Learn The Term: What is Cinematography?
Updated: Jul 16
What is Cinematography?
Cinematography is the art and technique of capturing and manipulating visual images on film or digital media. The term "cinematography" comes from the Greek words "kinema" and "graphein," which mean "movement" and "to write." Cinematography is sort of the fancy-shmancy word for videography - the process of using a video camera to record images that can be edited and combined to create a visual story.
Tools and Techniques Used by Cinematographers
Cinematographers use a variety of tools and techniques to capture and manipulate visual images. Some of the most common tools used by cinematographers include:
Camera: The camera is the primary tool used by cinematographers to capture visual images. Cinematographers may use a variety of cameras, including film cameras, digital cameras, and even smartphone cameras. My favorite right now is the Sony FX3 - the image quality is superb and the form-factor is about as small as it gets!
Lenses: The lenses used by cinematographers can significantly affect the look and feel of a film. Wide-angle lenses can create a sense of space and depth, while telephoto lenses can compress space and make objects appear closer together. My go-to is the Sigma Art 28mm - a 28 millimeter photo length is what I think is the sweet spot - often people will use a 24mm for wide shots (the smaller the number, the wider the angle of view on a lens) and some people prefer 35mm. I actually used to own a lens called the Sigma 24-35mm f/2, so I could do both lengths, and then I realized I always left it right in the middle at 28 millimeters. It takes a while to understand yourself creatively.
Lighting: Lighting is a crucial tool used by cinematographers to set the mood and tone of a film. Cinematographers can use a variety of lighting techniques, including natural lighting, artificial lighting, and chiaroscuro lighting. If someone says "dramatic lighting" this often means there is a wide difference between the lights you see. Say half of the person in view is in the blistering sunlight, and the other half is deep in the shadows barely visible, this is very dramatic, or "high contrast". A less contrasty look would be some of the headshot examples on my website. I often have 3 to 5 different lights all set up, with relatively the same light on them. Some darker and some lighter, but less of a contrast and more of an inviting look.
Color: Color can also be used by cinematographers to create mood and tone in a film. Color grading is the process of adjusting the color of a film to create a specific look or feel. Watch Better Call Saul and notice how flashbacks are in blue.
Common techniques used by Cinematographers
Composition: Composition is the arrangement of visual elements within a frame. Cinematographers use composition to create balance and symmetry, emphasize certain elements, and guide the viewer's eye.
Camera movement: Camera movement can create a sense of movement and motion in a film. Cinematographers can use a variety of camera movements, including pans, tilts, dollies, and zooms.
Depth of field: Depth of field is the range of distances within a shot that appear to be in focus. Cinematographers can use depth of field to create a sense of depth and focus the viewer's attention on certain elements.
There have been many famous cinematographers throughout the history of film. Some of the most well-known cinematographers include:
Roger Deakins: By far the most well-known cinematographer of today. Roger Deakins has worked on Empire of Light, 1917, Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, and The Shawshank Redemption, to name a few. He has won numerous awards for his work, including 4 Academy Awards.
One of my favorites is Emmanuel Lubezki. He is the cinematographer of Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. Bridman has an amazing "one-shot" all the way through. Technically, they have a few cuts hidden in there, but overall I give it an A+ for effort! Also, my wife almost threw up watching it at the movie theatre because we were sitting so close, so that also will always be in my mind!
Third I will say Rachel Morrison! Even though I don't know her, we share the same last name and love of cinematography, so I think that counts. Also, she did Black Panther.
Cinematography is an essential element of filmmaking that involves the use of a variety of tools and techniques to capture and manipulate visual images. A skilled cinematographer rules! Like me :)