A simple rundown of the complex art form known as cinematography.
If I had to rank the most desirable (if not a little bit pretentious) job titles in film and video, it’d probably have to go in this order:
And if you’re reading this and personally identify as either of the above titles, then I apologize. No judgement should be passed because, while it might feel a little haughty to drop one of these titles to the waiter at the wrap party, they truly are some of the most respected—in fact, hardest—roles to land.
If you do desire to work in film, and specifically as a cinematographer (or director of photography), you also have to be prepared to put in the work. Not only in terms of learning the trade and honing your skills, but also simply in developing your own artistic vision—and most importantly, your ability to communicate your artistic desires to others.
As such, let’s take a moment to dive deep into cinematography and explore just what makes this specific art form tick, as well as really hone in on the three most critical basics which any aspiring cinematographer should master.
As you can see in the video above from In Depth Cine, when it comes to cinematography, there is a lot to cover. Not only do you have all of the artistic elements of composition and mise-en-scéne, but also you have the (often undesirable) task of managing multiple departments.
Starting off with exposure, you’re really looking at how a DP runs a camera department as a tool to compose, capture, and record the best footage possible. Not only does any aspiring cinematographer need to be familiar with pretty much any and all cameras currently in vogue, but you also need to have an astute understanding of what makes cameras (and lenses, for that matter) work.
Along with the info and advice outlined in the video, here are some additional resources for reading up on exposure and camera departments:
- Understanding The Exposure Triangle [FREE Exposure Triangle Cheat Sheet]
- Want an Easier and Faster Way to Calculate the Exposure Formula?
- Who's Who of a Hollywood Camera Department
Moving on, when it comes to cinematography we also have to talk about lighting, as it is truly one of the most critical elements used to compose a shot. Once you feel comfortable in your camera selection and exposure elements, lighting quickly becomes one of the biggest issues at the forefront of any DP’s focus.
And of course, it takes more than just one person to handle lighting. In fact, the lighting department can often be one of the largest and most sophisticated departments on set, often requiring full crews and tons and tons of lights and gear.
If you’d like to begin a crash course in learning more on the basics of lighting, check out these articles below:
- What Are LED Film Lights, and How Do LED Lights Work?
- An Inside Look at the Roles Within a Hollywood Lighting Department
- No Lights? No Problem—Four Ways to Manipulate Natural Light
Camera Positioning & Movement
Finally, once you feel comfortable working with exposing cameras and setting up your lighting, you also have to throw the ultimate variable into the equation—movement!
It’d be an understatement to say that the camera position matters for a shot. In fact, the psychological research behind it would suggest that camera positioning and movement informs almost everything about how an audience will perceive an object, character, or action in a film.
A full grip department is also needed to truly position a camera and put it into movement as many shots require complicated tracking shots, dollies, and all types of modern cranes and aerials as well.
As such, this is another cinematography basic which you can’t ignore and would recommend reading up as much as possible from these links here:
- An Evergreen Guide to Camera Movement
- What's a Key Grip in Movies and What Does a Key Grip Do?
- What Martin Scorsese Can Teach Us About Motivated Camera Movement
And those are just some overviews of the basics! The true role of cinematographer requires so much more in terms of knowledge, experience, and vision. However, if this is the path for you, then take inspiration from breakdowns like these and study up—you’re going to need it.
Let us know what your favorite elements of cinematography in the comments below!