Cinematography Basics – 6 Cinematography Techniques
Cinematography is the art of capturing moving images on film or digital media.
It is an essential element of filmmaking that can have a huge impact on the success of a film, cinematography techniques play a big part in establishing the overall look and feel of a film. The cinematography is also essential to the storytelling.
Good cinematography techniques can transport the audience into the world of the film and allows them to suspend their disbelief. They forget they are watching a film, and in the moment, they believe in the characters and the story.
If you are film student or aspiring to become a filmmaker, it is important to master some cinematography basics, which are the fundamental cinematography techniques to use in filmmaking.
Here are 6 of the key cinematography techniques that every film student should know about.
Framing the shot is all about the choices made about what to include and what not to include, within the frame of the camera lens. It involves choosing a type or size of shot, choosing the camera angle, distance, and placement of the subject within the frame.
Good framing can enhance the visual impact of a shot and help to convey meaning or story to the audience, as well as help to give each individual frame, a sequence, or the film as a whole, its own distinctive style and visual qualities.
Learning how to effectively and artistically frame a shot is one of the first cinematography basics any film student should master.
Camera movement is closely linked to another of our cinematography techniques – framing – but for camera setups where the camera also moves alongside the image. This can be very subtle movement, such as a slow pan, handheld or roving photography, or it can be complex and well rehearsed, such as in the case of a dolly zoom or ‘trombone’ shot.
Camera movement can create a sense of movement, depth, and perspective in a scene. It can be used to enhance the pace, orient or disorient the audience and place them within the scene. Or, where it moves, the cinematography can simply follow the action.
Different camera movement techniques include pan, tilt, track and zoom, although there are a few more specific types of each one. Some camera movement requires set grip, such as a dolly and track, or a jib, and some can be achieved quite simply on a tripod or a gimbal.
Each camera movement technique has a specific purpose and effect on the audience, so careful planning and execution can help the film to tell its story, as well as looking impressive on screen. Planning out camera movement on a storyboard, as well as being prepared to rehearse moving camera shots on set, will help to achieved the desired effects.
Effective use of lighting is another one of our key cinematography techniques. Particular use of lighting can help to create mood, atmosphere, and drama in a shot, as well as perform vital functions for on screen storytelling.
The use of different lighting techniques can help to show emotion, whether by highlighting a character’s facial expressions or reactions, or by using the light to create visual metaphors or visual storytelling points. Lighting can also create shadows, as well as highlights.
Use of lighting is also essential for shooting in lowlight conditions, such as night shoots, or for maintaining consistent lighting states whether on location or inside purpose-built studios. Natural lighting will change throughout the day, so if you’re shooting a long scene over several hours, then studio lighting can help keep the overall lighting consistent within the scene.
Different lighting techniques include high-key lighting, low-key lighting, three-point lighting, and natural lighting. Each lighting technique has a specific purpose and effect on the audience and should be considered carefully, especially if the lighting is being used for creative effects.
The shot composition refers to the arrangement of the different elements of a shot within the frame, in order to create a visually pleasing and balanced (or not) shot. It uses mise-en-scene to help tell the story within the film.
When composing a shot, the cinematography will position the actors, the scenery, any props, interactivity or other elements within the frame, so that they appear exactly as intended within the overall shot. Some elements will be given greater prominence, but the composition should lead to an overall aesthetically pleasing result.
Different composition techniques include the use of the rule of thirds, symmetry, leading lines, framing and perspective. Some compositions are designed to look perfectly balanced, or natural, and some are designed to make us feel ‘off balance’ and that something unusual is taking place. Some compositions may be designed to look noticeably artful, or to tell the story from a specific point of view.
Each composition can achieve a specific purpose and effect on the audience and mastering the art of composition will be one of the most helpful cinematography techniques to any aspiring filmmaker.
Depth of Field
Depth of field is the name given to describe the distance between the closest and farthest objects in a shot, where one of them is in focus.
Playing with depth of field can create a sense of depth and perspective in a scene, as well as a range of particular visual effects for different forms of storytelling. Cinematographers can use this to help show the world or setting a character is inhibiting, which they can also use figuratively to add to any sense of mood, atmosphere or sense of character.
Different depth of field techniques include shallow depth of field, deep depth of field, and selective focus. Depth of field can change within a single shot, by using the pull focus technique. This is where one subject changes from being in focus, to blurring out of focus, with an adjustment of the camera lens focus.
Aspect ratio refers to the size and dimensions of the frame, it is the proportion of the width of a frame to its height.
Most aspect ratios for video today are 16:9, but occasionally cinematographers can opt for other screen dimensions to create a sense of visual style, time setting or mood. Shooting on film, such as 16mm or 35mm, will have a slightly different aspect ratio.
Cinematographers might use letterboxing techniques to add visual character or to draw attention to certain elements of the story. For creating social media content, 9:16 might be used more readily as a ‘portrait’ ratio.
These are just the basics of cinematography. Cinematography is a complex and nuanced art form that requires both technical skills and creativity, which can be learned and developed over time.
As a student of film, it is important to learn the fundamental techniques of cinematography and how they can be used to enhance the visual storytelling of a film production. By mastering these cinematography techniques, you can create powerful and compelling films that will captivate your audience.
About Sparks Film School
Sparks is a youth film school, with filmmaking, photography and animation courses for ages 5-18.
If you would like to learn more about cinematography techniques, take a look at some of our featured blog posts below, or find out more about our filmmaking courses here >>