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Film & Cinematography Techniques

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

Here is a look at some of the fundamental cinematography techniques that are important in film and video production.

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    Cinematography is the creative and technical art for the actual camera work done in a film or video project. This means that cinematography is different from videography in that it is used to interpret a creative project and is one part of a full film project, rather than a video project where the capture of the image is the primary focus. Instead, cinematography is much more thought out and uses techniques that are meant to maintain a certain perspective, mood, visual style, and other specifics in a project. There are a lot of different cinematography techniques and practical choices that serve different ideas about filmmaking and ways of creating an image that different directors of photography end up using, all of which are ways that they hope to create an image that will communicate to the audience in an intended way. Here is a look at some effective cinematography techniques that can be used to help your film be more visually effective.

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    Movement

    Movement is a very difficult issue for filming, especially with digital video and its smaller cameras. The independent digital film world has often over used camera motion in a way that violates most cinematography techniques, but there are appropriate ways to use movement. First off, movement should be limited and subtle. A good use of cinematography techniques for movement is to just use a little bit based around the tripod head rather than the actual movement of the camera position. Try using camera movement from pivot positions such as the tilt up or down, pan left or right, or a combination there of.

    If you are going to be using the movement of the camera position you will need to make sure that it is going to be as smooth as it can be. This means using a high quality dolly for consistent movement or a steady cam operation, both of which will require some education and support because they are very specific cinematography techniques that draw on less common equipment.

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    Positioning and Framing

    Cinematography techniques are built around making sure that the audience looks where they are intended and so that the image will keep their attention. There are a lot of ways to compose an image, but cinematography techniques are common in that they are built around those two principles. What this means is that you need to spice up the image by observing a few different items. Avoid symmetry when you can as this tends to dial down the image, and instead balance the image on one side or the other for a sense of asymmetry. Try to observe the rule of thirds so that important focal points will rest on areas where the eye is drawn to in an image. Place the subject far away from the background so that they are cut out from it and so that the foreground takes the audience's attention. Have the direction of the subject's face hold the most amount of negative space so this creates a sense of the physicality of the scene for the audience. These are all cinematography techniques that really play in almost every situation where a human subject is presented in a supposedly real world, and is going to be used in the majority of situations.

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    Cinematography Lighting

    Lighting is fundamental to cinematography, but one lighting scheme does not work for all situations. Instead, you have to make sure that you develop a lighting situation for your planned cinematography that is actually going to enhance it. Most situations where a person is lit you can apply some variation of the four point lighting set up where you have a sharper light on one side of the face, a softer diffused light on the opposing side, a backlight pointed at them from behind to cut them out from the background, and a background light so it still looks as though they are in a real location. From here you can begin to use cinematography techniques to change the framing and image character and you can adjust the light any way you want.

    What this means is that you may want to use stronger light for more dramatic situations, or more diffused light for funny ones. Light from above may help it feel more mysterious, and the use of a lot of practical lights in the situation may help dictate how your cinematography lighting techniques end up looking. There are a lot of ways you can adjust these lights to fit your needs, but the important thing is to make sure you identify what visual elements are going to be important and then use the lighting in your cinematography techniques to match this effect.

Cinematography

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