What’s the best way to tell a story? Compelling dialogue? Engaging conflict? Loveable characters? A story can have all three of those elements and still fall flat. Why? Because the cinematography doesn’t pull you in.
Think of some of your favorite movies. They all have stunning shots and camera work that put you in the story world. Even when they aren’t actively considering it, most people know good cinematography when they see it. By contrast, they can spot bad cinematography from a mile away.
But what is cinematography, and why is it integral to whatever project you’re working on? Let’s unpack everything you need to know about finding the perfect shot to tell a compelling story.
What Is Cinematography? Understanding the Fundamentals
A good cinematographer is as essential to a project as the director or leading role. They’re responsible for a film’s look, color, lighting, and framing. They also work closely with the director to carefully plot every shot. Ultimately, the cinematographer’s choices support the director’s vision.
The cinematographer’s core duties break into three basic categories: exposure, lighting, and camera position/movement. Conveniently, these elements align with the departments under the cinematographer’s umbrella of responsibility: camera, lighting, and grip. Knowing how to manage and manipulate these three elements is critical to establishing a project’s visual style.
Let’s unpack all three to see how they affect a project’s visual tone:
- Camera: While the director often decides where to place the camera, the cinematographer determines how much light passes through the lens. This is called exposure, and it can mean all the difference in the story you’re trying to tell. Less light means less exposure, which gives a darker feel. More light means more exposure, so a happier, more jovial feel. For example, The Dark Knight would feel like a different movie if the exposure was too high.
- Lighting: Lighting serves two main functions on a project: create a look for the project and maintain a consistent source so the exposure doesn’t fluctuate. This second part is why filming with natural light is difficult. When the sun changes, it affects the exposure.
- Grips: Some directors leave camera movement and placement up to the cinematographer; others like to give specific orders. In either case, it’s the cinematographer’s role to set these shots up according to the project’s tone. For example, erratic and shaky camera movements enhance the tone if you’re shooting a found-footage horror movie. If you’re filming a rom-com, you’d want smooth tracking shots and minimal movement.
Lighting Techniques for Cinematography: Creating Mood and Atmosphere
If it wasn’t abundantly clear, lighting is half the battle for cinematography. Poor lighting and exposure decisions will throw off the tone of your project.
But lighting doesn’t begin and end with source and exposure. It breaks down further into four distinct properties: source, quality, color, and direction. How can you leverage these properties on your next project?
Where does the light come from? Cinematographers have two options: natural or artificial. Natural light comes from the sun and moon. You can use several tools to manipulate natural light, such as filters, fabrics, and diffusers.
Artificial light is a cinematographer’s best friend. You’ll get it from LEDs, incandescents, fluorescents, and other lighting sources. Artificial light gives you immense freedom to shape and light a shot. With enough artificial light, scenes shot on a soundstage can resemble dynamic exterior settings.
Don’t think of “quality” in terms of good and bad. Instead, think of it as hard and soft. Hard lighting creates dramatic shadows. It’s usually focused and very intense. On the other hand, soft light wraps around the subject and doesn’t cast hard shadows. It all comes down to size and distance.
Simply put, hard light is small and distant, whereas soft light is large and up close. Think about when you make shadow puppets with your hand. The closer you are to the light source, the bigger and blurrier your shadows are (soft light). The further away, the more defined they become (hard light).
We’re not talking about red, blue, and green lights here. We’re talking about the natural colors given off by light sources. Consider the bright fluorescent bulbs in your office—they give off a white, bluish color. Meanwhile, the bulb on your desk at home has a warm orange hue.
Cinematographers use color temperature (measured in Kelvin) to get the right colors. Lower temperatures are warmer, with more red. Higher temperatures are cooler with more blue.
Where your lights point is as important as where they’re coming from. Left, right, up, down, above, behind—all these directions give a different feel to a scene. For example, a focused hard light on the ceiling during a tense interrogation will add dramatic tension. Meanwhile, soft lights through the windows make a workplace comedy feel relaxed.
Location, Action, and Reaction: Working With Your Environment To Capture the Perfect Shot
In real estate, they say “location, location, location.” The same is true for cinematography and the location of everything you see in a shot.
Mise en scène (pronounced meez-ahn-sen) describes the setting of a scene. Anything placed on stage, on set, or in the shot must have meaning, whether to the story, the characters, or the project's tone. This includes people and how they move around the shot.
Directors and cinematographers must make smart choices when placing furniture and set pieces in a room. Your audience assumes that if something appears on screen, it matters to the story. For example, consider Chekhov’s Gun rule: if you show a gun on screen or stage in the first act, it better go off by the third act. Otherwise, what’s the point of showing the gun if it never goes off?
Since everything in the shot holds weight, you can break mise en scène into the following categories:
- Open space, which suggests freedom of movement or desolation
- Tight space, which suggests limitation and the subject’s inability to escape
- Placement around frame
- Territorial space (background, mid-ground, foreground)
- Face to camera (quarter, half, three-quarter turn or back to camera)
- Frame constraints
Work closely with the director and actors to place everything and everyone in the perfect spot.
Post-Production: Enhancing Your Shots With Editing Techniques
Once you’ve got all your shots, it’s time to enter post-production. But what is post-production, and what does it have to do with cinematography?
Post-production—or simply post—is when an editor splices all the shots together to tell a smooth and fluid story. [[NTERNAL LINK: The Rise of Text to Video: Is AI the Key to Creating Engaging and Cost-Effective Videos? (once published)]] It’s their job to keep the audience engaged by stringing together cuts, scenes, and shots that help the audience follow the plot and characters.
For example, let’s say two characters are talking. If you have static cameras on their faces, the editor will bounce between both to focus on the speaker. Or—if it’s more important—to focus on the listener while we hear the speaker.
Editors must understand the basics of cinematography to do their jobs effectively. At the very least, they should understand the different types of shots, cuts, and camera movements to convey an accurate tone.
Some cuts every editor should understand are:
- Standard Cut: The simple transition from one shot to another.
- Smash Cut: A sharp, sudden change emphasizing contrasting elements, themes, or characters. You can use them to deliver a punch line or release tension.
- Split Edit: When the audio from the next shot plays over the current shot before transitioning, or vice-versa.
- Cutaway: A quick shot from a different time and space in the story to convey information.
- Montage: An arrangement of short shots in a continuous sequence. For example, the training montage in Rocky or Ellie and Carl’s heart-wrenching relationship montage in Up.
In post, editors can also play with light and color grading to enhance the shot and create a certain tone. In cinema, color grading refers to manipulating images to create consistent styles throughout a film. If you pay attention, you can easily spot the color scheme of a film or TV show.
Elevate Your Filmmaking Skills With Cinematography Techniques
Understanding these key cinematographer techniques and how they affect your story will quickly take your project to the next level. Remember, lighting is half the battle. Consistent sources, whether natural or artificial, help maintain continuity between shots. Knowing when to use hard and soft light also helps set the tone of your particular scenes.
Remember the setting when placing props, set pieces, and actors around your scene. Everything has a purpose. If you show it, it must have meaning to the story or project. Finally, once all your shots are wrapped, you can head into post-production, where you’ll splice everything together to tell a consistent narrative.
Are you an expert cinematographer looking to join our creative roster? Do you want to work with other talented professionals? Apply to join the team at Laetro today! Let’s get creative together.