30 Best Cinematography Techniques & Tips You Didn’t Learn in Film School

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2. PROFESSIONAL ADVICE

CREATING INSPIRED WORK: CINEMATOGRAPHY TECHNIQUE

Think outside the box

When Stanley Kubrick set out to film Barry Lyndon, he and his longtime cinematographer John Alcott wanted to break new ground and needed to develop new cinematography techniques.

They wanted to shoot the entire film with natural light. A pretty daring and ambitious film lighting idea. For an indoor candle-lit scene, they wanted to ACTUALLY film by candlelight.

This would have pushed the film stock of the era too far. So Kubrick and Alcott borrowed a special lens made by NASA to complete their scene.

The result of this solution is nothing short of painterly.

Finding the next great camera technique may just be a matter of devising a creative solution to achieve your visual goals but it also requires detailed strategies that will help you and your team build the shots you need.

One helpful tool is using a shot list to communicate your creative goals:

With shot lists you can describe each shot in detail, label shot size, camera movements, frame rates, and any other required details that help your shots.

Story over spectacle

Who are we to argue with Roger Deakins, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time?

“There’s nothing worse than an ostentatious shot or some lighting that draws attention to itself, and you might go, ‘Oh, wow, that’s spectacular.’ Or that spectacular shot, a big crane move, or something. But it’s not necessarily right for the film — you jump out, you think about the surface, and you don’t stay in there with the characters and the story.”

— Roger Deakins

Remember you are always telling a story. A visual story, yes, but a story all the same. That means not getting too preoccupied with developing a distinct “cinematic style” and instead focus on story.

The irony: Doing that will unveil your own unique voice, just like it did for Deakins. Here’s a video we put together with priceless insight into Roger Deakins cinematography.



Recently, Deakins completed one of his most ambitious projects to date, 1917. Not only did he bring his typical control of light and shadow, he added mastery of the long take and tracking shots to his already stellar resume. Watch Deakins share his advice and cinematography techniques for 1917:

Some of the best cinematography ever became practically invisible in its service of the story. Gordon Willis, the genius director of photography behind moody Oscar winning classics like The Godfather and Manhattan, took a very different approach to All The President’s Men.

Perhaps the greatest cinematography technique you have will be your ability to recognize what will serve the story.

Study great cinematography

Remember to stay inspired.  Study great cinematographers.

Even the greats studied the greats.

When asked how he made Citizen Kane Orson Welles said “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

This was in reference to Ford’s own classic Stagecoach, which pioneered not just the western (no pun intended), but some of the dramatic chiaroscuro film lighting and camera technique.

It’s safe to say Orson Welles considered Ford’s work to employ some of the best cinematography techniques ever. Ford’s great cinematography was so powerful for Welles that it led him to to create his own all time classic.

And groundbreaking film lighting techniques.


Manage your time effectively

The camera and lighting crew is often the biggest crew on a film set.

You are going to be interacting with all of those department heads, and you are directly (or indirectly) in charge of all of them and their work.

This means always having a plan and executing it. Which means having and respecting storyboards and a shot list. Using the proper tools are cinematography techniques unto themselves.

Why?

You will ALWAYS be under the gun for time. Just like money, there is never enough.

The 1st AD will be asking how low until picture is up constantly. Because the Producers will be asking HIM how long until picture is up constantly.

So before you even step on set, know the coverage. Know the set-ups. Know the lighting plans. Know it all backwards and forwards and how you’ll move efficiently between them.

In film school you probably learned how to light.

But did you learn how to light fast? Or how to efficiently adjust when daylight is almost gone? When you might not make the day and you feel the the entire production waiting as you get a little fill on the lead actress?

Be ready.

But how?

Be prepared.

The crew will often look to you to move forward. Don’t let them down.

Use shot list software to know the ins and outs of every shot. In the video below, DP and ShareGrid cofounder, Brent Barbano, walks us through his process of creating a professional shot list.

It doesn’t stop with the shot list. The shooting schedule is just as critical. Communicate with your AD so you can prioritize the order you’ll be shooting which scenes. That means working with film scheduling software and seeing how logistics will affect everything you do.

Here’s Brent Barbano how cinematographers should work ADs to understand the shooting schedule:

Be an artist (but a reasonable one)

While you shouldn’t get too precious with your work, and alway serve the story, be versed in visual art and design terminology.

It can be great shorthand with your Director and Production Designer, as well as others.

Time is of the essence and great cinematography need not be painstaking. At the same time, treat your shots, and each frame, like a work of art you want to get right.

Even if you’re doing it on the fly, make sure your framing works from a purely visual standpoint. There are many excellent camera techniques you can implement to achieve this.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with great artwork. The tools of creating powerful images may have changed, but the basic principles have remained the same for hundreds of years.

Take creative chances

Push yourself creatively.

We touched on this a bit in other cinematography techniques, but emphasis never hurt.

The overall idea here is to emphasize that taking risks can pay off. If they are calculated ones that you run by others.

Don’t be afraid to break some of those rules that instructors drilled into heads. Dogmatic cinematography techniques can be detrimental to innovation. Some rules were made to be broken.

Plus…

Playing it safe leads to getting into the habit of average/mundane shooting.

Your best cinematography might appear when you think out of the box.

Pick your spots, of course. If you get too crazy all the time you might have some issues staying employed.

NEXT: MASTER PRE PRODUCTION →

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