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The Secrets of Cinematography

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

Here is a look into some of the best kept secrets of cinematography.

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    Looking for Secrets

    Cinematography often uses principles and techniques, but it is not an art form that you can follow directions on how to do effectively. When you are actually working on creating video and film images you will have to use these techniques in creative ways to really draw out something unique, and that is as mysterious as any artistic process. Part of doing this effectively is understanding the secrets of cinematography, which are parts of the craft of cinematography that are not as easily understood by those that are not working as professionals in the film industry. Here are some of those secrets of cinematography that will help you to work out the creative work of building a moving image.

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    Cheating

    Cinematographers are expected to create a real world with a real geography where the people in it move around in relation to each other. This artificial world is supposed to look like the geography of the real world, but it is not. Instead, this world is one that is created and then believed by the audience, even though they are aware in their logical minds that this is not reality. One of the secrets of cinematography is that they often "cheat" the physicality of a location. What this means is that they arrange each shot so that it appears as though they are just shooting at different angles in the same location, but they are not. Instead, each shot is arranged to get the image that they want so that it maintains the sense of the real geography. This often means repositioning actors from their position in the master shot so that it looks better for the close up. Objects are moved on set so that the camera can take the position that they had, and objects are repositioned so that they are seen better. This secret of cinematography is that in a given situation the objects and subjects are usually repositioned for each shot every shot, even though in the story space they have not moved.

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    Cinematography Camera Equipment

    How great a shot is does not depend on the equipment that is being used in any way. Great films have been recorded on low end digital video cameras, and this does not change the cinematography techniques or tricks that are used. This does not, however, indicate that you will be able to recreate the type of film quality that you see in many studio financed films on every digital video camera. One of the secrets of cinematography is based around the type of equipment and settings that are used. 35mm film has a very specific look, depth of field, and image quality to it that you cannot just easily recreate.

    As we head into a world of HD formats the standard aesthetic has changed and it is easier to create an image that is equal to that of the films you see in theaters. The real secrets of cinematography here is to use the appropriate settings that are going to match this. In terms of HD quality you will often want to use 720p or above to get a great image. You are going to want to also shoot at 24 frames per second, which is the standard for feature filmmaking.

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    The Use of Light

    Beyond the equipment and cinematographic skills at play in producing the image, one of the main secrets of cinematography ends up being the use of lighting. Lighting seems obvious to most people, but the fact that you have to appropriately light your image is not the secret of cinematography. The aspect of lighting that does line up with the secrets of cinematography is that this is going to end up defining the way that the subject appears in terms of quality and character. Using properly dramatic lighting will add the sharpness and professional look to your image no matter what format you are filming on, which is why each image needs to be lighted effectively and tested before applying the same lighting scheme to another setup.

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