Shot List


I just finished a 6-month course on filmmaking, and I have to shoot a short film. I  have quiet a hard time coming up with a shot list, please help me on this. How can I come up with a shot? I really want to do it myself and be bold to say I did this… – Peter


Hi Peter, thanks for your question. I hope the following article will help out you, as well as anyone else interested in learning more about the shot list. Since not everyone may understand what you are asking, let’s take a few steps back and tackle this  from the beginning.

If you haven’t done so already, go a head and read the following material:

Now without further ado:

What is a shot list: Definition & Purpose

A shot list is a document that lists and describes the shots to be filmed during principal photography. There isn’t a set format for the shot list, but here’s one way you can do it:

[Read more…]

The Elements of Cinematography (Cinematography Index)

cinematography-cameras-lightsCinematography is one of the most involved aspects of filmmaking. Arguably, it also the most important. Writers and directors be damned, without the camera, cinema would not exist. And it’s how the camera is manipulated or utilized that different forms of cinema are created. From documentaries to experimental, style and substance start with the camera.

Cinematography is the art of filming moving pictures. It all starts with a camera, of course, but this department utilizes a plethora of equipment and techniques to create the look of a movie.

More lessons and articles coming soon! Want updates, then sign up for the Elements of Cinema newsletter or like our page on Facebook, or both!

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Canon 5D Mark III Gets Its Ass Kicked… By a Smartphone

oneplusRemember when the Canon 5D Mark III was released and everyone was going crazy! Gosh, has it been two years already?

We know that technology is evolving at an ever-so-rapid pace. Those in-the-know simply have to ask about what’s the “flavor of the month,” and everyone knows what they are talking about – cameras! Well, it looks like the flavor of August 2014 is the OnePlus One smartphone, which shoots a glorious 4K with a Sony sensor.

Fire up your 4k projector and check out how the OnePlus performs (be sure to change the settings to 4k so we can at least try to crash YouTube’s servers):

And this is a comparison between the Canon black box and “the device”:

What about some shots after your curfew?

Pretty slick, huh? And for a device that fits in your pocket (and makes phone calls)! Mindblowing for sure. Of course, it wouldn’t be worth bananas unless it could also shoot at 120fps:

Obviously, the resolution is not the only thing filmmakers and videographers should look at when shopping for a new camera. The OnePlus One’s resolution is really crisp when compared to the Canon 5d in ideal lighting situations, but how does it perform in extremely dark conditions. How high can the OnePlus ISO go without graining up the image? And of course, the Canon’s sensor is much bigger, which gives you more control over depth of field.

Here’s what the author of the experiment, Giacomo Mantovan, posted on his blog:

The sole aim of this test is to compare how the OnePlus One performs respect the Canon 5D Mark III in a ideal light condition. In this case I am pleased to notice that the OPO is the clear winner, but no doubts that the Canon 5D Mark III is still the best option for filmmakers, for all the many reasons that make a DSLR what it is. It is though interesting to notice that, in terms of dynamic range, the OPO performed incredibly well compared with the 5D, and I can tell you that with a similar exposure, there is almost no difference between the two.”

The Mark III isn’t quite ready to be de-throned by a smartphone quite yet, but the future is promising for both camps.

Congratulations Giacomo for getting your hands on a OnePlus One (these things are selling by invite-only) and thank you for sharing these tests. Check out his full article at


REGARDING REACTIONS: Why are Reaction Shots Important?

By now, you probably read our article on the different kinds of shots, and stumbled upon reaction shots. In this post, I will explain why reaction shots are so important to the film language.

First, a quick definition courtesy of Wikipedia:

Reaction shot is a shot which cuts away from the main scene in order to show the reaction of a character to it.”

That’s it in a nutshell.  A reaction shot is usually silent, as it shows a character reacting with facial expressions (a frown, a smile, a gasp).  Sometimes a shot starts with a silent reaction before the character vocalizes his emotions.

To illustrate: if the main conflict of a scene is a married couple arguing, a potential reaction shot could be the kids watching, visibly worried. In fact:


This is the reaction of a daughter, eavesdropping from the stairwell, as her mother tells her husband she wants a divorce. From Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

More often than not, reaction shots are a close-up or a tight medium because that proximity allows the audience to see the reaction up close, and thus connect to the character.

This is a clip from Indecent Proposal (1993) where billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) makes an unsettling offer to a couple he just met:

Count the reaction shots and try to guess what the characters are feeling.


The beauty of reaction shots is that they are subtle. The inattentive viewer doesn’t think, “Hey, there’s a reaction shot, now another…” More often than not, we just absorb the emotion, “Wow, Demi Moore was outraged. Was she crying? I think I saw tears.”

But when you step back to analyze the construction of the scene, you can see how it was directed and cut for impact. In fact, watch that scene again on mute, and it should become even more obvious how the mechanics works.

Now that you have seen a couple of examples, let’s examine why reaction shots are so important to the medium:

Purposes of Reaction Shots


Here’s Brad Pitt’s character blackmailed. His choices: go into zombie land by himself or with his family. From World War Z (2013)

1. For Story

As the name implies, a reaction shot contains someone’s reaction, which is a quick emotional beat. Above you have a reaction shot from World War Z. Without the context, you can still tell that Brad Pitt is not pleased, maybe he’s even confused. This quick reaction shot is enough to convey his feelings. If you watch it in context, that shot will make even more sense and thus be more powerful. Also, lips quivering and veins pulsating make for great reactions.

2. For Editors

Editor loves reaction shots because it gives them flexibility and choices. For example, imagine this unlikely scenario:

Suppose that the camera operator captured two takes of an actor’s speech, both of which lasted 1 minute long. Now imagine that the first half of the actor’s speech is more powerful in the first take, while the second half is stronger in the second take. Without another character’s reaction (or another cutaway), the editor only has two choices: take 1 or take 2. However, with the reaction shot of a secondary character, the editor has a third choice: he can bridge the first take and the second take by cutting away to the reaction shot during the transition from one take to the other.

3. For Performance

Imagine if there was a device that allowed you to point to a person and know what they are feeling at a specific moment. Well, in this art, such device exists, and it’s called the camera. When you point it to someone responding to something, you can get a glimpse of what they are feeling. And this puts the actor’s in a great position to showcase his performance, which also advances the story.

Note: I am listing this post under Cinematography and Editing because I really think that Reaction Shots are equal parts each. The cinematographer has to shoot right, and the editor has to cut it right.




On most feature film sets, the cinematographer's team is the biggest crew on the production, which means that the cinematographer has to interact and delegate with many production members. Fortunately, the "division of labor" on the set makes this a manageable task.

Because this article will present many different positions and job titles, I figured that perhaps the clearest way to present this list would be to start at the top of the food chain, and then make our way to the bottom. I hope this will make sense to you. And if not, let me know in the comments.

For those of you who love lists, allow me to get this one quickly out of the way, divided by the three departments, sorted by relevance with the most important ones first. If you want more detail and explanation about each job title, then by all means scroll down and read on.

The Cinematographer’s Crew at a Glance

Camera DepartmentFMPU_camera_crew_1944

  1. Camera Operator
  2. 1st Assistant Camera
  3. 2nd Assistant Camera
  4. Digital Imaging Technician (DIT)
  5. Loader

Light Department

  1. Gaffer (Chief Electrician)
  2. Best Boy
  3. Electric (or Sparks)

Grip Department

  1.  Key Grip
  2. Best Boy Grip
  3. Grip
  4. Dolly Grip

The beautiful thing about a film crew is how structured it is. It has a ranking system akin to the military. This person responds to that person, that person responds to that other person and so on. The cinematography team is no different. In this article, you will learn about the general and his troops on a movie set.

Needless to say, the Cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP) is the top-ranked official in the cinematography army. He is the professional in charge of the visual aesthetics of the movie, which includes supervising three departments: the camera department, the light department, and the grip department. Sometimes the light and grip crews are collective known as Grip and Electric (or G/E), which often the case in less formal sets such as non union-shoots.


The Camera Crew

Out of these three departments, the camera crew is obviously the most important one. Without a camera, there’s no movie (duh!). Within the camera department, the most important person is the Camera Operator, which is in itself a highly respectable and demanding position. The Cameraman or -woman has a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. They have to be attentive to each minor detail of the shot, and report any flaws they might see in the frame. Can you imagine if that Oscar-worthy, million dollar shot with Mery Streep crying on top of a burning Empire Estate Building  is out of focus and the operator doesn’t say anything?

In a Hollywood production or a fully-funded feature film, the Cameraman is responsible for framing (including angles) and movements, while his support crew (which I’ll go over next) will be in charge of doing almost everything else from pulling focus to slating. In some underfunded projects or student films, the Camera Operator may double as his own assistant, often pulling focus himself and fetching lenses. Of course, this is not ideal, as you want the person looking through the viewfinder to be in top shape. In fact, when shooting in extreme conditions, like a blistering hot desert, it’s not uncommon to see courtesy flags (a piece of grip equipment) shielding the Camera Operator from the sun. To all the directors and producers out there, remember: the Camera Operator is the man capturing the image you want the world to see, so treat them nicely and don’t let them sweat more than they have to.

It is worth pointing out that some productions may have different kinds of operators depending on the needs of the project. A Steadicam Operator, for instance, is a specialized professional trained and licensed to operate a Steadicam (which is a camera optimized for handheld moving shots). And because his rate is  higher than the average, you may only really use him for a Steadicam shots, while your regular Operator will shoot the rest of the film.

Next on the list is the 1st Assistant Camera (or 1st AC). Although called an assistant, the 1st AC is in charge of maintaining and managing the camera department, which means supervising the camera crew and ensuring that all the gear is in proper working order. During prep, the 1st AC will go to rental houses to test the gear before checking out. During principal photography, the 1st Assistant Camera has to make sure that his crew and equipment are ready to go on schedule.  The first AC is the direct support of the Camera Operator. In addition to building the camera and moving it from shot to show, the 1st AC will also swap lenses and pull focus, thus sparing the Camera Operator from having to do it.

And if the 1st AC is the Operator’s right hand man, then the 2nd Assistant Camera is the 1st AC’s right hand man. Though I often compare this hierarchy to the military, I don’t like to say “one gives order to other” because a film set should be more collaborative and elegant in nature. But if it makes easier to understand, then yes, the Cinematographer delegates to the Operator, who delegates to 1st AC, who then delegates to the 2nd AC.

The 2nd AC is always assisting the 1st AC, helping him build the camera, organize the gear, swap lenses, etc. During prep, the 2nd AC will accompany the 1st AC to rental houses and make sure the production is renting good working equipment. During rehearsals, the 2nd AC will mark actors (taping the floor to help actors and camera know their positions). He is also in charge of filling out camera reports (which is an important document to keep track of camera settings, like the aperture and focal length, in case this information is needed at a later date such as for a pick-up.)

The Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) is a recent position that became gradually more common as digital took over the industry, effectively replacing film. The job description of a DIT has changed through the years and continues to do so as the medium evolves as well. When I was in film school, the first time I heard of a DIT I thought he was simply a digital loader in charge of backing up the footage and organizing the several SD cards used by the production(and maybe back then that’s all DITs did). Today, however, I understand that the DITs have more responsibility and knowledge than that. Now they are considered a wizard in the digital medium, having a deep, technical comprehension of all-things digital, like cameras, codecs, plugins, laptops, software, etc. Back when digital was a novelty, DITs eased the transition of some cinematographers accustomed to film into the new era. Nowadays on the set, they are responsible for some quick color grading (color correction), generating dailies, syncing audio, etc. He is an important link between the set (or the cinematographer) and the post-production house (or the editor), configuring the media and hardware as per the need of the project.

Last but not least is the Loader. Traditionally, the film loader was in charge of loading film stock into the camera magazine, which would involve either going into a completely dark room or using a light-tight changing tent to shield the film (because, if you can remember those days, the film is light sensitive and exposure to light will render it unusable). The film loader was also in charge of labeling cans of used film after the shoot and managing the inventory, including sending the film to the lab. As we transition fully into the digital era, the film loader is becoming more and more rare, and the digital loader becomes the norm. The film stock is now a compact card, and the digital loader has to manage the inventory and back up the footage. He works alongside the DIT to ensure the files are in the correct format and sent to the right place.

For Photographers, With Love: BENDING THE LIGHT (Trailer)

Camera DSLR IconIt’s sad, but when you think about it, the art of photography has been dragged through the mud by all the smartphones out there. On any given moment, a tremendously large number of “photographs” are snapped around the globe followed by silly little things like #burger #bliss #glory. Who cares what you had for lunch?

But it’s modernity, and I’m guilty of it too.

There was a time when photographs were so precious, not to mention relatively expensive, that they were reserved for special occasions like weddings and birthdays. And before hitting the shutter button, you always had to stop breathing to avoid wasting the exposure (there was no undo).

The trailer to Michael Apted’s upcoming documentary Bending The Light got my blood flowing with nostalgia for those old times. Not that the it focuses on the past, but it seems to me that the emphasis of his film is on a pure connection between artist and photography — a connection that most people born in the 21st century will never experience because “here’s my dog sleeping #cute #snoringloudly #cantfocusonanything.”

Without further ado, here’s his trailer:

COMPOSITION: Filling the Frame

In cinematography, composition refers to the frame of the image and how the elements of the mise-en-scène appear in it. Composition guidelines must be observed when telling stories visually, as in filmmaking.

Before The Movies

Composition rules and conventions are older than cinema and photography. Most of the concepts in this page have been used for hundreds of years in painting. Filmmakers and photographers have borrowed many techniques from painters and used them as a springboard for new ideas and practices. This image, for instance, successfully illustrates lead room, which we will talk about text.



Lead Room

If a character is looking frame left, then he should be positioned frame right. This makes the framing comfortable because the subject is looking at the open space in front of him. This open space is called lead room or lead space.Lead Room space compostion

If the actors were frame left, looking frame left, then the empty space would be behind them. This doesn’t feel right because they would be looking at the edge of the frame. The proximity to the frame would generate a claustrophobic undertone that could disconcert some viewers.

You may have notice in other movies that when two shots of two actors in different sides of the screen are cut together, the audience surmises that the actors are looking at one another, regardless of where they are.

Rule of Thirds

Another basic composition notion is the Rule of Thirds. To follow it, you have to imagine the frame with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, thus creating three vertical sections of the same dimensions and three vertical sections also of the same size. The result is something like this:

Rule of Thirds Composition

The intersections of the lines are points of interest, where important objects are placed in the screen. These points of interest are comfortable to the eye, thus the middle portion of the frame are sometimes kept “empty” or clear.

Rules Meant to Be Broken

Filmmakers, like any other group of artists, like to break rules. The guidelines explained in this pages are just some basic concepts that any cinematographer or camera operator should know and apply. In some circumstances, however, it’s okay to stray away from these rules.

Overlooking the norm is acceptable with motivation and purpose. With practice, you should be able to conceptualize extraordinary compositions and make them work in your favor. Consider, for example, the two types of composition below.


Static Composition

Compositions with the majority of lines being horizontal and/or vertical are called Static Composition. In theory, horizontal and vertical lines are somewhat soothing, calm, tranquil…

static composition cinematography hero

Notice how the the Emperor in Hero (2002) is not in none of the intersections of the Rule of Thirds. Indeed, he is right in the midsection of the frame. The symmetry of the shot communicates the perfection of the palace and intensifies the situation. It is as though only a sacred or regal place could be so symmetrically perfect such as this.

Dynamic Composition

When a composition has many diagonal lines it is called Dynamic Composition. The dynamism or excitement comes from the fact the diagonals are somewhat unsettling (as opposed to a static compositions that communicate peace and tranquility).

dynamic composition cinematography

As shown in the example above, one easy way to make shots dynamic is with an ultra high camera angle looking down at the subject. Depending on how camera is positioned, the natural lines of the environment will look diagonal.




Depth of Field


depth of fieldThe area in front of the camera that appears sharp in the frame is called depth of field. Depth of Field is defined as the range of acceptable focus on a shot or photograph. Depth of field is an important concept for cinematographers and camera operators to master because they often need to manipulate focus to achieve a desired effect. Selective focus, for instance, draws the audience’s attention to a specific portion of the frame.

selective focusDepth of field can be either shallow or deep. Shallow depth of field is the kind in which part of the frame is soft or out of focus. Thus, the areas of focus or sharpness are limited. Deep depth of field, on the other hand, is the kind in which the entire frame, from the foreground to the background, is sharp or in focus.

These three parts of the camera affect depth of field:

  1. Aperture
  2. Focal length
  3. Focus distance

The Aperture

The aperture is the factor that most influences depth of field. The wider the aperture is, the shallower depth of field will be. A low f-number such as f/2.8 will likely render an image with some soft focus. Conversely, the narrower the aperture is, the deeper depth of field will be.

depth of field aperture f-stop

Note: In the image above, other settings were altered to maintain normal exposure.

The figure below illustrates the relation between aperture and the amount of depth of field. For this illustration, image that the camera is on the left hand side of the image, represented below by the aperture. The 100mm value represents the focal length of the lens, which does not change in this scenario:

depth of field aperture f-stop

The area in red represents the depth of field, or the distance in front of the camera in which the picture is on focus. The black represents soft focus. Notice how the depth of field changes together with the f-number on the left.

The black vertical line represents the area that is sharpest in focus, which we call critical focus. Note that you always have more depth of field behind your plain of critical focus than in front of it.


Focal Length

Next to the aperture, the second factor that most affects depth of field is focal length. The longer the lens, the shallower depth of field is. A wide angle lens (a short lens), for instance, would render an image with more depth of field than one with a telephoto lens (a long lens). Study the figure below and notice that the f-number is the same while focal length changes:

depth of field focal length lens


telephoto lens effect

wide angle lens affect

Focus Distance

Focus distance is the last factor to determine depth of field. The closer the focus distance is to the camera, the less depth of field you have. You probably have noticed this. On close-ups of actors or objects, part of the frame is usually blurrier than on wide shots of landscapes.

close focus effect on depth of field

For this image, I was about one foot, two tops, away from the subject I wanted in focus. As a result, the background is out focus (of course, other factors play a part on it.)


far focus effect on depth of field

For this image, you can tell how the focus is set to the distance, as there’s not a single specific object I was focusing on.

Though focus distance does play a part in the equation, you are better off relying on f-number and focal length to just depth of field, which, as you have learned is the amount of focus in the shot.

What is Shutter Speed?

In film and video cameras, the shutter is a plate located between the lens and the film stock or CCD chip. This plate has an opening that blocks and admits light at variable speeds according to the camera settings. The shutter speed is measured in fractions of second. 1/50 (0.02 second) is the standard shutter speed for film cameras, while for video cameras the standard is 1/60 (0.167 second).


Shutter speed determines the length that each frame is exposed to light, which, like the f-stop, affects the image overall exposure. The more a frame is exposed to light (when slow shutter speed is used) the brighter the image will be because light hits the each frame for a longer period of time. Conversely, the less a frame is exposed to light (when fast shutter speed is used) the darker the image will look.

While shutter speed is often non-adjustable in film cameras, video cameras offer a wide range of shutter speed options starting at 1/30 (slow, producing bright images) and going all the way to 1/4000 (fast, producing dark images).

Motion Blur

Besides affecting exposure, shutter speed also determines the prominence of motion blur. Motion blur happens when an object in movement leaves a blur in the frame (or a series of frames). The blur is more noticeable during freeze frames and slow motions.

In the pictures below, the windflower is rotating at the same speed, but the motion blur varies in each picture because of the different shutter speed. Compare:

shutter speed

Shutter speed: 1/60

shutter speed

Shutter speed: 1/250

shutter speed

Shutter speed: 1/4000

Note: on the images above other settings were adjusted so that exposure would be the same throughout.

Still Photography

Although shutter speed references the same feature in still photography, the results can be quite different when compared to video making. This happens because still cameras print the image in only one frame every time you press the shutter button. And the frame doesn’t change like in a film camera. Therefore, in still cameras, you can leave the shutter open for more than one second while letting the image be recorded throughout. Observe:

shutter speed

The photograph above was taken with the shutter open for 20 seconds, thus moving vehicles leave a trail. Also, note that the picture was captured at night, not day. But, as explained above, the longer the shutter speed, the brighter the image turns out; hence with a 20-second shutter speed, nighttime looks more like afternoon in a shaded street.

Types of Lenses

Although lenses come in many different flavors, there are two broad categories that are good to kick off any discussion on this topic.

Zoom lenses (or varied focal length lenses) are by far the most common type of lenses known to the average consumer. Prosumer camcorders and professional video cameras often come with it right from the box. This is the case because with zoom lenses you can go telephoto or wide-angle at the push of a button. It’s a no-brainer; if you can zoom in or zoom out, the lens is called a zoom lens.

The advantage of zoom lenses over prime lenses is that you don’t have to change lenses to get to a tighter or a wider composition; it saves time. Plus, if the cameraperson is not switching lenses, they don’t have to worry about carrying them or constant cleaning. This choice of lens is ideal for documentary and newsgathering since, in both situations, the operator doesn’t have the luxury of pre-planning, rehearsals, and second takes. With zoom lenses, the operator can record, for instance, a podium with several people on it, or go for tight close-ups and show each one’s faces.

The disadvantage of zoom lenses is the loss in image quality, which is minimal but still present. Narrative filmmakers should always use prime lenses, unless they are going for a specific camera effect or trick, such as the dolly counter zoom.

Prime lenses (or fixed focal length lenses) can’t zoom in or zoom out. Therefore, when using a prime, every time the filmmaker wants to get tighter on his composition, he can either (1) physically move the camera closer to his subject or (2) change the camera lens for one with a longer focal length and narrower field of view – the telephoto lens. Accordingly, if the filmmaker decides for a wider composition, he can either (1)  move the camera away from the subject or (2) change the camera lens for one with a shorter focal length and wider field of view – the wide-angle lens.

As a trade-off for the inconvenience of switching lenses, the image quality is far superior with prime lenses, offering more pristine, clearer recordings. Professional narrative filmmakers always prefer prime lenses. These are the different flavors of primes:

Telephoto lenses are longer than the average. In comparison to normal lenses or the human eye, telephoto can get really tight on the subject. It correlates to a zoom in with zoom lenses. The image is optically enlarged to show fine details from a subject that is far away.

Telephoto lenses compress space, making people and objects that are far apart appear really near one another. If a filmmaker is shooting a scene on the freeway where actors have to run among speeding vehicles, telephoto lenses can be a safe method to keep actors distant from danger while still selling the illusion that the talent is just a few feet away from moving cars.

One drawback of telephoto lenses is that shakiness and movements are more pronounced and therefore noticeable. Mathematically speaking, even though the camera itself may be moving only a fraction of an inch, the framing may be moving several feet. With ultra telephoto lenses, pans and tilts may be a pain  since the moves could be too fast or shaky. Use a tripod!

Shallow depth of field is another inherent characteristic of telephoto lenses. Ergo, telephoto lenses are ideal to rack focus.

telephoto lens

soft focus shallow depth of field graduate

By comparison, wide-angle lenses are the opposite of telephoto. Wide-angle lenses have a broader field of view, and therefore they can show sweeping panoramas of mountains, oceans, and forests. Since camera jiggle is minimized with wide-angle, this choice of lens is ideal for handheld work.

Wide-angle lenses also exaggerate depth, making people and objects appear further apart from one another. Extreme wide-angle lenses should not be used too close to actors unless for a specific purpose since wide-angle bends the image, which is totally unflattering.

wide angle lens

wide-angle long master shot amadeus

Normal lens are halfway between telephoto and wide-angle lenses. Normal lenses mimics what the human eye sees, without neither getting too close to the subject nor distorting it, nor compressing the distance among the several grounds you may have.