Camera Moves

Although camera movements are often implemented to add excitement to shots, their best use is when new information is revealed. At the beginning level, budding filmmakers sometimes tilt and pan without the proper motivation. Camera movements can be distracting and even annoying when overused or used without a reason. Don’t use a camera movement to show that you can. Use it when you know you need it.


During a pan, the camera is aimed sideways along a straight line. Note that the camera itself is not moving. It is often fixed on tripod, with the operator turning it either left or right. Panning is commonly utilized to capture images of moving objects like cars speeding or people walking; or to show sweeping vistas like an ocean or a cliff.

Pan1One of the earliest and best appearances of panning was in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 movie Life of An American Fireman. While the camera follows the fire brigade approaching their destination, the operator pans to reveal it – a house burning. Remember: the best pans are used to reveal information.

A smooth pan with be slow enough to allow the audience to observe the scenery. A fast pan will create blur. If it’s too fast, it will be called a Swish pan. Newsgathering etiquette demands panning from left to right, as to allow the viewer to read any text that may be captured on camera, like headlines or marquises.


Tilts refer to the up or down movement of the camera while the camera itself does not move. Tilts are often employed to reveal vertical objects like a building or a person.


When the entire camera moves forward or backward, this move is called dolly. If the camera is on tripod, the tripod will also be moved. Dollies are often used when recording a subject that moves away or toward the camera, in which case the goal would probably be keeping the subject at the same distance from the camera. For an optimal dolly, the camera should be mounted on a wheeled-platform, such as an actual dolly, or a shopping cart, depending on the budget. Moving the camera forward is called dolly in. Moving the camera backward is called dolly out.


Tracking is similar to dolling. The main difference being that in dollies the camera is moved toward or away from the subject, whereas in a track shot, the camera is moved sideways, parallel to an object.


In a pedestal move, the camera body will physically be lowered or elevated. The difference between tilts and pedestals is that in the former, the camera lens is just being aimed up or down, whereas in the latter, the camera is being moved vertically.


Despite a common misconception, the terms “zoom” and “dolly” are not interchangeable. With dollies, the camera is being moved in a physical space. With zooms, the camera remains at a constant position, but the lens magnify or minimize the size of the subject.

Zooms happen at the push of a button. Zoom in refers to seemingly “approaching” the subject, thus making it look bigger in the frame. Zoom out refers to seemingly “distancing” the subject, thus making it look smaller.

Note that zooms change focal length, thus affecting depth of field. Zoom in transforms the lens into telephoto, while zoom out changes it into wide-angle. Zooming is considered amateurish and is not preferred by professional cinematographers, but there are many exceptions like the opening shot of The Conversation (1974), in which Francis Ford Coppola elects zoom to articulate the film’s themes of espionage or voyeurism.

Note: Zooms are not really a move, for the camera doesn’t change position. But in film studies and filmmaking courses they have been traditionally combined with real camera moves.

Dolly Counter Zoom

A dolly counter zoom is a rare type of shot of great stylistic effect. To accomplish it, the camera has to dolly (move) closer or further away from the subject while the zoom is adjusted so the subject’s size remains about the same. Notably, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and Scorsese’s Goodgellas (1990) used dolly counter zoom to demonstrate a character’s uneasiness.

Here’s the scene from Jaws. Notice how the background distorts as the camera zooms in on Brody. Again, this happens because the zoom is countering the camera movement.

CAMERA ANGLES: the Art of Manipulation

Whereas shot sizes direct who and what we see, camera angles affect how we perceive it. Is a character going to appear dominant and tall? Or short and weak? A strong weapon in the cinematographer’s arsenal is the ability to position the camera in relation to the subject or scenery.

Eyelevel Angle

An eyelevel angle is the one in which the camera is placed at the subject’s height, so if the actor is looking at the lens, he wouldn’t have to look up or down. Eyelevel shots are incredibly common because they are neutral. They often have no dramatic power whatsoever, thus they are ideal for romantic comedies and news casting.

eyelevel angle


Low Angle

Low angles are captured from a camera placed below the actor’s eyes, looking up at them. Low angles make characters look dominant, aggressive, or ominous.

low angle in matilda

High Angle

In a high angle, the camera is above the subject, looking down. This position makes characters look weak, submissive, or frightened. They are also good POVs of an adult looking at a child:

high angle in matilda

Dutch Tilt

Also called canted angle, a Dutch tilt has the camera leaning sideways, transforming the horizon into a slope. A Dutch tilt changes horizontal and vertical lines into diagonals and creates a more dynamic composition. Though rare, canted angles can be employed with great artistic effect to disorient and disturb the viewer.

dutch tilt rules of attraction

Point-of-View (POV)

As the name suggests, point-of-view shots are angles in which the camera incorporates a character’s eyes. POVs are usually preceded by a close-up of the character’s eyes.

The King's Speech POV microphone

Needless to say, cinematographers will choose different angles for different scenes within the same movie depending of the scene goal or purpose. When analyzing the camera angles used in a movie, it is wise to note how different angles are used in each scene.

Sometimes different angles will be chosen to emphasize different elements in the screen. For example, if an airplane flying overhead is of importance to the story, then filmmakers may choose to use a low-angle shot to show the sky and the plane.


SHOT SIZES: Telling What They See

What really differentiates movies from plays is the way filmmakers manipulate the audience’s field of view. In theater, the audience is in a “wide shot,” always looking at the entire stage and all the actors on it. They are free to look wherever they want. In cinema, however, the filmmaker directs what the public sees and how. While a long shot can show a vast vista of Mount Everest, an extreme close-up can show the silent despair of a child learning that his mother has passed away. These different shots make up the fabric of visual storytelling. Read on:


Wide/Long Shotlong shot

Long shots are used to emphasize a sweeping location around the subject.

Long shot and wide shot are interchangeable terms.

This frame from Gone with the Wind (1939)  emphasizes the tragedy of the Civil War and its death toll. Can you find Scarlet O’Hara in the picture?

Wide shots are more easily captured with wide-angle lens*.

For the Sake of Clarity

Long shots and establishing shots (which we will go ever next) can sometimes be similar in nature. The main difference between the two is that establishing shots will be wide enough to show all the characters and objects necessary for the drama, while a wide shot will be wider than that, focusing more on the environment. Compare the frame from Gone With The Wind above to the frame from Little Miss Sunshine below, and try to guess how far the camera is from the action.


Establishing Shot and Master Shot

An establishing shot and a master shot are not the same per se. But they were combined under the same subheading because the framing and composition are usually the same for both of them.

establishing shotAn establishing shot introduces a new location – a church, a city street, a rooftop, a hospital room – from a vantage point that allows the audience to see all the relevant characters in the filmic space. A master shot would probably be recorded from the same position, with the same lens, also showing all the characters. The difference is the duration. A master shot records the entire action, a complete run-through from that same camera position. This way if a tighter shot is forgotten or messed up during coverage, the director knows her editor will have enough material to show the scene in its entirety by cutting back to the master shot. In most movies, an establishing shot will last a few seconds before the editor cuts to medium shots and close-ups. However, if for someone reason the director decides that the cuts are not good enough, he may use the master shot of a scene to show the action unfold, in which case there would few to no cuts in that scene, which can a be a pleasant style.

EDITING CONNECTION: Why Would a Director Opt to No Cuts?

I can already hear some of you asking that question. There are several purposes why that may be the case. For starters, a scene without cuts or edits keeps the viewing distraction-free, which can be great for tense scenes.

Have you seen Hitchcocks’ Rope. That film is in my opinion one of Hitchcock’s finest pieces. In Rope, there are two obvious cuts throughout the film. The other cuts are hidden in smooth transitions. This technique does wonders for the most suspenseful scenes in the movie by locking the audience to specific camera setups, which is not what we as movie-watchers are used to.

Another reason for that choice is budget constraints. If planned ahead of time, fewer cuts could translate to fewer camera setups, which could translate to fewer days of principal photography, which is amazing for the budget.

Sling Blade (1996, Billy Bob Thornton) comes to mind.  This film, which was reportedly shot for 1 million dollars ( pocket change for Hollywood standards), uses a lot of lengthy master shots to show the action of a scene. And if you think that fewer shots means a poor movie, think again. Sling Blade went on to gross almost 25 million dollars and earn an Oscar f0r Thornton’s screenplay.


To a sense, master shots are usually part of cinematography terminology because they should be standard practice for every new scene. Establishing shots, in the other hand, refer more to the editing phase of the movie, when the editor selects one quick angle to reveal the location.

Also, note that an establishing shot doesn’t necessarily mean that we see the character’s full body. Basically, the establishing shot displays the elements needed for the scene to function.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

During the first years of cinema, the most common type of shot was the long shot. Back in the 19th century, when cinema was still young, there were no filmmakers; there were only camera operators. These operators were interested in landscapes and locations because that’s what the audience wanted – to be transported elsewhere and see something new. The camera (then called the cinamatographe) was traveling to distant countries and capturing exotic images around the globe. Close-ups were rare.

The great train robbery

When impresarios (arguably the first filmmakers) decided to use the cinematographe to record scripted stories, establishing shots became common. Establishing shots were preferred because the camera would record scenes with a similar vantage point as theater audiences have in plays. In those times, the film grammar, which incorporates, among other things, editing and shot variety, hadn’t been developed yet.

It wasn’t until D. W. Griffith came along that medium shots, close-ups, and insert shots were understood and used effectively. D. W. Griffith changed the game because his films abound with shot variety, as he knew the different purposes of the shot sizes.

 Full Shot (FS)

A full shfull shotot displays the character from head to toe, without showing much of his surroundings (or else it would be considered a long shot). These shots were very popular in the beginning of cinema before filmmakers had understood the power of medium shots and close-ups.

A full shot distances the character from the viewer both physically and psychologically. They carry less emotional weight, and therefore they are not the best choice during emotional scenes.

Whenever the director wants to convey someone’s anger, fear, or joy, close-ups are way more effective. A full shot would be more appropriate during a character’s entrance or a foot pursuit, for instance.

Medium Shot (MS)

Medium shots are the most common types of shots in the movies. Showing most of the subject’s body, medium shots are halfway between long shots and close-ups; however, authormedium shots disagree on the definition. While some writers say that the medium shot shows the character from a little above the knees to the top of his head, others state that medium shots only go as low as a little above the waist. Regardless of the academic debate, a medium shot is by all definitions a happy medium between a full shot and a closeup. Also, composition guidelines suggest that frame lines shouldn’t cut the actors on the joints, so as long as operators avoid knees, waists, elbows, etc., the framing shouldn’t be a problem. In other words, just go a little higher or lower with the framing to avoid the joints.

The medium shot also includes two other famous shot types: The two-shot, with two actors facing the same screen direction, and the over-the-shoulder shot, showing a conversation in which the actors sit or stand across from each other:



To record medium shots, a normal lens* should be enough. Adjust distance accordingly.

Close-Up (CU)

In close-up shots, the subject occupies most of the frame, allowing very little observation on the environment. Close-ups are much more dramatic than long or medium shots. They are preferred when emphasizing someone’s emotion: close up

Extreme Close-Up (ECU)

Often labeled as a detail shot, extreme close-ups do exactly that: show a small detail that would otherwise be missed in a winder shot. extreme close up

For close-ups and extreme close-ups, telephoto lens* are more appropriate.

Insert Shots

Insert shots don’t focus on people. They are utilized to emphasize a relevant object, such as a letter, an envelope with money, or a gun that would otherwise be lost in the grand mise-en-scène. Insert shots are tight shots in which objects fill most of the frame. Even if inserts don’t reveal anything new, they are still welcome during the editing phase, as they smooth transitions between shots, often serving as a neutral shot that allows a breach of the 180 degree rule.

insert shot

Reaction Shots

Simply put, reaction shots are a cutaway – usually a close-up – of an actor reacting to the main scene, like a conversation or an event, though it can be pretty much anything.The reaction may be conveyed by a sneer, furrowed browns, a grin, or any other gesture that conveys an emotion.

The logic of the reaction shot is that the emotional reaction of the actor depicted will move the story forward or reveal his traits.

reaction shot

On Purpose

Besides the obvious purpose of showing different elements of the mise-en-scène, shot sizes are also important for variety. If the audience were always looking at, say, a close-up shot, they could get bored of that unchanging frame. But because shot sizes are always different within a scene, spectators often have something new on the frame to watch.

Cinematographers should know by heart how the relationship between focal length (types of lenses) and camera-subject distance affects framing, and thus creates the different shot sizes. A true filmmaker, aside from understanding these basic technical concepts, must also comprehend the emotion, purpose, and meaning behind each type of shot.

* Further Reading: If you are confused by all the different types of lenses (i.e. wide-angle, telephoto, etc.) I mentioned on this page, then read our article about focal length here for further clarification. If questions persist, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

The Aperture (Iris)

apertureThe word “aperture” means “opening.” In the world of cinematography, this opening is located in the camera, more specifically on the lens. The size of the aperture is regulated by the lens’ diaphragm, which opens to admit light and closes to block it. The figure to the right shows the diaphragm, which is formed by several blades that leave a circular hole in the center – the aperture.

When the camera is in auto mode, the diaphragm achieves a certain level of autonomy (self-control) and behaves according to the camera’s sensors, which determines the amount of light entering the lens.

In auto mode, the camera uses its built-in reflected light meter to average the quantity of light falling on the subject in frame. If too much light is reaching the subject, causing the image to be overexposed or washed out, the aperture closes to shield some of the light. When this happens, the image darkens and exposure is corrected according to the camera’s judgment.


The size of the aperture is measured in f-stops. In technical terms, the f-number is the focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture. The figure to the right shows the same lens open to two different f-stops. In the top picture, the f-stop is 2.8. In the bottom picture, the f-stop is 16.

Ergo, the greater the f-stop number, smaller the aperture is, resulting in less light entering the lens and the production of dark images. Conversely, the smaller the f-stop number, bigger the aperture is, meaning more light admitted through the lens and the production of bright images.

Also note that the variation from f/2.8 to f/16 is quite drastic. In the figure, several f-stops were skipped to better illustrate the point. Between f/2.8 and f/16, there are four whole stops, as the f-stop scale below demonstrates:

f-stop scale

This f-stop scale begins at f/1 (the widest aperture) and end at f/32 (the narrowest aperture). Most lenses, however, don’t go to those extremes, but the professional ones might.

Also note the scale above only shows full stops, disregarding fractional stops that exist between one full stop and the next. Whole stops are important because they represent the admittance or blockage of half or double the light.

For instance: f/1 lets in twice as much light as f/1.4. Likewise, f/1.4 lets in twice as much light as f/2. On the other hand, f/16 lets in half as much light as f/11. And f/5.6 lets in half as much light as f/4. And so on.


Lens Speed: How Fast is That Lens?

When you hear the pros talking about lenses, they may ask something like, “How fast is that lens?” In this case, they are most likely referring to how wide the aperture can get, or the maximum aperture diameter. This is valuable information because a wide aperture means that more light enters the camera optically, which is good because cinematographers needs less production lights to obtain the exposure desired.
To illustrate: above you saw a hypothetical chart with the widest possible aperture being f/1. Most consumer cameras don’t even go that much. I don’t know the average, but based on my experience, I would say that f/2 is realistic average for most consumer lenses.
However, when shooting the period feature film Jane Eyre (2011, Cary Joji Fukunaga), cinematographer Adriano Goldman used lenses that were f/0.6 fast. That is fast! So fast in fact that it facilitates candlelight exposure, which is exactly what the movie required.
This explains why fast lenses are expensive. They are  simply too awesome! But to be fair, they are only indispensable in extreme situations, which is why most consumers can get away without them.


Aperture and Depth of Field

The aperture has a major role in determining not focus per se, but depth of field. The greater the f-stop number, the deeper the depth of the field is, meaning that more objects are likely to be sharp in frame. Likewise, the smaller the f-stop number, the shallower the depth of field is.

The diagram below demonstrates the relationship between aperture and depth of field. Assume that the camera is on the left side of the image, where lens and aperture readings are located.


The area in red represents what’s in sharp focus. With a 100mm lens, the plain of critical focus is at 4 meters (approximately 13 feet) from the camera. Observe the variation of the red area as the f-stop number increases.

To illustrate, consider the following example. The photo below was taken with the aperture at f/2 :




Note that the background is in soft focus and not much detail can be recorded. Only the lenses in the front and intermediate grounds can be identified.

Now, the following photo was taken with the aperture at f/11 and the very same settings (aside from the shutter speed and  ISO, adjusted to preserve exposure.)


Compare both pictures. In the second, we have far more detail on the background, which seems to contain a VCR deck with VHS tapes on it. The object on the right-hand side looks like a helmet. On the left there is a bag. All this new elements are now visible due to a simple aperture change, which is why photographers and filmmakers worry too much about it.

How the Pros Talk

The forward slash or dash is silent when the f-stop is said aloud. F/16 would be read as “f sixteen,” F/2 would be read “f two,” and so on. In numbers with a decimal, the decimal mark or point is usually excluded in conversations, so that F/2.8 would be read as “f two eight.”

When the DP wants you to close the aperture, he may ask you to “stop down.” If he wants you to open the iris, he may simply say “open up.” There’s no such thing as “stop up.”

Aperture, iris, and f-numbers refer to the same opening in the lens. They can all be used interchangeably.

EXPOSURE: Getting the Light Right

In cinematography, knowing where the camera goes is only the first step. The real art is lighting the scene to create emotions.

In a nutshell, exposure refers to the amount of light being captured by the camera. One of the most basic photographic principles, exposure is directly connected to the brightness and darkness of the image; this is how the cinematographer paints the film.

For the Sake of Clarity

Exposition and exposure are two completely different terms in filmmaking. Exposition is a screenwriting term that has to do with the backstory of characters. This article is about a cinematography component known a exposure .

An image is said to represent normal exposure when it is similar to what the eye sees. Overexposure happens when too much light is reflected into the camera, rendering an image that is brighter than normal exposure. Underexposure is the opposite: not much light enters the camera, thus creating a dark image.

Overexposure in Run Lola Run

Creating ideal exposure is often a cumbersome task because some factors are controllable, while others aren’t. If you’re shooting under daylight, obviously you cannot turn off or dim the sun; ergo you must either adjust the camera settings to create the exposure desired or move to a different location. Another possibility is flagging sunlight. If you shoot in a studio, then you have absolute control over lights.

Normal exposure in Casablanca

Notice that ideal exposure is subjective because exposure is creative, thus its properness depends on what is intended by the filmmaker. Underexposure, for instance, is often purposefully used in horror movies to provoke suspense or fright. Subtle overexposure is often used during dream sequences or flashbacks.

Four factors regulate exposure:

  1. Amount of light. The sun obviously produces more light than any light bulb known to men. If the camera produces an image that looks normal under bright sunlight, it will – with the same settings – produce underexposure in a scene lit by a dim tungsten bulb.
  2. Aperture. The opening in the camera lens has the capability to block or admit light. The narrower the aperture, less light enters the camera, thus creating dark images.
  3. Shutter Speed. The plate located between the lens and the camera recording surface rotates at an adjustable speed and determines the time that each frame is exposed to light.
  4. Recording surface sensitivity. The imaging device is the part of the camera that is hit by light. In a video camera, the recording surface is a CCD chip, where the image is first created. In a film camera, the recording surface is the actual film stock. When the CCD chip or film stock is sensitive to light, then they are more likely to produce bright images with small amount of light.

Controlling these factors is absolutely fundamental to create optimum photographic imagery.

The Human Eye

When I first started studying cinematography many years ago, comparing the camera to the eye was always fascinating to me. This article is about that...

human-eye-picThe human eye registers what it sees; just like a film camera. Both the camera and the eye have similarities and differences that should help a filmmaker understand the fundamentals of cinematography, as well as the basics of optometry.

The Principles of Camera and Eye

Similar to a camera, the eye is a dark box that has an opening through which light enters and creates an image. In the eye, the opening is called pupil. The pupil is analogous to the aperture in the camera. The size of this opening is regulated by the iris in the eye and by the diaphragm in the camera. Quite conveniently, the diaphragm of the camera is usually called an iris also. In cinematography, the words “iris” and “aperture” are used interchangeably to refer to the size of that opening.

When the camera is on auto mode, the aperture behaves as the eye’s pupil. It closes in a well-lit environment and opens in a dark one. If you’re driving your car through a tunnel, your pupil will expand to let light in. If you leave the tunnel to intense sunlight, your pupil will immediately respond by contracting and blocking sunlight, otherwise the bright light would blind you, and you wouldn’t see much, if anything. The camera in auto mode does the very same thing.

Once the light passes through the pupil, it reaches the retina and the actual process of conjuring the image starts. The retina is full of optic nerves that, when hit by light, form the image and send it to the brain. In a film camera, the retina is equivalent to the film stock. In a video camera, the retina corresponds to the CCD chips. The tape or card where the image is recorded and stored would be analogous to the human brain.


A healthy human eye has the uncanny ability to shift focus along its entire field of view. This happens so naturally and effortlessly that people don’t notice it. But a certain level of attention will make this point obvious. In one second, a person can be reading a book a few inches from his eyes. In the next, he can be observing a landscape hundreds of miles away. In both cases, the image is sharp and clear for the healthy eye. The camera mimics this when the automatic focus is on.

When automatic focus is active, the camera will average the distance of the foreground and background in frame, do the needed equation, and finally guesstimate what the operator is trying to focus on. When the automatic focus is on, the operator loses control over the camera by giving it the autonomy to act based on its programmed processor. This is not professional videography. During a pan, or if someone or something passes in front of the lens, the focus will shift and create a noticeable distraction. Professional filmmakers and videographers must be in control at all times. If pooling focus is needed, the first camera assistant will do it. Not the machine.

Also, note that both the camera and the eye can focus in the distant infinity and see it sharp. However, if an object is too close to the lens or the pupil, it could appear blurry; thus both the camera and the eye have a minimum distance required for sharpness.

Observing Focus…

Here’s a simple experiment to better understand focus: Close one of your eyes while keeping the other one open. Hold your finger very close to your open eye, and focus on it.

When you do this, you should quickly realize that you can select what’s in sharp focus: it will be either the pencil or the background, but not both. When the background is sharp, your finger goes blurry, and vice versa. The same is true for a video camera.

The Aperture

Have you ever noticed that you see slightly better when you squint? Well, farsighted people have, and it’s true. This happens because the pressure on the pupil changes its focal length and increases the depth of field, therefore allowing greater sharpness in one’s field of view.

In the camera, the same effect happens. When the aperture is closed, the overall sharpness of the image is greater than when the aperture is open.

(In his book Optics, Eugene Hecht suggests that the f-number of the human eye varies from about f/8.3 in a brightly lit place to about f/2.1 in the dark. An f-number is unit used to measure the size of the lens opening. )

White Balance (video cameras only)

The human eye is so perfect that most people cannot comprehend white balance and its purpose. Since the eye automatically adapts to each new environment, people don’t understand that different light sources emit lights of different colors. For instance, sunlight is bluish whereas tungsten light is amber. Though the eye adjusts to each light, the camera doesn’t.

Even the average consumer, a videographer using a small handycam, probably doesn’t know much about white balance. Non-professional camcorders are notorious for lacking manual settings. The manual white balance is a missing feature in most handycams.

In a nutshell, every time before shooting under a different light source, white balance must be set. To white balance, check out your camera’s manual for specific instructions. Usually the process is simple: make sure the camera is in auto mode, fill the frame with pure white, which can be a sheet of paper or someone’s T-shirt, and then press and hold the white balance button. Most cameras also have pre-settings for daylight, tungsten, and fluorescent, which can be quite useful when the operator is in hurry. For more elaborate instructions on white balance, check out our White Balance page.

Note that film cameras don’t have white balance. When using film, the director of photography has the option of using daylight-balanced stock or tungsten-balance stock.

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

Have you ever watched a movie and stumbled upon a shot that was so breath-taking you thought to yourself, "Wow, that was gorgeous!"? Well, behind that gorgeous angle was a cinematographer. Perhaps not necessarily operating the camera but at least "painting" the look. Here's what the cinematographer does.

The cinematographer or director of photography (DP) is the person in charge of actually shooting the film. He is the head of the camera and lighting departments, and as such he has a big role in the making of any movie. As early as pre-production, the DP has to make some crucial decisions about the look and feel of a movie: is it going to be color or black and white? Are they shooting digital or film (the latter is becoming rarer and rarer)? If color is used, will the colors be vibrant and saturated or faded and “dull”? Is the camera going to be omniscient and be wherever it needs to be, or is it tied to a character, always showing their POV? Are they going for a more realistic tone, or a expressionistic one?

These are just some of the questions cinematographers have to deal with, and usually they don’t ‘t make these decisions alone. The Director is still the “creative tyrant” who has to oversee and approve of any aspect of the production. But on a set, director and cinematographer are like best friends. One supports the other, and together they should be a well-oiled machine,  so efficient that they can, when the planets align, read each others’ mind.

Let us remember that movies are not plays. The power of cinematography consists of evoking emotions of delight, sadness, humor, and fear through the mastery of a cinematic syntax that has been developed for more than a century. Shot sizes, angles, and movements are the heart of an exceptional camerawork, which, combined with a lighting crafted to enhance emotions, form the essence of cinematography.

As Seen at the Movies

Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella, 1997, Roberto Benigni) is a great example of a movie that incorporates two very different looks. If you don’t know the movie, suffice to say for our purposes that the story takes place during the World War 2 in Italy.

The first half of the movie takes place before Guido’s family is sent to concentration camps. You can see in the frame below how the look is predominantly bright and colorful during this first half:

Life is Beautiful (bright)
In contrast, the look of the film after Guido’s family is sent to concentration camps becomes predominantly darker and more monochromatic as shown in the frame below:
Life is Beautiful (dark)
The difference in tone and feel are also rooted in the production design of these two shots. Notice that the first frame is more embellished with colorful and comic elements such as the rain, the red pillow, the car on the steps. Although the director has to approve of all these elements, the cinematographer can always recommend them.


The Cinematographer’s Craft

The word cinematography comes from the Greek roots kinema (movement) and graph (writing). A good cinematographer does more than merely light a scene or move the camera. He studies the script and creates an elaborate lighting setup and camerawork that provoke emotions and strengthen the plot. He communicates a character’s dream, hope, despair, or joy based on where camera and lights are placed.

The director of photography is often called a painter, and his canvas is the screen. His “brush” are the actors, the lights, the location, the set, the props, etc. These are the elements the DP can control to make each and every shot. And the shot, by the way, is the smallest unit of the film, the building blocks if you will. And like Lego, some can be small and red shaped like brick while others can be big and blue shaped like an automobile. It’s how these pieces are combined that matter.

Quick Glossary

Shots – The smallest unit (or building blocks) of the unbroken film. Shots are separated from each other by simple cuts and other kinds of transitions. They can be categorized by size and length. Most narrative films will counts thousands of shots.

Scenes – Usually, a collection of shots that happen in the same place and/or time. If the location changes from INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY to EXT. BACKYARD – DAY, that usually represents a different scene. Additionally, a change in time in the same location is also understood as a different scene. Each scene should have a beginning, middle, and end, as well as clear goal. Most narrative films will have between 40 and 60 scenes.

Sequences – A major line of action that incorporates many scenes. For example, in the beginning of a movie you could have a “character introduction sequence” that starts with a breakfast-with-family scene, moves to a missing-the-bus-and-walking-to-work scene, and closes with a you-are-fired scene. Sequences, like scenes, also have a beginning, middle, and end, as well as a goal. But the difference is that sequences span different locations and times. Most narrative films will have anywhere from 10 to 20 sequences.

While writers work with scene units in what’s call the Master Scene format, cinematographers work with the shot. Each shot is paramount, which is why they print out a shot list to make sure all the principals are recorded.

The average Joe in the audience wouldn’t know it, but a lot of energy and time goes into designing every shot. Usually,  it starts with the shot size and angle: is the camera going up here or down there? But if they have enough time (and budget), the best DPs will get nit-picky about every little thing in their shots. They will move all the light fixtures one inch to the left if they perceive some improvement. It seems overkill, but that’s what makes the movies awesome. Every professional is in charge of their own universe.

Cinematography ranks among one of the most complex and challenging facets of filmmaking, especially during principal photography, when everything gets hectic. Not only does the cinematographer have the biggest crew on set, but he also has to be in continuous communication with the director and the production designer in order to make sure that they are all on the same page in regards to how the film will look.

DEFINITION: Production Designer

A production designer is an important role on any film set. Together with the cinematographer, the production designer is in charge of the look and feel of the film. This involves set building, set dressing, procuring and manufacturing  props, etc.

Learning Cinematography

It is worth point out that cinematographers ARE photographers, so understanding photography  is essential because capturing the image with light is intrinsic to both. To get you started, consider these articles:

If you are really interested in becoming a cinematographer or a camera operator, here’s a simple little trick that I find quite useful: watch films on mute. That is the best way to eliminate the audio “distraction,” so you can focus on each shot, and see how the DP designed them. Of course, you can only see the result. Ideally, you would have access to the lighting diagram or the camera overhead for each shot, but that kind of data rarely makes it to The Hollywood Reporter. Check the extra features on the DVD for any kind of clue on how some of the shots were made. If you are lucky, you will find an interview with the DP.  Start by watching movies in general. Soon I hope many of you will work on sets and witness the lights yourself. If you live in LA and are interested in working on a set, hit me up and I will see what I can do.


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