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Cinematography 101

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 11/30/2010

Here are the basics of cinematography 101, which are the first and most fundamental things that a cinematographer needs to do on set.

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    What is Cinematography 101?

    Cinematography 101 really means the aspects that are fundamental to cinematography on a film or video production set. All the elements that would play into cinematography 101 are the ways that a cinematographer, or Director of Photography, thinks about the set when he begins preparing it for filming. These would include all of the things that a cinematographer would begin with so that the shoot will be successful and the images produced would end up being effective for the type of project that is in play. Here is a look at a few of these items that can be considered part of cinematography 101.

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    Available Space

    The first element in cinematography 101 is the estimation of the space available. The cinematographer is going to have to be integral for the construction of the scene as it is picked up by the camera. When the situation is first being estimated, which may often be much before filming takes place, they will have to look at it and to see what may need be done. If this is a real world location then it may mean rearranging furniture or replacing objects, all of which so that the camera will have the area that it needs for positioning and movement and so that the action in front of the camera will have the appropriate space.

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    Communication With Other Departments

    The Director of Photography is going to have to spend quite a bit of time working with the other departments, both receiving direction and giving it. Working with the Director is part of cinematography 101 as the Director of Photography must hear what their requests are for the type of image so they can then try to creatively craft it for them. They will then have to work very closely with the lighting, gaffing, grip, art direction, and other production departments so that they can create a successful image. For example, lighting is going to be fundamental for crafting the look that is wanted. For this to be effective, the gaffing department will need to find enough available power. All of this is going to be under supervision of the Director of Photography at some level, so it is fundamental to figure out what you are going to need from the other departments and how to communicate that with them.

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    Light and Color Readings

    Before you can actually address the settings on your camera, or how to communicate with your camera person and Assistant Camera departments on larger sets, you will have to know exactly how much light you are dealing with. Once the object or subject has been lit it is going to be important to see what the light readings are so that the camera can be set appropriately. This means taking a light reading at the important areas of the frame so that you can adjust your iris settings accordingly. It is also going to be important to take color readings when possible so that you can see if the color temperature is comparable to your lighting, settings, and desired effects.

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    Cinematography and White Balance

    It may need to go without saying that cinematography 101 includes using appropriate white balance. Auto-white balance is often used on home camcorders, but for real cinematography white balance is going to be needed so that it can adjust correctly to the color in the room. Once the image is lit and measured so that the camera settings are appropriate, you will use a white card in the main focal location to white balance the camera. You can also use this time to trick the white balance to give the image a tint, but what is important is making sure that the color is intended.


Here is a series with different articles relating to different aspects of cinematography.
  1. Cinematography 101
  2. The Secrets of Cinematography
  3. Film & Cinematography Techniques
  4. Cinematography Lighting Schemes
  5. Cinematography for Beginners