3 Cinematography Pointers

Updated on April 27, 2019
Matthew Scherer profile image

Matthew is a filmmaker from South Texas. He has shot various short films that have played at numerous festivals across the United States.

1. Be Creative With Lighting

Good lighting is even more important than camera quality when it comes to an image that looks cinematic. Lights do more than just allow us to see the scene. When used correctly, lighting can convey mood, emotion, danger, foreshadowing, and a myriad of other things.

Don't let yourself fall into the habit of lighting every scene using a key, fill, and backlight. That's a good template to start with, but its over reliance will show. Start by mixing it up in tiny ways. Removing the fill light can add a sense of mystery if one side of the actor's face is shrouded in shadow.

Consider the tone of the scene you're lighting. Is it happy or sad? If it's happy, maybe try using soft, even light. If it's sad, drench it in shadows. Or if you're feeling rebellious, reverse it.

Lighting can also be used to add depths and layering to the background of scenes. Let's say you have a shot of a man sitting at a table in a living room. He is lit with a key light and a fill, but the room behind him is dark.

Try a few candles in the background to add depth. If that's not your thing, maybe turn on the light in the adjacent room to have some spill into the background. It's about adding as much depth as you realistically can in the context of the scene, so have fun and experiment!

2. Always Overshoot, Never Under

You can never shoot too much. You may think you have adequate coverage of a scene, but for the editor's sake and the project as a whole, try a few more angles. Nothing is more boring than abusing the dreaded shot/reverse shot.

Shot/reverse shot is when two characters are shown in opposite closeup or medium shot angles back to back. One character is shown talking in frame, the next shot is the other character listening or responding. This is very boring to the eye.

To avoid this, try as many setups in a scene that you can get away with. Get your usual closeups and wide angle, yes, but don't stop there! Try getting several different wide shots at different angles.

You could try an angle from above, or maybe shoot an angle through a window. Same for closeups, try a wide array of angles. Not only that, but try adding movement into the scene. Maybe the conversation would work out better if it was a tracking shot down a hallway.

It's also important to get as many cutaways as you can. Cut to actors hands if they're doing something, the clock on the wall, the rest of the room, etc. Make sure that each cutaway has relevance, so don't just shoot randomly.

For example, if an actor is reacting suspiciously to a conversation, a cutaway of their nervous leg bouncing up and down would be appropriate. Keep an awareness in the back of your mind for relevant cutaways, and don't hesitate to get as many as you think of.

3. Communicate Visually

Cinema is a visual language, and cinematographers need to be keenly aware of this. There are an untold number of ways to visually communicate, but it can be a difficult concept to grasp at first.

By way of illustration, let's say there's a scene where two men are in the lobby of a large business. This is shown in a wide shot, giving us a full view of the lobby. Then there is a cut to an angle behind the reception desk with the two men in frame looking over at it.

This visually communicates to us that their next step will be to stop at the reception desk. No words were spoken, but we were shown images that gave a natural flow. These are the types of shots to always have in mind as a cinematographer.

The goal should be that the viewer can understand the general plot of the movie just by what's shown on screen. For example, if you were watching a movie in a foreign language, could you follow it?

Certainly not the specifics of each key word, but in a good film quite a bit will be communicated without having to hear the dialogue. Say there's a shot of a man standing around outside a bank.

He is visibly sweating, and slowly puts on a hat and sunglasses. The camera cuts to a bulge inside of his coat, implying he's carrying a concealed weapon. From this, it's quite obvious that the man intends to rob the bank. However, were we told any of this information? No, it was entirely communicated visually.

This is something almost all of us inherently understand and can decipher when we see it, but it can be easy to forget when shooting a movie. Always ask yourself, "Dialogue aside, is the point of the scene visually represented?"

© 2019 Matthew Scherer


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