Photography is the art of fixing an image in durable form through either a chemical or digital process. It requires a detailed, scientific knowledge of how light reflects off the lived environment and how that light reacts to various light-sensitive media. It also requires a sophisticated grasp of color temperature and the interplay of light and shadow. And an artist’s sensibility to composition, the arrangement of objects and setting within the frame of the camera to achieve balance and visual interest. Not to mention a deep, technical understanding of the gear required, cameras, formats, lenses and their respective idiosyncrasies. And it helps if you know how to tell a story in a single image, frozen in time. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Now do that at least 24 times every second. That’s cinematography.
Capturing the moving image. For many of film lovers, and even just the casual viewer, this is what we show up for. But I’ve waited five chapters to discuss it because it’s important to understand that cinematography – while it may often get the most glory – is only one part of how cinema works. Without a sophisticated mise-en-scéne and a narrative to follow, it’s just a bunch of meaningless images. Not to mention the importance of editing, sound and performance. Put it all together and cinematography becomes the anchor point to a much larger cinematic experience.
The person responsible for all of this is the cinematographer, sometimes known as the director of photography (DP). Their job is to translate the director’s vision into usable footage, using all of the photographic skills listed above and only after making a series of crucial decisions which we will get to below. It is one of the most technical jobs in cinema, requiring as much science as it does art:
And just as the production designer oversees a whole crew of craftspeople helping to fully realize the mise-en-scéne, the cinematographer also relies on a large team known as the camera department. The camera department includes the camera operator, the person actually handling the camera. I know, seems like that should be the cinematographer. And it often is. But on larger productions where you have multiple cameras or very complex shots, the cinematographer can only be in one place at a time. There’s also the 1st assistant camera (1st AC), who is responsible for the camera components, swapping out lenses, and most importantly, keeping the camera in focus. Though that last job is sometimes given to another dedicated member of the team, the focus puller. Then you have the 2nd assistant camera (2nd AC) who assists the 1st AC and often operates the slate, or clapper (more on that later).
A relatively new member of the camera department is the Digital Imaging Technician (DIT). With the rise of digital cinematography, instead of a dedicated person responsible for loading film onto the camera (known as a film loader, so creative with the names), we now have a person solely responsible for organizing the digital files coming off the camera. And that can include quality control and color correction during the shoot.
Outside the dedicated camera department, the cinematographer also oversees the lighting department as well as the grip department, also known collectively as grip and electric. The lighting department is, well, responsible for all the lights required to shoot a scene. As should be obvious, lights require electricity. And electricity can be dangerous. Especially when you have 100 crew people running around trying to get a shot before lunch. So, the head of the lighting department is a skilled electrician, known as the gaffer. The gaffer has a first assistant as well, called a best boy. (I know, not very gender neutral. If the “best boy” is female, they might be called best babe, which is worse.) And then a whole crew of electrics who are responsible for putting the lights wherever the gaffer tells them to. Grips are there to move everything else that isn’t a light. That includes lighting stands, flags, bounces, even cranes, dollies and the camera itself. The head of the grip department is the key grip, and one of their most important jobs is on-set safety. With so many literal moving parts, it is very easy for someone to get hurt.
That’s a lot of people to keep track of for one cinematographer, but fortunately there is a tightly controlled hierarchy and they all know their jobs. A simple command from the cinematographer, “Flag off that 10k, we’re going wide on the dolly,” may sound like gibberish, but everyone on a film set knows exactly what to do. In fact, there’s a whole cinema-specific vocabulary that film crews use to keep the shoot moving quickly and efficiently. From apple boxes to barn doors to C-stands, the lingo can get downright bizarre. Clothespins are not clothespins, they’re C-47s (and yes, they use a lot of clothespins on a film set), and breakfast isn’t the morning meal, it’s the first meal on set, which could be 6 o’clock in the evening. And if someone is in the bathroom, they’re 10-100 (or 10-200 as the case may be), but they’re definitely not “in the can”, which is what you say when a scene is completed.
But aside from the esoteric lingo on the set, there are a few key terms everyone should know. The first is the shot, the most basic building block of cinematography. As mentioned in Chapter Two, a shot is one continuous capture of a span of action by a motion picture camera. A finished film is made up of a series of these shots, of varying length, that ultimately tell the story. But during production, each shot may need to be repeated several (or dozens or even hundreds of) times until everyone gets it right. Every time they repeat the shot, it’s called a take. And once the director and cinematographer feel they have the best version of that shot, it’s time to move the camera – and everything associated with it – to a new shot, sometimes just a slightly different angle on the same scene. That’s called a set-up. New set-ups require everyone on the crew to jump into action, re-arranging the camera, the lights, the set dressing, etc. That can take time. Lots of time. And it’s one reason assistant directors, responsible for planning how long it will all take, think of the schedule in terms of the number of set-ups a crew can accomplish each day.
Obviously, a film set is a complicated place requiring a complex choreography of dozens if not hundreds of personnel all dedicated to rendering the moving picture. But there are many decisions a cinematographer has to make before they even arrive on set. These decisions – film or digital, black and white or color, lighting, lenses, framing and movement – are all made in collaboration with director and in service to the narrative and the overall mise-en-scéne. Some of them are incredibly technical, some are purely aesthetic, but each one of them will affect how we engage the cinematic experience.
FILM VERSUS DIGITAL
One of the first decisions a cinematographer must make is what medium she intends to use to record the images, a physical film stock or a digital sensor. While this is a highly technical decision, it is also an important aesthetic choice that will affect the overall look of the final image. Not only are there differences in the look of film versus digital recording generally, but there are also subtle distinctions in the various film stocks and manufacturers, as well as the different types of digital sensors that come with different camera systems. Let’s take each one in turn.
Good old-fashioned film stock has been around since the dawn of cinema, though it has evolved quite a bit since those early days. In the beginning, the strips of light-sensitive material were made from nitrate, a highly flammable material, which was not so great when it was whirring through a projector past a hot lamp. It’s one of the reasons many early films are lost to history. They simply burned up too easily. Today, film stock is made from a much sturdier plastic. And on that plastic is a gelatin coating containing thousands of microscopic grains of light-sensitive crystals called silver halide. When light hits those crystals, they darken, depending on the amount of light. (And if it’s color film, there will be three separate layers of those crystals, one blue, one red and one green.) A chemical bath enhances that reaction to light, rendering a negative image that can then be projected.
Once a cinematographer commits to this analog, chemical process, there are still a lot of decisions to make. First, they must choose a film gauge, that is, the size of the film stock. The film gauge is determined by measuring from corner to corner the individual frames that will be exposed to light. The standard film gauge in cinema today is 35mm, but sizes range from as small as 8mm all the way up to 70mm. And each size will render a different look, with more or less detail once enlarged. They must also decide how sensitive the film will be to light. Highly sensitive, or “fast” film stock, that is film that reacts quickly to relatively low levels of light, contains relatively large silver halide crystals (more surface area to absorb the light). The benefit is the ability to film at night or other low-light situations. The drawback is a loss in resolution, or detail in the image, due to an increase in the crystals. or grain. Less sensitive, or “slower” film stock produces a crisper image (due to the smaller crystals), but requires more light.
There are many other decisions to be made that may affect the final image – the manufacturer, black and white versus color, the developing process – but using the physical medium of film stock renders an image that many filmmakers claim has a more organic look, a difference you can almost feel more than see. And that comes at a price. Film stock must be purchased by the foot, forcing filmmakers to plan every shot carefully to avoid wasting material. (Of course, many filmmakers see this as a good thing). Not to mention the fact that you don’t really know what you have until you develop the film after a day of shooting. Or the fact that you have to assemble your final film by actually cutting and taping together physical strips of film. Or the fact that even if you choose to shoot on analog film stock, most of your audience is going to watch a digitized version in the multiplex or on their television, laptop or smartphone anyway.
For these and many other reasons, good old-fashioned film has fallen somewhat out of fashion in favor of the flexibility of digital cinematography. Digital cinematography is identical in every way to analog film cinematography – same basic equipment, same need to control exposure, shape light, compose the image, etc. – with one important difference: the light passing through the lens hits a digital image sensor instead of a strip of plastic film. That sensor uses software to analyze and convert the light bouncing off its surface into a series of still images (just like film stock) that are recorded onto flash memory or an external hard drive.
The advantages should be obvious. First and foremost, there are almost no limits on how much you can record, especially as digital data storage becomes cheaper and cheaper. And since the sensor is controlled by software, you can adjust settings such as light sensitivity at the press of a button rather than changing out the film stock.
But there are still lots of decisions to be made. Just as there are various film gauges, digital sensors come in all shapes and sizes, and every camera manufacturer produces their own subtle variations. And while most of us could probably never tell the difference, cinematographers are very particular about the way a Canon sensor renders color differently from a Sony sensor, or a RED sensor from an Arri sensor.
And then there’s the issue of resolution. The standard for “high definition” is an image measuring 1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels, also known as 1080p (the “p” stands for progressive scan since the image is rendered line by line from top to bottom). Pixels are the smallest visible unit in a screen’s ability to produce an image. Think of them as analogous to those tiny silver halide crystals in film stock. 1,920 by 1,080 pixels is a lot of detail, but most digital cinema today is recorded at a much higher resolution of at least 4,096 pixels by 2,160 pixels, or 4K. And even that has become commonplace and somewhat outdated. In fact, you probably have a 4K camera in your pocket right now. It’s in your phone. And as the technology improves, we’ll see 6K, 8K and 10K become standard. All that information packed into every image renders an incredible amount of detail (and also eats up a lot of storage space). Detail most of us, frankly, will not be able to see with naked eye.
But resolution isn’t the only factor that affects image clarity. Cinematographers can also manipulate the frame rate to render super sharp imagery. For decades, the standard frame rate for cinema has been 24 frames per second. That produces a familiar, cinematic “look” to the finished film in part because of motion blur, the subtle blurring that occurs between still images passing at 24 fps. But film shot and projected at 48 or 96 or even 120 frames per second renders an ultra-sharp image with almost no motion blur as our brains process far more detail between each individual frame. To be fair, this is possible with analog film stock, but it is impractical to shoot that much film stock at that high a rate. Digital cinematography gives filmmakers like Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), Gemini Man (2019)) and James Cameron (the Avatar series) the freedom to experiment with these higher frame rates combined with higher resolution sensors to produce images we literally have never seen before.
Ever wonder what the Lumiere brothers could have done with 4K resolution and a higher frame rate? Someone decided to find out by using complex algorithms to upscale the original footage (and add a little sound design):
BLACK & WHITE VERSUS COLOR
Another decision cinematographers must make early in the process, in collaboration with the director, is whether to record the image in black and white or color. For many of you this may seem more a question of history. Old movies are black and white, modern movies are in color. Once the technology allowed for color cinematography, why would anyone look back? But there are a number of reasons why a filmmaker might choose to film in black and white over color, even today. They may want to evoke a certain period or emulate some of those “old” movies. Or, if the subject matter is relatively bleak, they may want the added thematic element of literally draining the color from the image. Or they may want to take advantage of the heightened reality and sharp contrast that black and white cinematography provides. Or maybe they want to foreground the performances. One of the greatest directors in cinema history, Orson Welles, once said black and white was the actor’s friend because every performance is better without the distraction of color.
But I get it. It’s not 1920. You don’t ride a penny-farthing or listen to music on wax cylinders. Why would you watch a movie in black and white?
Maybe this will convince you:
Whatever their reason, cinematographers must take several things into account once they choose between black and white and color. First, if they are shooting black and white on film, they typically have to use a film stock designed for black and white imagery. It is possible to print black and white from a color negative, but it won’t render the light and shadows in quite the same way as a dedicated film stock. And, of course, if they are filming in color, different film stocks from different manufacturers will render colors differently depending on the desired effect. If they are using digital technology and want the final product to be black and white, the color is usually removed after filming in post-production. But they still have to balance lighting and exposure for how the image will render without color. In either case, it’s important to note that black and white cinematography requires just as much attention to detail in the filming process as color.
LIGHT AND LIGHTING
Whether shooting film or digital, black and white or color, one of the most powerful tools a cinematographer has to work with is light itself. Without light, there is no image and there can be no cinema. But simply having enough light to expose an image is not enough. A great cinematographer – heck, even a halfway decent one – knows that their job is to shape that light into something uniquely cinematic. To do that, they must have a deep understanding of the basic properties of light. Four properties, to be specific: Source, Quality, Direction and Color.
Source refers to both the origin and intensity of the light. There are two basic distinctions in terms of origin: natural or artificial. Natural light refers to light from the sun or moon (which is really just the sun bouncing off the moon, but you knew that), and artificial light refers to light generated from any number of different technologies, LED, incandescent, fluorescent, etc. Each source will have its own particular characteristics, exposing a shot in its own particular way. Artificial light allows a cinematographer an incredible amount of freedom to manipulate and shape the light. Scenes shot indoors on a soundstage can be made to look like daytime exteriors with enough artificial light. And scenes shot outdoors at night can also be augmented with artificial lights standing in for moonlight. But natural light can also be manipulated and shaped through filters, flags (large black fabric squares used to block off the sun’s direct light) and diffusers.
Each new scene will require the cinematographer to consider their light source and how they want to shape it. And a big part of that calculation is intensity. How bright is the source and how is that going to affect exposure? We’ll discuss depth of field later on, but how much light a cinematographer has to work with affects how much (or how little) of the shot can be in focus, and how balanced their exposure will be in the final image. Sometimes a cinematographer can get away with just using available light, that is the light from the pre-existing fixtures in a location (also called practical lights). But more often they want to control the intensity more precisely, so they use specialized lights to illuminate the scene from outside the frame of the image. The lamps and overhead lights you might see in a film or tv series are actually more props than true lighting sources. They indicate to the viewer where the light is coming from in a given shot – what cinematographers call motivating the light source and direction – but they rarely adding anything to the exposure of the scene.
Check out this short clip:
The subject in the scene is lit by several bright artificial lights just off camera. The table lamp in the background is only there to “motivate” the light that illuminates the side of the subject’s face. But it’s really just a psychological trick. If you really think about it, a dim lamp behind and to the right of the subject should not illuminate his face at all, but our brain tells us, “Sure, that makes sense.” That’s because we really want to believe, we don’t want to think about a crew of people standing around bright lights while a camera records it all. We want to be fooled, and the cinematographer knows that.
The second property of light cinematographers have to think about is quality. This doesn’t mean “good” or “bad,” it’s more about how the light “feels” in the shot. The easiest way to think about quality is in terms of hard or soft lighting. Hard lighting is intense and focused, creating harsh, dramatic shadows. Soft lighting is more diffused and even, filling the space with smooth, gradual transitions from light to dark. The difference is actually less about the light on the subject and more about the shadows cast by the subject. Are the shadows clearly defined with a hard edge? You’ve got hard lighting. Are the shadows fuzzy, less clearly defined or maybe even absent entirely? You’ve got soft lighting. Cinematographers can control the quality of light by adjusting the size of the light source and its distance from the subject. Typically, the smaller the light source and the closer to the subject, the harder the light:
The third important property of light is direction. Where is the light coming from in the scene? Not the source, what makes the light, but what direction is it coming from? Left, right, below, above? Each decision will affect the look and feel of a scene, and practical lights in the set design can help motivate lighting direction. A single overhead lamp in an interrogation room will motivate a hard light from above. Large windows can help motivate a soft, diffused light from one side of the room.
Cinematographers plan their lighting set-up for any given scene by thinking carefully about what direction the light is coming from, starting with the main source of illumination, the key light. The key light is usually the brightest light on the set, used to properly expose the main subject. But just one bright light will feel like a spotlight, creating unwanted shadows. So, they use a fill light, usually less intense and a bit softer than the key light, to fill out those shadows. But those two lights shining on the front of your subject can make the scene feel a bit two-dimensional. To bring some depth to the image, they use a back light, usually a hard light that shines on the back of a subject’s head (also called a hair light), to create some separation between the subject and the background. The brightness of each of these lights relative to each other is known as the lighting ratio and can be adjusted for various different effects. This lighting set-up is known as three-point lighting, and it’s the most basic starting point for lighting a scene:
Of course, three-point lighting is just that, a starting point. Really complex lighting schemes will require far more layers to the set-up. But even then, cinematographers will talk to their gaffers, electrics and grips in terms of key, fill and back lights.
The fourth property of light that every cinematographer must understand is color. And no, I don’t mean red, blue and green light bulbs. I mean the subtle color cast that different light sources give off that will ultimately affect the exposed image. For example, a typical household incandescent light bulb uses a tungsten filament to produce light. That light usually has a warm, orange glow to it. But a fluorescent tube light in a ceiling fixture gives off a cooler, bluer light. In fact, we’ve come up with a way to measure these differences using the concept of color temperature. Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin. The lower the degree Kelvin, the warmer, or more “red” the light. The higher the degree Kelvin, the cooler, more “blue” the light. The orange glow of a tungsten bulb is around 3200 Kelvin. Daylight is around 5600 Kelvin.
It can get a little confusing, I know. Check out this quick overview on the science behind color temperature and how we use it in cinema:
As should be clear by now, color temperature matters a great deal when a cinematographer wants to set a particular mood. For example, a romantic scene in a candle-lit restaurant should have a warm, orange glow. Fortunately, you don’t need to rely on a thousand candles to achieve that effect. Most modern LED (light-emitting diode) lights can be adjusted according to color temperature. All you have to do is dial in 2000K to your key, fill and back lights, and you get the equivalent of the warm glow of candlelight without the fire hazard.
Source, quality, direction and color are the four most important properties of light cinematographers must master to create great cinema. And once we understand these same properties, we can start to understand how cinematographers combine them to achieve an effective lighting style in any given scene, film or series. For example, by lowering or removing the key light and relying more on indirect, relatively hard fill and back lights, you create deep shadows and high contrast in a scene. As mentioned in Chapter Three, this is style of lighting is known as low-key lighting (because of the lack of a dominant key light, not because it’s laid back), used to evoke mystery and even terror.
Check out this short video essay on one of the greatest living cinematographers, Roger Deakins, and how he approaches lighting style in his work:
Another powerful tool a cinematographer has to work with is, of course, the camera. And there is a lot that goes into how that particular apparatus works and the nuances between different formats and manufacturers. But I want to focus on the one component that is interchangeable and allows for endless variety: the lens. No matter what camera a cinematographer chooses, it’s the lens that determines the clarity, framing, depth of field and exposure of the image. Just by changing the lens, without moving the camera at all, you can radically transform the look of a shot.
The principle behind a camera lens is a pretty simple. A piece of curved glass (or several pieces depending on the lens), held in place on the front of the camera, focuses light through an adjustable aperture (a fancy word for “hole”) and onto light-sensitive material (film or a digital sensor). The aperture controls the amount of light entering the camera, and the glass “elements” control the sharpness of the image by moving closer or further away in tiny increments from the aperture. The overall distance between the sensor and the point at which the light passes through those glass elements is called the focal length and is measured in millimeters. So, in a 50mm lens the distance between the sensor of the camera and the point where the light passes through the glass of the lens is 50 millimeters.
Focal length determines both the angle of view and the magnification of the image. The shorter the focal length, the wider the angle of view and the smaller the magnification. The longer the focal length, the narrower the angle of view and the greater the magnification. Any lens below 35mm is generally considered a “wide-angle lens” because of its relatively short focal length. Any lens above 70mm is considered a “telephoto lens” because it greatly magnifies the image.
Lenses can be divided into two basic types based on how they treat focal length: zoom and prime. Zoom lenses allow you to adjust the focal length by sliding the glass elements closer to or further away from the sensor, thus greatly magnifying the image or widening the angle of view without swapping out the lens itself. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length. What you see is what you get. Now I know what you’re thinking. Why not just slap a zoom lens on there and choose your own focal length? But actually, cinematographers almost always use prime lenses when filming. For one thing, zoom lenses tend to have many more glass elements than primes and that can affect the quality of the image. But more importantly, prime lenses force the cinematographer to be more deliberate and intentional about the angle of view and magnification of a particular shot.
Confused yet? Maybe this will help:
Still confused? Here’s an explanation in just 23 seconds:
Angle of view and magnification are important in terms of what’s visible in the frame, but just as important is what appears to be in sharp focus. Lenses also allow cinematographers to control the depth of the image by either isolating a subject as the only element we see clearly in a particular shot or allowing us to see everything in the background and foreground equally. This is called depth of field, the range of distance in front of the camera in which subjects are in sharp focus.
Take a look at this image:
Note how the figure of the man lighting his cigarette is isolated from the background, focusing our attention on the spark from the lighter. This is an example of narrow depth of field. The range of distance in front of the camera in which subjects are in sharp focus is relatively small, creating less depth to the image.
Now check out this image:
Note that everything seems to be equally in focus, allowing us to pick out all of the details of the set design. This is an example of a wide depth of field or deep focus.
But since cinematography is all about moving pictures, this is not necessarily a binary choice. A cinematographer can change the depth of field within a shot to shift our attention from one subject to another. This is called a rack focus or pull focus:
Now that you know what it is, you’ll see it all the time in film and tv. In fact, there’s usually one person on set whose only job is to manage those shifts in the depth of field within a shot. They’re called, appropriately enough, a focus puller.
FRAMING THE SHOT
Composition, the arrangement of people, objects and setting within the frame of an image, has already come up a few times in previous chapters. That’s because how a cinematographer composes the image, how they design each shot, is one of the most important elements in cinematic storytelling. How those people, objects and setting are arranged with in the border of the image can bring balance or imbalance, reveal or hide information, indicate power or weakness, all without a word of dialog, an edit or even a character on the screen.
But before a cinematographer can start to think about how to properly compose a shot, they have one more decision to make: the shape of their frame. Okay, every frame (for now) is some variation on a rectangle. But the proportions of that rectangle will dictate how people, objects and setting are arranged within it. This is known as the aspect ratio, the width of the frame relative to its height. The current standard for motion pictures is 16:9, or 1.78:1, a rectangle that is almost twice as wide as it is tall. But in the early days of cinema, the standard was much closer to a square, 4:3, sometimes called the academy ratio. And sometimes filmmakers opt for a much wider frame, as wide as 2.35:1. That aspect ratio is a particular favorite of Quentin Tarantino. Whatever aspect ratio a filmmaker chooses will affect the choices they make regarding composition. Check out this quick comparison:
Once a filmmaker has chosen their aspect ratio, the most basic starting point for composition, one we all intuitively understand from our own experience snapping photos with our phones, is balance. Images that are well-balanced use the space within the frame to evenly distribute visual interest, creating a proportional, pleasing composition. (Unless that’s not what you’re going for, but we’ll get to that). One way to achieve that balance is the rule of thirds. The idea is to divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically and line up areas of visual interest at the intersection of those points. Here’s an example:
By arranging the actors along the intersection of the grid lines, the composition feels well-balanced and proportional. It has the added benefit of helping to tell the story, where the two characters share the screen as equals.
Now take a look at another image from the same film:
In this composition, the subjects are still evenly distributed within the frame, but the relative size difference between the characters indicates an unequal power dynamic. Again, helping to tell the story.
The rule of thirds is all about balance and proportion in the composition, to bring a sense of symmetry to the image. Some filmmakers take this notion of symmetry in composition to the extreme. Check out this supercut of Wes Anderson’s apparent obsession with symmetry in his films:
This consistent use of balanced composition is one of the elements that makes a Wes Anderson film a Wes Anderson film. That pattern in his framing is part of his signature mise-en-scéne.
But just like three-point lighting, the rule of thirds is really just a starting point for understanding how composition can be used to help tell a cinematic story. Framing the shot is really about directing our attention, showing us where to look in the shot or scene, and ultimately how to feel about it. There are lots of ways to do this.
Take a look at how Nicholas Winding Refn uses another way to divide up the frame, a quadrant approach, to direct our attention in a given shot or sequence:
Or how Japanese master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa combines framing and movement to constantly redefine relationships and motivations using simple geometry:
Sometimes a filmmaker will direct our attention by framing the subject within another frame in the composition. Check out how Wong Kar-Wai uses this technique in the stunning romance In the Mood for Love (2000):
All of these examples demonstrate how filmmakers use framing to direct our attention and help tell the story. And as discussed in Chapter Two, these techniques contribute to our shared cinematic language, as filmmakers and viewers. Some of the more obvious ways filmmakers employ framing as form of communication is by using imagery we already intuitively understand from our everyday lives. Take, for example, the apparent proximity of the subject to the camera. As discussed in Chapter Two, a close-up creates a sense of intimacy with the subject, just like it would in real life if we stood within inches of another person (hopefully with their permission, because if not, that’s just creepy). If the subject appears far away, as in an extreme long shot, that communicates a sense of disconnection or emotional distance from the subject. In fact, directors and cinematographers have a convenient shorthand for how close or far way the subject should appear, a code for where to place the camera (or what focal length to use). A close up and extreme long shot are obvious enough. But there is also the extreme close-up, medium close-up, medium shot, medium long, long etc. Each term means something specific in terms of composition. A medium long shot, for example, will typically compose a character from the knees up. A medium shot will be from the waist up. Having a specific term for a specific composition saves time (and money) on the set during production.
Another way filmmakers can communicate through composition using imagery we already intuitively understand is by adjusting the angle of view. If a cinematographer frames the shot below the eyeline of a character – so we are literally looking up to them – that character will feel dominant and powerful. Frame the subject in profile and the character will feel a bit more mysterious, leaving us wanting to know more about them.
A filmmaker can also “break” the rules of balance and proportion for a desired effect. For example, if a cinematographer intentionally creates an asymmetrical, unbalanced image, it will likewise make the viewer feel uneasy and off balance. Or they can compose the image so the main subject is isolated and small relative to the rest of the frame, creating what is known as negative space. This can help communicate a character’s isolation or powerlessness in a scene.
Want more examples? Check out this video essay on how filmmakers use composition to tell a cinematic story:
MOVING THE CAMERA
Much of the above discussion about composition is as true for still photography and painting as it is for cinematography. But what makes cinema special is, of course, movement, both in terms of how subjects move within the frame – also known as blocking – and how the frame itself moves through a scene. And while the blocking of actors in a scene is important, I want to focus on how a cinematographer can move their camera within a single shot to reframe an image and potentially change the meaning of the scene.
There are many different ways a camera can move. Let’s take a look at some of the simplest, starting with pans and tilts. A tilt is simply moving the camera up or down from a fixed point, usually a tripod. A pan is simply rotating the camera from side to side, also from a fixed point. Here’s an example of a pan:
The effect is the same as if you simply turned your head from left to right, keeping your eyes straight ahead. But by moving the frame, the cinematographer is able to radically reorient our point of view while also creating a sense of anticipation as to what will be revealed.
But if you want the camera to actually move through the space, not simply move left to right or up and down, there are a few options. You could just pick it up and move it. That’s called, appropriately enough, a handheld shot. But if you want that movement to be more subtle, or at least a lot smoother, you’ll want more precise control over how the camera moves. One way to achieve that is to put it on wheels. Sometimes those wheels are stuck on a track that grips have laid down for a particular shot, and sometimes they’re just well-oiled wheels that will go wherever the grip pushes them. Either way, this is called a dolly shot. Dolly shots come in all sort of flavors. You can dolly in or dolly out, that is, move toward or away from a stationary subject. Here’s an example of a dolly out combined with a tilt:
you can set up a tracking shot that tracks along with a subject in motion (and may or may not be on actual tracks). Here’s a simple tracking shot of two kids on their bicycles:
In this case, the camera was mounted on the back of a van, tracking in front of the subjects, leading them forward. Notice too how towards the end of the shot the camera shifts subtly to reframe the image on just the girl, indicating a subtle shift in emphasis in the story.
You can also put the camera on a crane to achieve a really dramatic shift in the point of view, like this crane shot from High Noon (1952, Fred Zinneman, dir.):
Notice how effective this shift in perspective is in making the character seem isolated, small and powerless without even knowing the context or the rest of the story (it’s an amazing film and you should go watch it right now).
If you want the freedom of physically carrying the camera around through a scene, but still want the smooth motion of a dolly, you can use a special rig called a steadicam. Steadicam is actually a brand name for a camera stabilizer that has become a somewhat generic term (like Kleenex or Xerox… does anyone still say Xerox?). The camera is strapped to the camera operator using a system of counterweights, gimbals and gyroscopes (it feels like I’m making those words up, but I’m not):
The result is incredibly smooth motion regardless of terrain.
Here’s one of the most famous steadicam shots in cinema history from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990):
Try following those two actors through all of that with a camera on wheels!
Pans, tilts, dollies, cranes and steadicams, regardless of how a filmmaker moves the camera, one question they must always answer first is: Why move the camera at all? That is, is the movement motivated? In the case of Scorsese’s steadicam shot above, we’re following the main characters into a nightclub. Motivation enough to move with them. Or that crane shot from High Noon, the move reveals something important about the character. Again, solid motivation. But what happens when a camera move is unmotivated? If the camera moves simply because the filmmaker thinks it “looks cool”? (I’m looking at you Michael Bay). Most often, an unmotivated camera move that isn’t serving the story reminds the viewer they are watching a movie. The move becomes visible instead of invisible, and usually, that’s the last thing a filmmaker wants. All of this is supposed to be invisible, remember?
But sometimes a filmmaker intentionally moves the camera without clear motivation to achieve a certain effect. For example, a tracking shot can move laterally through a scene with or without subjects in motion. Since there is no reason to move the camera, the movement can feel unmotivated and therefore more noticeable to the viewer. So why do it? Here’s a deep dive into how effective a lateral tracking shot can be:
Maybe the best example of a really effective but completely unmotivated camera movement is one of filmmaker Spike Lee’s signature camera moves: The Spike Lee Dolly. At least once every film, Spike Lee will put one or more characters on the same dolly as the camera and move them both through the scene. It’s disorienting and a little bizarre, but creates a fascinating image that can draw the viewer into the psychology of the character:
Well planned and thoughtful camera movement, usually the motivated kind, can not only help tell the story, it can also radically transform our relationship to the story. It doesn’t always have to be flashy. It could just be a subtle shift in perspective. A slight pan, or a minute push in on a dolly. But it can change everything:
THE LONG TAKE
The last point I’d like to make regarding cinematography is how really great cinematographers can combine all of the above into one, continuous bravura shot that manages to move the story forward without a single edit. Don’t get me wrong, editing is important, and we’ll get to that next. But sometimes a filmmaker finds a way to move through a scene, choreographing the actors and the camera department in such a way that the story unfolds in one long, continuous take. And it can be breathtaking.
In fact, the shot above from Goodfellas is a pretty good example. Notice how Scorsese moves the camera through several different settings without ever needing to cut away from the shot. But the most famous long take is probably Orson Welles’s opening shot from Touch of Evil (1958). Seriously, check this out:
Imagine the planning required to choreograph that sequence. Everything had to work like clockwork (pun intended). And yet nothing was sacrificed in terms of cinematic storytelling. Welles is able to move in and out of close-ups, medium shots and long shots, overhead crane shots and smooth tracking shots, directing our attention, revealing information and creating suspense. All without a single cut.
Now check out how filmmakers like Sam Mendes are still imitating that iconic shot in films like Spectre (2015):
Sometimes these long takes are much less noticeable. Take a look at how a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg, not necessarily known for bravura camera moves, still finds ways to use the occasional long take to serve the story:
Video and Image Attributions:
The Filmmaker’s View: Rachel Morrison – DP is the best job on set, we all know that by ARRIChannel. Standard YouTube License.
Cinematographer Explains 3 Different Camera Lenses by Vanity Fair. Standard YouTube License.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960) – The Geometry of a Scene. by Every Frame a Painting. Standard YouTube License.
Composition In Storytelling | CRISWELL | Cinema Cartography by Criswell. Standard YouTube License.
Steadicam and operator in front of crowd. Public domain image.
Touch of Evil (1958) — The Opening Sequence (Welles’ original) by Fix Me A Scene. Standard YouTube License.
- Okay, so it’s a little more complicated than that. Technically, focal length is measured from the point where the light converges in the middle of the glass elements, known as the optical center, before it is refracted back out toward the aperture and sensor. Feel better? ↵