Our guide to cinematography
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to cinematography

Published February 11 2014

If you've found yourself watching films, fascinated by the way that the story is told, the way that the camera is used to portray a character’s emotion, or the lighting is employed to evoke a certain time of day then a course in cinematography will be right up your street.


Cinematography is an art form, and is a term used to describe a combination of different camera shots, angles, movements and lighting techniques that bring film to life. A course in cinematography will teach you about the skills and techniques used by the greats and improve your ability to think visually and creatively as a cinematographer (also commonly referred to as the Director of Photography - look out for that credit). There are a wide variety of courses available, suitable for those with some experience who are looking to gain more, to someone coming at the subject completely afresh.


Four techniques to know about

Most courses will introduce you to the basics in some detail, but here are some of the key points to give you a flavour of the type of topics a course will cover...


1. Camera shots

A shot is defined as the amount of space seen in the frame, they're used to demonstrate character and setting and to convey theme and meaning. Three key shots include the close up, the establishing shot and the extreme close up. Close ups show the frame containing only one character's face, they're often used to show a character's reaction or emotion. (You might remember the famous close up of Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho as she lay on the bathroom floor or Daniel Craig's smouldering face in the opening of Casino Royale). Establishing shots or extreme long shots are often used at the beginning of films to establish the geographic location or the setting and they're often used time and again to convey a change of location. Finally extreme close ups are used commonly in horror movies and contain just a small part of a face or an object. This intensifies the mood and gives significance to what the shot shows.


2. Camera angles

Angles refer to the position of the camera and therefore the position of the viewer. High angles are used to make characters look vulnerable or small - though when used as point of view (as if the eyes of a character) they can demonstrate power. An eye level angle puts the audience in the same position as the character, it's the most common angle used in film and allows the audience to connect with the characters and see the world they are in as they do.


3. Camera movements

Camera movements can help shape meaning. Tracking shots follow the action, tracing a character’s movement along with them or they can give the audience a detailed tour of a setting or situation. Panning and tilting movements offer a panoramic horizontal or vertical view of a setting, often drawing you into a story.  


4. Composition

Composition is also known in the industry as mise-en-scene and it refers to everything within the frame. Good composition makes the frame look interesting, it asks the audience to read the frame as an aesthetic whole. It refers to techniques such as the rule or thirds, or the looking space, the motion space.


Four cinematographers to check out

A course in cinematography  will show you examples of other people’s work to help whet your appetite for how you'd tackle a similar scene. It's often easy to offer all of the credit up to the director so let's put the spotlight on some of the greats:

Robert Richardson: Robert was the cinematographer on Kill Bill, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Hugo. His style is often described as ‘loose’ and ‘free’ and he often works with Quentin Tarintino and Martin Scorsese.

Emmanuel Lubezki: His greatest achievement is often referred to as the beautifully shot Tree of Life though he has been revered across the industry for his approach to different genres. He worked on Children of Men and Ali – to demonstrate a bit of that diversity.

Ellen Kuras: Ellen often works with Spike Lee and is one of the very few well known female cinematographers out there, (girls there is a gap in the market here so book onto those courses!). She was responsible for the unique Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.

Wally Pfiser: Wally has worked with director Christopher Nolan on almost all of his films, Memento, Inception, and the Batman Trilogy.


Four tips to get your visual brain working

1. The next time you are watching television or a film take note of the camera shots that are being used.


2. Try the above again, but this time note down the different camera angles that are being used.


3. Look through a magazine and take a look at the advertisements, this is a really good way to start exploring camera angles, shots and compositions – annotate a few and work out how they effect your perception of the product.


4. Try Instagram video – it allows you to take different shots within a single movie clip. Get experimenting. 


By Sarah Butcher