A friend of mine asked me what I thought of his short film. After a short conversation, he asked for cinematography advice. This is what I wrote to him:
There are certain rules you need to follow:
Always make sure it is properly exposed. Each camera has a exposure meter. Look up the camera online and figure out how to access the meter. on the 7D, you lightly tap the shutter button and on the screen, a little line pops up that you want to be in the center of the little number line. The center has an arrow. To the left is underexposed and to the right is overexposed. You’ll learn to be more precise with this later but even Devon still just always shoots with the line perfectly in the center.
Cameras have optimum settings. On a DSLR, that is as low ISO as possible at increments of 100, 200, 400, 800 (the ones in between aren’t as good). Never go above 800 and only go above 400 of you absolutely must. As you increase ISO, you lose quality. Shutter speed should be half your frame rate. If you are shooting at 30 frames a second, set your shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. If you are shooting at 24 frames a second, set your shutter speed to 1/50th of a second. Lenses tend to look best when the aperture isn’t all the way open so try to close down the aperture one or two stops but never go above f8. The bottom end doesn’t matter too much but you don’t want to get above f8 or the image won’t be as crisp and the depth of field gets wide so it doesn’t look like film but like video. If it is bright out, use an ND filter so that you can keep the aperature open. Ideally, you set the camera at optimum settings and adjust your lights until you have the right exposure. That is how shooting with film works. You pick a certain ISO film, the shutter speed and frame rate are set by the camera, and only use aperture for artistic control of depth of field, using a light meter to make sure you are properly exposing the film. Into a light meter, you type the ISO, frame rate, shutter speed, and it tells you the aperture. You adjust the lights until the aperture on the light meter reading matches the aperture of the lens you want to use.
The two other operational things are focus and steadiness. You need to make sure to always nail focus. To do so, set up the shot, press the button to magnify (which digitally zooms in on the image so that you can see it more easily), and focus on the person’s eyes. All monitors and all DSLRs have the zoom feature. Just figure out what button allows you to do it. If you have two people in the shot, increase your depth of field by closing down your aperture (higher number) and focus in between the two people, or have a focus puller rack between them on their lines. And the other thing I mentioned, always keep the camera steady. Unless you have a steadicam, you really should always use a tripod. But if you really want the handheld feel, just go for absolute steadiness.
As for getting better with cinematography, there are a few other rules. For one, always follow the rule of thirds. Place subjects on one of the third lines looking into frame or have them dead center with a symmetrical frame. Also, as much as possible, create tension in the frame by having depth. Usually you want three points of focus. For example, a person in medium shot on the other third line, a parked car a little ways in the distance on the other third line, and a lamp or row of street lamps that draw your eye deep into the frame. The horizontal third lines are used for the horizon. Place the horizon or any prominent horizontal line (like the edge of a table) on one of the teo third lines. These are things you can learn and practice in a few ways. For one, take photos. Get a cheap point and shoot camera and try to take beautiful photos. Framing and patterns and depth are what you can learn from that. Secondly, study photos, realistic paintings, and cinematography. Watch well shot films, pause it at any point, and study the frame. Get a paper that has a frame guide on it, draw in the one third lines, and just think about where the different tension points are in the frame in the film. Draw them as circles on the frame. If there are any big lines your eye follows (usually leading diagonally through the frame to create depth) draw them on your frame guide too. You’ll realize the what the eye likes and what it doesn’t. It is a pain but it helps. You’ve seen how simple my storyboards are. But I do them because it sets rules for me so that I can make sure to follow them on set. Really all I am doing is placing the subjects following the rule of thirds and on set I find things that can create tension points and diagonals and depth.
All of those things are rules. You need to follow them. Even on something like The King’s Speech, which seems to be breaking the rules, still sets simple rules and sticks with them. And the rules he sets are very similar to the ones I just told you but with slight variations. He moved the third lines out slightly and used empty/negative space as a tension point and used extreme lopsidedness as a variation off of balance/symmetry. But he was still very conscious of these rules.
Lighting, on the other hand, doesn’t really have rules. The tricks are light should always feel motivated, which usually means placing the lights high as that is wear most light comes from. Don’t create harsh shadows unless there is a specific reason for it. Use your key light to set the exposure and use your fill light to bring up the shadows so that they aren’t too dark. The fill light shouldn’t look like a light, it just makes the key light seem less intense. The biggest thing though is that naturally, most light hits walls. But for a film to feel natural, the actors must pop. So you want your actors to be slightly brighter than the walls. This is partially done by keeping light on them and off the walls and is also done through using masks while color correcting. (Color correction is also key to good cinematography. Watch the Color Grading Central to learn how to do that. It is a two step process of matching all your shots and then stylizing them without pushing them so far that they lose image quality. The reason color correction is so important is that the eye can see a larger dynamic range than the camera can pick up. Part of color correction is adjusting the image to be more like the eye sees. This is especially needed with DSLRs. For optimum image quality, in addition to all Said above, You are supposed to set your DSLR to shoot ‘flat’. This means you go to its picture styles and create a custom one that has low saturation, low contrast, and low sharpness. You want the pure image off the sensor, and don’t want the camera to color correct for you because it isn’t good at it. Look up the optimum flat picture style settings for a particular camera online.) To help keep light off the walls, keep lights high and pointing down so that they only light up the actors. But beware, your camera might think you are slightly underexposed when in reality your actors are properly exposed but your overall frame is slightly dark. And here is where the artistry and difficulty of setting exposure comes in. But this is something you’ll learn through practice.
All of this, I’ve learned over the past year. Each time I’ve made a film, each time I’ve learned a new rule, I’ve focused on that one thing and have made sure to follow it. Each new film, I’d add a new rule until now, when I’ve just about figured out what it takes to make something look pro with a 7D.
You asked for cinematorgaphy advice. I hope this helps. I know it is a lot ad it probably seems overwhelming. But even if you are just a director in the future, not shooting your own films, habing a general understanding of all this will help you communicate with your cinematographer and will give you more control over your image. Let me know if you have any questions about any of it.