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Behind the Scenes of Cinematography Art

Director Denis Villeneuve and DP Roger Deakins on the set of “Blade Runner 2049”

Films are based on a single purpose, storytelling. But storytelling and recording the action isn’t enough to make a lasting impression on the viewer. The angle of every shot and the manner of capturing images that touch our mind and known as “the feel” of a movie is embedded in the art of cinematography.

What Is Cinematography?

Cinematography is an artistic notion born from the art of photography to create what is widely known as visual storytelling in any kind of motion picture, including television shows, animation and film. Cinematography is made of on screen visual elements, all put together masterfully to create a sensory feel that connects the viewer to the actual story, it comprises elements such as lighting and exposure, framing and farming motion composition, lens, depth of field, color, filters, focus and selections.

Essential Role of Cinematographers

Have you ever watched a movie that stirred strong emotions in you, say, changed your mood? That is rooted in the work of great cinematographers behind the scenes. Of course a great film is an elixir of artful endeavour all put together in an engaging story, powerful direction and editing. But it is the job of the cinematographer to create this feeling and sustain it throughout the film.

A cinematographer explaining light and camera movement on the scene

In essence, cinematographers are the conductors of the visual narration in a film, by weaving the visual elements together; an act of mise-en-scène perfection. If the visual elements are combined appropriately, the final film may not be as cohesive and expressive as it could have been, despite a great story or fantastic direction. Whether called as cinematographer or director of photography, these valuable film crew members stand side by side to the camera men and supervise the light crew; as the photography rule goes, every single shot can be completely different if the light is even slightly adjusted.

The close relationship of their task with lighting defines the color schemes of each shot and framing according to exposure. A perfect shot may be retaken only to create a different look by changing the lighting angle.

Cinematographers are also the right hand of directors who entrust their vision to be carried out through these photography elements. Behind the scene, news has it that the greatest cinematographers at times handle the camera themselves when they run short of words to describe their visions.

Cinematographic Responsibilities Towards Artistic Visions

To choose a style for a film and set the tone to their entire narrative are the most exemplary responsabilities of a cinematographer. This important task is carried out by the cinematographer, even though they often receive minimal recognition, when reviewed by a common set of eyes.

To establish the tone, the first step is defining the camera position and lens angles. Lighting and exposure of the frame and lenses are placed accordingly. These techniques help to bring the written words of a script to life, without sabotaging its artistic angle.

These factors change according to the location, time of the day, emotion evoking aspects in the specific scene and, above all, the director’s intentions. Moreover, they can offer their own advice to the director where a situation or concept has been overlooked.

To achieve the envisioned atmosphere, field depth and contrast are important elements, sided with contour to breathe life into an expression. Greatest cinematographers in the field often grab a camera and capture photos of their own, and call for the entire crew to rehearse before performing the main shot. Often, all these efforts are sought to capture a slight gesture or action, and to create award-winning frames.

Cinematography Techniques Every Shutterbug Should Know

Close-up Shots: close-up shots are one of the basics, also most dramatic and expressive techniques, that are used to bring the viewer to a closer touch with a person or an object in the motion picture.

Extreme close-up: these shots are made of tight frames, adding contour and texture to the image with a more intimate feel. Sergio Leone is famous for the abundance of such frames in his movies.

Long shot: a full frame shot from a distance. Is used to convey a feeling of the surroundings to the viewer. Akira Kurosawa had a unique way of using these shots, going from close frames, to a long shot all in one go.

A scene from Seven Samurai (1954)

Extreme long shot: aerial shots of a location, and very far away frames from a character or an object in a frame.

Establishing shot: establishing shots is the equivalent of the opening paragraph in a novel. They set the context of the motion picture. Stanley Kubrick has a signature technique of introducing his movie by dramatically establishing shots.

Tracking shot: these are sideways-moving shots to present the surroundings and the feel of an atmosphere while having the character at the center when they are on the move.

Dolly shot: the name of these shots come from the Dolly track, and to capture them, the camera needs to roll on a dolly towards or away from the scene.

Crane shot: suspended views are thrilling, expressive and artistic, carried out by an overhead hoist such as a crane.

Steadicam: these shots are captured when the camera is moving slowly, and so often handheld or attached to the body to create a feel similar to the vision of the eyes.

High-angle shot: capturing the shot from a higher angle than the head of the character of the object. This is often used to create a psychological effect such as belittling, non-empowerment, etc.

Low-angle shot: on the other hand, when a camera is located on a lower level of a subject or character, it seems larger, more powerful and imposing.

Medium shot: the most common shot where a character is captured by a waist-up frame for an eye to eye feel with the situation.

Point of view shot: as the name shows, this shot allows the viewer to watch a situation through the character’s eyes.

Cross-cutting, tilting, side lighting, key lighting and many more techniques are used to bring out the genuine sense of a story, highlighted by the sound effects.

Inspirations & Honorable Mentions

Cinematography is equable to photography; only if the pictures could move. The American Society of Cinematographers is a great place to look into if you are interested in finding out more about the best cinematographers in the industry. Roger Deakins is named as the best cinematographer of all times, acclaimed for films like Blade Runner, No Country for the Old Man, and Fargo. Conrad Hall set his thumbprints on the art of cinematography, which are known as techniques today. Freddie Young was also another influential cinematographer, best known for his touch on David Lean’s movies.

Image Sources:

IndieWire, The Best Cinematography Books to Buy Right Now, 2021

BFI, Seven Samurai: The rocky road to classic status of Akira Kurosawa’s action masterpiece, 2020, Cinematography Basics Through the Lens of Top Cinematographers, 2021


"Cinematography", published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8 January 2021

Timothy Heiderich, Cinematography Techniques: The Different Types of Shots in Film, Published by Videomaker Magazine, 2012


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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