timeless. Hope this helps.

Jaan Shenberger

January 2, 2015 at 6:57AM, Edited January 2, 6:57AM

I'm genuinely interested, can you recommend a few books that would be a good starting point? Thanks!

Simon Lambert

January 3, 2015 at 6:43PM

@Jaan Thanks. Will check into these.

JH Sprenkle

January 9, 2015 at 7:33PM

A great book I forgot… it used to come free with an AC subscription, but apparently is now out of print and very expensive. Maybe a library will carry it.
http://www.amazon.com/Reflections-Twenty-One-Cinematographers-At-Work/dp...

Jaan Shenberger

January 9, 2015 at 7:45PM, Edited January 9, 7:45PM

I like to watch movies without any sound (actually quite hard for me, cause I get into the story and want to know what's going on, even with movies I've seen thousands of times). You just pay more attention to the framing and editing and seeing how all the visual components come together.

December 30, 2014 at 9:37PM

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Awesome advice. Been trying it out lately and understood more about shot composition and editing. Thanks for that!

Miko Jacildo

January 7, 2015 at 5:00AM

Hi Anthony,
What you say is very true about learning from a proper educational institution and then get into the industry. But there are many people who can't afford to attend such dedicated learning course for various reasons. About the internet what you is also true. Most of the information are crappy. One has to learn to filter out the right info. This filtration is possible only one has their fundamentals clear about the subject. But there are sites with the facts and figures - 'No Film School'. What do you have to say about it? I have a knack of reading on all subjects. Science and literature are the most interesting subject for me. So that helps me a lot. I completely agree with you. Thanks a lot. This will help others too.

December 31, 2014 at 6:17AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
673

Thanks a lot guys, I'll consume all the advice and tips that you guys gave me, and hope for the best. This is a really really big help for me. Happy new year :)

January 1, 2015 at 1:38AM

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Steven Victor
Cinematographer / Editor / Writer
88

Pick a few of your favorite scenes from any film that you like, and try and duplicate their lighting and look. Good lighting is always much harder to set-up than it first appears, and you learn a ton when trying to duplicate the look of something professionally shot.

You will likely have to try this several times to get close to the original look, but if you keep at it your skill level will go way up.

January 1, 2015 at 5:35PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
30888

Most of it has been said, watch a lot of movies, read a lot of information, practice a lot and get critique. I find it useful to also break a movie apart psychologically. I.E. get back down to the basics of story/character. Who are the people you are watching? What are their relationships to each other? What's going on with them? What's the audience suppose to feel? Now how do the camera movements, composition, and lighting help to emphasis that?

I think most choices (by the DP, by the art director, etc etc) are motivated in some way by whatever statement, mood, or idea the movie is trying to convey at any given moment, so it's a good place to start when you are trying to understand how to break apart other people's process. I'm not sure how simple an idea that is, I've never really heard anyone talk about for some reason.

Also I really like the ASC podcast. If you haven't come across it before you'll probably find it really entertaining. http://www.theasc.com/site/podcasts/

January 1, 2015 at 5:58PM

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JH Sprenkle
Electric
171

Thanks for the ASC Podcast link.

Guy McLoughlin

January 1, 2015 at 10:39PM

JH Sprenkle. What you just said is a wonderful observation. Good cinematography isn't just pretty images-it's continuous visual storytelling as opposed to photography which is still visual story telling. Your post comes at a good time since I'm really gaining an understanding of visual consistency for my work. Thanks!

Andreas Beissel

January 3, 2015 at 4:36PM

First you have to realize that good images and good cinematography are two different things. It is still a concept I am struggling with right now. Initially everyone just tries to make the prettiest images they can make, especially when they get very obsessed with making a great reel (I am no exception) but something that is not talked about enough is judging cinematography by how well the images help to craft the story of the narrative. This is something that is not as easy to put down into words, but if you can get really good at it, you will be a good cinematographer. I would recommend starting by asking what the narrative motivation is for every decision you make, whether it be camera placement, lens choice, lighting setup, movement, etc. Hope this helped, and happy shooting!

January 3, 2015 at 3:53PM

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Take analogue pictures, try to film and edit sometimes in the oldschool way. If you have only 24 seconds that you can film then you will overthink if your shot is good enough because then your time is slipping away and analogue shooting costs a lot of money. The next time that you shoot with your digital camera you will also overthink if your shot is worth it.

January 3, 2015 at 4:04PM, Edited January 3, 4:04PM

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Bas Van Hoof
Videographer/Editor/Director
1

Watching movies and then dissecting them into each individual element is what has worked for me as a cinematographer. I always try to study anything I watch in order to understand further what makes it good to ME. Because good cinematography is based on taste and reason behind why it's being done the way it is.

Yes, shooting and bring your cameras everywhere is a great way to start. I did the same. But it's important to separate random everyday work (which has incredible merit, such as finding interesting scenes or light to capture) and actual "work". Try to shoot scenes! Explore lighting most of all. Composition is a beautiful thing and choosing the right angle tells a lot of the story but it's the lighting that will make you shine and hopefully inspired to make even better light. Light can be as complex or simple as you want it to be but it is your most powerful tool. Learn to use it. And as you start breaking it down, figuring out what you like best, that's when you know you're improving.

January 3, 2015 at 4:37PM

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Tu Do
DP
104

Brendan Grant has a good point too. With digital it's easy to not be as careful in setting up your shot/getting your shot since you can reshoot so easily.

January 3, 2015 at 4:38PM

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Just to echo some of the sentiments that have already been brought up: The good news is that there isn't really a "right thing" that you need to know how to do. While there is a ton of technical information that you should learn in the fields of optics, light, color, contrast and composition, not to mention the more nitty-gritty of what different pieces of equipment are called and what they are good for - all of which you can learn from the books mentioned above (also worth a mention is "The Five C's of Cinematography", which I don't think has been mentioned yet but was one of the most helpful books I read way back in the day) - But all of that is only about 50% of it for me.

The rest of the 50% is what is often referred to as "raw talent", "intuition", or "having an eye" for it, and though I think part of this can be chalked up to some sort of predestined knack for aesthetics, this is also a skill that can be honed. And the way to hone it is to do what many of the people have been saying above: One, study works of art that you respond to aesthetically and try to understand what makes them tick (this can apply to cinematography from other movies but also to photographs, paintings, graphic design, and any type of visual art really). And two, practice practice practice. Though ABS - always be shooting - is good advice, it can also be a little impractical at times. So I would suggest that you also take up still photography as well - it's a great way to hone your "eye" for compelling composition, lighting and visual drama. You don't need to go professional, even just taking photos on your iPhone will do.

I know this can all sound a little vague but I hope it's been helpful - please don't hesitate to reach out if you have any further questions! You can find my e-mail address on my profile page. Best of luck!

January 3, 2015 at 5:25PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
2118

Totally not trying to devalue any other suggestions on here as there's a lot of good suggestions but I'm amazed that there is so much emphasis on reading and watching training material and so little about actually assisting. I had read more books and watched more vids than you could shake a stick at but the first day I spent working as a trainee camera assistant I learned more in 12 hours than I had in 2 years. There are many facebook groups etc that are for crewing jobs and while many of them don't offer the best opportunities for experienced professionals there are tons of opportunities to get work for expenses, *especially* if you drive and you know at least a thing or two about shooting. I can't recommend enough the angle of getting in on a few jobs with good DPs (many good DPs still do low budget stuff that can't afford a full crew). Check out the DP's showreels if you want to be selective and then you can see how it's done first hand. Being a data wrangler (as opposed to an experienced DIT) is another great post you don't need tons of experience in and you have the added benefit of seeing how a DP lights and composes a scene and then being able to look at the footage right after when it's handed to you for backups. I know you have been at this for 3 years now so I know you have probably gained a fair bit of experience already so please don't take this as me trying to teach you to suck eggs but if you really want to raise your game, get out there and work with people that you can learn from :) Good luck and Happy New Year to you!

January 3, 2015 at 5:25PM

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What an excellent point, and one that I am embarrassed that I didn't mention! Actually getting on set and learning from others by experience and observation is an absolute necessity to compliment any technical and theoretical information that you read about in books. Though one can definitely acquire a solid foundation just from reading, you'll never really know how those lessons are implemented practically unless you learn from experience, and there truly is no better way to learn than from someone who already knows their stuff.

I've been fortunate enough to serve as a Camera PA on a number of features and have found even that position to be incredibly rewarding and educational as far as observing professionals at work goes, though Kraig's suggestions to try and work various camera department positions or even other departments with relatively small responsibilities that will allow you time to really observe the DP and what he or she is doing, would also be a really great place to start.

Oren Soffer

January 3, 2015 at 10:23PM

I do not have a better answer then the colleagues. I just will like to tell you something from my experience. 1. Kill the ego, if you will not, the ego will kill you. 2. Try to be like a child while working. 3. Be happy with the day on the shoot when you learn something (that is what you bring home). 4. Spend you time learning about technical part of our profession, film is a technical art, all you know can help you. 5. Do not get impressed with technique. What is really the most important in movie-making and what makes the difference between the masters and an average cinematographer is personality. So do not forget the importance of life loving, of dancing, music, love, and everything what can make you a person others would like to spend a time with working as close as you work on movie projects. 6. Any chance to see the work of others, or see them work, take!!! Learning from others is a beautiful experience. Last ten years and more I was almost every day on a movie set. I enjoyed that a lot. The most happy I was when I got a chance to watch my colleges working. And finally: how can you no that you are improving in you work. You will no when you see that you are thinking less and playing more. Wish you all the best!

January 3, 2015 at 7:26PM

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Miso Orepic
cinematographer/director of photography
1

I definately agree to your second point. You'll be most creative and open to learn new stuff if you approach them in a playfull way: like a child!

Jelle Klokman

January 6, 2015 at 5:37PM

As Werner Herzog would say: "Read, Read, Read, Read, Read, Read" everything you can get your hands on.
As Casey Neistat would say: "Work Hard and Be Brave."
Film things that matter to you. You'll look past the difficulties in order to bring the story across because the story matters to you.
And it's good to see that other people who have been doing this for a lot longer than me are having the same problems still. I started about 1 year ago (while being a economics college student) and I love it but I get frustrated when I can't get the image I want or when I can't seem to capture what it is my mind sees. It's hard for me to know what to film to bring the story across. I guess it's something that comes with time, failure and a lot of practice.
Does anyone have a take on this?

January 3, 2015 at 7:46PM

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Olivier Metzler
Student
154

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