A Guide To The Big Screen: What Is Cinematography?

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Have you ever dreamed of producing films? Creating a visual masterpiece from intricate storylines, filled with raw emotion to be depicted on the silver screen? If you’re a creative with a deep passion for the medium of film and movie making, then you may have considered pursuing a path toward cinematography.

So, if you want to find out how you can take your creative and storytelling skills and turn them into works of art, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s talk about the art of cinematography and how you can start a career in this captivating field.  

What is Cinematography?

In simple terms, cinematography is the art of making motion pictures.

In fact, the concept of cinematography is actually defined in more technical terms as:

“The act of capturing photographic images in space through the use of a number of controllable elements. These include the quality of the film stock, the manipulation of the camera lens, framing, scale and movement.”

Yet, when we talk about cinematography we define it as – creating stories through visual imagery.

So, now that we know what cinematography is, lets talk about how this medium slightly differs from the process of filmmaking.

What is the Difference Between Filmmaking and Cinematography?

The difference between these two roles comes down to logistics.

A filmmaker is the person who makes the film. They do this by deciding on the look and tone of the movie. They are in complete control of the production and have final say on every element and detail.

A cinematographer oversees the artistic process of the film. They work in conjunction with the director to make the story become visually alive. In essence, their job is to create the visuals that support the story being told.

So, in essence a cinematographer’s role is truly an artistic one. They may make decisions such as:

  • Where to focus the shot
  • Creating lighting
  • Setting up specific situations to align with the plot of the script
  • The Depth of Field used
  • Coloring of the shots
  • Scene compositions
  • Lens usage, techniques and more…

A cinematographer has to combine artistic and creative direction to make a written script turn into a moving picture that is visually strong and captivating.

How Can You Start A Career in Cinematography?

Now, that we’ve covered what cinematography is and what a cinematographer does – let’s talk about how you can become a cinematographer.

If you have a deep seeded interest in visuals, creative direction and aesthetics, then a role in cinematography could be the perfect choice.

But, how does one break into the field and start a career in cinematography?

The Eye Behind The Camera

The role of a cinematographer is also known as the DP, Director of Photography. Therefore, a successful cinematographer not only has a knack for visuals, but is trained in all aspects that have to do with photography, filmography, technical equipment, special effects and more.

The first thing to remember about being a cinematographer is that the role will always change. For, the essence and direction of every film or production you work on will be different.

You will have to understand that making creative decisions is at the core of this role. And, having an understanding of filmmaking and camera skills is highly neccessary.

For example, you should be able to give insight into which lens works for a shot or how to adjust the lighting for each composition.

Obtain a Degree

The best way to follow the path of cinematography is to attend film school. Although, it is a rigorous course — film school allows you learn everything you need to know about the world of filmmaking. And, it allows for plenty of networking opportunities for the advancement of your future career.

If you focus your degree in cinematography, you will learn everything you need to know about how a film is produced. You can opt for an associate or certificate degree or take the next step to obtain a bachelor’s degree — this is the recommended choice for landing the highest quality of work.

Now, if you can’t afford to attend a degree program or would rather build your experience through work – it is still possible to become a cinematographer.

You can start by spending your time on film sets. Working as the camera operator or production assistant is a great way to get started in the filed. You will then be able to work your way up the ladder in the professional world. While you are working on sets you will need to:

  • Pay attention to how the cinematographer works
  • Pick up techniques and processes of filmmaking
  • Network whenever possible
  • Consider creating personal projects in your off time to showcase your abilities

Cities such as Los Angeles and New York are where the majority of production is done for both films and television shows. If you want to be at the top of the creative ladder and awarded the most opportunities, it’s advised that you make the move east or west to further your career.

Continue to Harness Your Skills

Once you have found your place in the film world, it is always important to continue to cultivate your brand and take it to the next level.

This includes always networking and creating relationships with people in your industry. Like they say, it’s not what you know – it’s who you know.

Plus, you will need to always be updating your body of work. Create a portfolio or website to showcase the projects you have worked on over the course of your career.

And, you should attend industry events. This could include mixers, screenings and panels on film.

Remember To Develop Your Own Style

The final aspect to building and sustaining a career in cinematography is to develop your own style. In many cases, the names of cinematographers are unknown. Yet, they have develop such a unique aesthetic that we are able to recognize their work.

You must create a distinctive style that can be your own and define your brand in the film world.

Study the work of the greats such as Roger Deakins, Bradford Young and Bill Pope. Understand how their creative and artistic visions drive the overall atheistic of the films they help produce.

In all, cinematography is about creating art. If you see the world through a heightened photographic lens and are able to turn a written script into an engaging visual story – then the world of filmmaking and cinematography is the one for you.