Cinematography 101 — Telling stories visually

Cinematography is more than just pointing a camera and capturing images. The Cinematographer's art is visual storytelling.

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 us, you love stories. The problem is that by default, most people aren’t very good at telling them. Storytelling is a learned art. 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 might tell the story in film or video. Getting the best images to drive the story along is what cinematography is all about.

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 motion pictures are shown. Encyclopedia Britannica expands on that, stating “… 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. Examining the fine details of what’s involved in creating a movie, will help us 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. A film or video is actually made up of a series of still images — called frames — usually captured and played back so fast that we perceive it as one continuous moving image. The frame is defined by the field of view. The settings on the camera and its lens determine this field of view. Later, you present your piece back to the audience within a different frame, the screen. Cinematography is the science and art of capturing those moving images and playing them back within the frame.

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 the information on the screen can induce states of mind when viewed. 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 — commonly referred to as 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 bridge the gap between the creative vision of the director, and the technical side of production.

Together with the director, the DP is the cinematic lynchpin for the entire production process. Composition is their method. They design the shot as it will appear through the camera lens, arranging location, props and personalities in order to best convey the intended style of the production. Different types of camera angles are used to move about the scene, such as where to place the camera relative to the action in order to best capture detail and enhance mood.

For example, a low angle can make someone appear larger than life, where a high angle makes them appear menial. They may also employ camera movement, dynamically altering the position of the camera relative to the action in order to reveal or hide details over time. A DP may employ specialized shots, like drone photography — using flight-assisted cameras to capture the action in the context of the broad scope of the landscape. This could also include pole, crane and wire-mounted systems.

“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 linchpin 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 and screens can’t record and reproduce an image the same way our eyes do. For example, the frame does not truly represent or accurately reflect our field of vision, so the DP must compensate for this inconsistency.

Lighting is key

One of the biggest considerations is lighting, illuminating the set through the use of practical and supplemental light sources in order to see the action, assist in defining the location, and enhancing mood. The cinematographer knows how their camera perceives light and can utilize that to their advantage. Light, however, doesn’t always play fair. Or at least, our brains interpret it differently depending on the situation. The camera processes light as absolute. White is white and black is black and if it’s not, it’s wrong. It can’t interpret reflected light as we do. We must therefore give it a baseline, so we white balance the camera. White balance tells the electronics in your equipment what is true white in the shot, so it can compensate for the color of the light interacting with it and represent colors based on that setting.

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.

Depth of field

An important shooting tool in a cinematographer’s arsenal is depth of field. DoF is essential for cinematographers to master, as it allows them to manipulate focus to achieve a specific look or effect.

Exposure and focal length

Hand-in-hand with lighting is the camera’s exposure setting, which determines how much light enters through the lens, or how intensely the sensor should process it. It is the electronic or mechanical version of squinting.

Focal length is another major consideration. Focal length is the distance an object needs to be from a given lens in order to appear sharp and clear to the camera sensor. Focus allows viewers to process depth and can help direct attention.

File formats

File formats are yet another technical consideration. This is the type of data file and storage system that your equipment uses to store the recordings and accompanying data. The format is usually based primarily, on the intended playback method(s), but can also be determined by the planned method of post-production, the amount of detail required and the brand of equipment used. Different formats will possess different strengths and limitations. A worthy cinematographer needs to not only understand the limitations of a chosen format but be able to effectively call upon its strengths as well.

Art and technology

A final resource comes from combining the art of composition, with the technical aspect of the tools at hand. This allows the cinematographer to alter perception in ways we cannot do on our own. They may alter time or distort content to describe and enhance the reality of the content.

Playing with time

One of the most obvious approaches is slow motion; adding extra frames to captured imagery, but playing the video back at the same speed as normal content. This effectively stretches time for the viewer and provides more temporal detail to the action. Alternatively, they might use a timelapse, capturing a series of single still images at set intervals. Play this back at the same absolute speed, and a long period of recording is condensed into a short span of viewing.

With methods like those, the viewer can see the bigger picture or the smaller picture, but what if the cinematographer wants them to see a different picture? That’s where special effects come in. One of the most popular and useful is the green screen, a special effect wherein a solid color [green] background is placed behind the action with the intention of facilitating electronically removing it and replacing it with another image later on.

Again, which of these and other methods they employ all comes down to what creators are trying to convey and how to best convey it. It is essential to understand that each of these terms can influence the ultimate quality, look and emotional feel of a production, and as such should fall under the ever-vigilant scrutiny of the cinematographer.

It takes a village

During production, all of the artistic and technical aspects must be evaluated, monitored balanced and tweaked. To do this in modern production requires a vast array of supporting hardware and software. The cinematographer will devote a major division of the production towards these assets. Cables, monitors, electronic scopes, image processors and more all fall into this category. These shot assist or video assist tools encompass the entire system for previewing and analyzing the imagery that comes through the camera(s) and into the recorder. This usually culminates in the control room in a studio, or a video village on location. The video village is a central hub from which the cinematographer can see all cameras at once and process all relevant information about them.

From design to implementation

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 ones — is then laid out on a storyboard. The storyboard is a representation of the final product before any image is even captured. Think of them as a comic book with instructions on how the story will look on the screen.

When the storyboard is complete, the team will use it along with the script to make a shot list. Identical angles are combined and/or placed next to each other. These groups are paired with 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 director and DP will have a checklist of every shot in the production maximized for budget and time. They will use this information to decide which equipment is necessary to complete the production.

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. They, along with the cinematography techniques described above, ensure that the visionary can effectively realize the story they want to tell and 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 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 simply 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 an award-winning video editor in New York with over 20 years of experience.