Cinematography is the lighting and filming of a video or film production. A cinematographer, also known as a director of photography (DP), is responsible for making lighting choices, placing cameras and adjusting camera movements to enhance the scene in addition to the actual filming. Although many films and television shows will have someone else operating the camera while the cinematographer directs the action, on smaller productions the DP does it all.
Like photography, cinematography is an art. A cinematographer has to have an eye for color, framing and perspective, as well as understand the technical aspects of cameras and film stock. As a specialty, cinematograpy requires several years of intense training, but once you learn the basics and begin to hone your skills, you can start working.
Film or digital
The first thing to learn is the difference between working in film and digital media. For a long time, digital appeared very grainy, didn’t focus well and had terrible coloring. Today, it has come a long way and rivals film in quality. Film has a softening effect that creates a slight blur, thus making everything appear somewhat surreal and “cinematic.” Watch some movies on film vs. digital, and see if you can tell the difference.
Film stock refers to the film itself. There are multiple kinds of film stock that provide differing contrast, grain and color variations. Knowing what kind of film stock to use for project takes time to learn and understand.
Cinematographers also choose the overall perspective of the film. While the director may advise them on certain selections, concepts and scenes, it is ultimately up to the cinematographer to choose the lens, framing, camera placement, focal length and depth of field.
The lighting of a shot and set is crucial – it’s not just a matter of “point and shoot.” Cinematographers must understand how the light hits a subject and how that translates to the camera lens. There are always many factors to consider such as multiple subjects, changes of focus and camera movements which will alter the look, versus still photography in which you set up for one shot and then you’re done.
As you continue work with a camera, you’ll learn how to make it work for different shots and then you’ll have to make decisions about how it moves to follow the scene. Camera movement involves fixed shots, crane shots, dolly work, handhelds, tilts and pans.
The length of film exposure or image duration is what makes film such a versatile medium. Film is shot at 24 frames-per-second, while digital is 30 frames-per-second. However, film allows you to adjust the exposure settings so it shoots more slowly or more rapidly, giving the picture a unique quality either way.