Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Good storytelling is the driving force and the ultimate goal of any excellent videographer/cinematographer.
Framing and lighting can make or break the mood of the scene; this can be true for films, tv commercials, music videos, or social media videos.
Let’s dive into the traits and abilities that make for a great videographer and why choosing the right one can be the deciding factor in the success of your video project.
What is videography? What does a videographer provide?
Videography is simply the process of capturing images at a high rate. When these images play continuously, we get the effect of motion. In the cinema world, the frame rate usually employed is 24 frames per second; television has traditionally used 30 fps, and for slow-motion, at least 60 fps. The idea behind 60 fps is that you record at 60 fps but interpret or play at 24 fps resulting in a much slower clip. You are capturing more frames per second than what the eye can see, so when played at an average speed (24 fps), we get the desired cinematic slow-motion effect.
The name videographer is somewhat interchangeable within the industry. There’s a couple of names bounced around, such as cinematographer, director of photography (DP), camera operator, and cameraman.
Fundamental camera operator skills include choreographing and framing shots, knowledge of and the ability to select appropriate camera lenses, and other equipment (dollies, camera cranes, etc.) to portray dramatic scenes. The principles of dramatic storytelling and film editing fundamentals are essential skills as well. The camera operator is required to communicate clearly and concisely on sets where time and film budget constraints are ever-present.
Why is the person behind the camera so important?
An experienced videographer can, in many cases, make something out of nothing. Any cameraman working in the video industry knows you will face the task of shooting low-budget projects at some point; this is where the experience factor kicks in. A videographer that’s adept at using what’s available is worth his weight in gold. Low budget shoots generally have bland locations and little or no lighting crew. Missing these critical elements put you behind the eight ball as these two things are vital elements to set the mood. A creative videographer can find ways to choreograph a scene using the available resources such as natural light, and dressing the set with the available props/furniture.
Tips to make a lousy scene look better:
Find depth in the room, great for separating your subject and background
In small spaces, consider creating the illusion of depth by using a foreground element. This gives the viewer a sense of space and distance.
Avoid flat 2D looking framing (use depth, foreground elements when appropriate)
Consider using a back-light, also known as a rim light. A rim light separates the subject from the background by creating a halo of light around the talent.
Use the available light; windows provide a source of soft natural lighting.
Avoid bland, boring walls if possible dress them with frames or plants
Color is your friend - use in moderation.
Behind every shot, there’s a thought process, or at least there should be. Our brains naturally crave whatever is most comfortable, so we default to the traditionally overused shots. A videographer that takes the time to assess the narrative, mood of the scene and the location will usually produce a better shot.
The psychology behind the shot
How we frame the subject can create a response within the spectator. For example, a wide shot that gives our subject plenty of lead room can imply freedom and opportunity, while a tight edge of the frame shot can provoke claustrophobia and constriction.
Ok, so by now, we know that framing enhances the narrative and provokes specific responses in the viewer, so let’s move onto shot and framing options. A good camera operator must understand that all these individual shots will ultimately conform as the pieces of one cohesive film/video. Therefore understanding the needs of the film editor is essential. A film editor needs the clips to complement each other, meaning he needs coverage or an assortment of shots such as establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and over the shoulders. It is also helpful to understand continuity and the 180-degree rule, but we will get into that further down.
It is the job of the camera operator to get all the coverage needed to edit the video properly; this is true for everything from a film to a music video. In the perfect world, there has been ample pre-production, and a shot-list is in place to guide the videographer, but who’s ever heard of a perfect world? So a videographer’s experience comes in handy. A good videographer has a solid base of video editing knowledge and covers his backside by getting enough b-roll coverage, and cut-aways. It can be nearly impossible to edit a fluid video without b-roll and cut-aways. If you don’t know what b-roll and cut-aways are don’t sweat it, we will get into these a bit later.
A scene is a series of action shots.
It’s imperative to have a significant change in camera angles or camera-to-subject distance between two shots – Camera angles should move at least 45 degrees, or the camera-to-subject change should be significant.
Why change the camera-to-subject distance?
to depict an action omitted in the previous shot
to provide a closer look at an object
to emphasize an object
drawback and establish the setting
Using Cut-ins and Cutaways
Cut-in’s depict actions that appear within the master frame.
Cutaways are Secondary shots that depict action outside the master shot, but are part of the scene – These can be used at any time to help bridge mismatched action, or acting continuity, or to add detail/depth to a scene. Cutaways also help “stretch” the time of a scene.
In lamens terms, a camera operator should film fascinating shots that engage viewers. To do so, knowing the tried and true Hollywood shots is a must. In many cases, it can mean breaking film rules for the sake of a superior final product. It’s ok to break cinematography rules but you need to know them first.
Which shots to use? When and why?
Draws attention to the subject
Can increase dramatic emphasis If overused, dramatic impact significantly reduces
Wide shot (WS)
Orients the viewer to the subject
Used to “establish” the scene
Opening scenes often start with a long shot or establishing shot.
Point of view: Shows scene from a subject’s point of view
Reverse-Angle shot: shows what the actor sees, i.e., point of view shot, but used after showing the actor (i.e., we see the actor, then their POV.
Eye-Level: Most common
Low-Angle Shot: Emphasizes that the object is powerful, larger
High-Angle Shot: Can be used to indicate smallness, but also can just add variety into the sequence
Overhead Shot: Creates a unique perspective for the viewer
Hollywood Directors of Photography (Articles)
It was dirty, repugnant and in your face but baby it was it good...
Fight Club was Jeff Cronenweth’s first feature film as cinematographer. After working almost two decades as an assistant for notable cinematographers such as John Toll (The Thin Red Line, Cloud Atlas), Sven Nykvist (Fanny and Alexander, Crimes and Misdemeanors), and his father, Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner, Peggy Sue Got Married). The experienced Cronenweth was a natural choice for director David Fincher, who Cronenweth had also worked for as a second-unit cameraman for Fincher’s Se7en and The Game. The two set out to design the film’s memorable gritty, desaturated look that has come to categorize the movie while bringing to life the dystopian universe of Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal novel.
For the camera department, pre-production on Fight Club lasted more than two months. Previs and storyboarding were key as Fincher wanted to combine computer-generated imagery with live-action to produce “impossible” shots.
Taxi Driver (1976) was shot on 35mm Eastman Color Negative 100T 5254/7254 Film using ARRIFLEX 35 BL Camera and Zeiss Super Speed Lenses. The distributed aspect ratio of the film is 1.85:1 although some portions were filmed on 16mm.
Cinematography, like all other departments of filmmaking, is all about making choices. Such as framing, composition, lighting, and camera movement – all of these choices ultimately shape and give life to a scene. Through these shots and scenes, you construct the foundation of the film.
The Director of Photography for Taxi Driver (1976), Michael Chapman, said in an interview that people should look at Taxi Driver as a kind of folktale, an urban legend. He further explained his point, saying that Taxi Driver has deeply profound implications and layers, which are left for the audience to decipher. There’s more to the film than what’s apparent on the surface such undertones not disclosed through silly exposition.
Chapman stated in an interview, “the movie portrays itself as a documentary, but it’s not. It is lit, although very minimally, but still is. It is not realistic at all. In many ways, it’s not meant to be realistic.”
The film’s lighting was deliberate and, in small amounts, only what he considered necessary. Sometimes just enough to guide the audience’s eyes, masterfully directing the attention of the spectator. As to do nothing more but enhance the mood or showcase the emotional states of the characters. Michael Chapman took a cautious approach to shoot a film that felt authentic, therefore bypassing the glitz of the Hollywood counterparts.
Tim Maurice-Jones' work, in this particular case, is highly characterized by its unique presentation of scene and photography. Each scene offers a flavorful spectrum of grit and texture brought to life by a variety of camera techniques. The picture was produced by SKA, a humble British film company, and distributed by Columbia.
The film presents obvious noir overtones due to its central theme concentrated around gangs and organized international crime. The settings, characters, and dialogue largely underline these elements. The camera work plays an inaugural role in mystifying these characters while creating a chaotic pace and edge of your seat delivery to every on-screen situation. The diversity in settings evokes a significant sense of transnationalism as if encouraging audiences to pick sides and align themselves with a particular group of mafiosos. Almost as if making you an accomplice of sorts to an antagonistic character you can't help but empathize with.
How to become a Hollywood Cinematographer
Deakins’ name, at this point, is almost synonymous with cinematography itself—due to his prolific output, countless awards, and notable collaborations. Although it’s relatively difficult to pinpoint his stylistic signatures, his ability to mold his talents to numerous genres and visual styles is irrefutable. Even he, himself, has said, “I don’t think I have a style, I have just discovered some methods that work for me…I get onto a new movie, and I feel like I’ve never done it before like I’m learning”. Perhaps this very feeling, of seeking knowledge, is what keeps him at the pinnacle of cinematography, despite his 40-year career.
Dou Ho-Fung, as he’s known in Hong Kong, stands in almost complete contrast to Deakins. Doyle has a relatively distinct style—hectic, experimental, and completely wrapped in the imperfect beauty of the everyday. He didn’t go to film school, and, believe it or not, he had received no training and only completed one short film before diving into feature films.
But Doyle is unique in most ways; leaving his family at 15, and his country at 19, he traveled across much of Asia performing odd jobs until settling as a language student in Taiwan and, like Deakins, taking up photography. His leap to feature film cinematography happened in 1983, where his close friend Edward Yang offered him the role despite his lack of experience. He recalls the relative terror and excitement of it all; “I’d never made a film before. But, as with most of his directors, Edward Yang was first a friend and a collaborator secondly, allowing communication, integrity, and clarity during chaotic filming sessions.
Alberti sits somewhere between Deakins and Doyle—her style is malleable but clear; she lacks formal training and began as a photographer and assistant. Originally from France, Alberti moved to the US, deciding to stay after a trip, and eventually settled in New York as an au pair, before turning to cinema. Her first jobs were somewhat atypical, landing roles as a still photographer for pornographic films and rock-and-roll groups. Nevertheless, she found herself surrounded by crew devoted to the medium of film, like her, trying to find a way to make it. As such, after wafting through enough sets, she nudged her way onto Vortex (1982) as the assistant to cinematographer Steven Fierberg, who gave her a foundational training while on the job.
Breaking down real-world examples
Specifically, the talking head interviews within the documentary. Oh, the dreaded talking heads. How do we make these better? Hopefully, they have an exciting story, but that’s out of the videography scope.
Framing: find the right eye line level, and in a true documentary, fashion place the subject on the rule of thirds line, but don’t be afraid to break the rules when appropriate. Go against the grain when it adds to the story. Remember, camera placement and angles can change perspectives and enhance the story.
Symmetry vs. Asymmetry
Symmetry: balances the objects in the scene, appears stable and reliable, but can be boring.
Asymmetry: the frame is more volatile and exciting, but can be distracting.
Can’t emphasize this enough; it’s ok to break conventional framing rules for the sake of the story and a more engaging shot. Heck with a location like an example below you’d be wise to make use of it.
On the example above, the character is much smaller within the frame, and the amount of headroom is massive. Very rarely do we leave this much air (head-room), but it can work. From a narrative standpoint, this framing makes the speaker smaller within the frame, which psychologically can supplement a story of a person feeling lost or insignificant in a vast world or perhaps just talking about something bigger than themselves.
“Don’t use conventional framing if more interesting options are available.”
A little history on camera movement: The first film cameras were fastened directly to the head of a tripod or other support, with only the crudest kind of leveling devices provided, in the manner of the still-camera tripod heads of the period. The earliest film cameras were thus effectively fixed during the shot, and hence the first camera movements were the result of mounting a camera on a moving vehicle. The first known of these was a film shot by a Lumière cameraman from the back platform of a train leaving Jerusalem in 1896, and by 1898, there were several films shot from moving trains. Although listed under the general heading of “panoramas” in the sales catalogs of the time, those films shot straight forward from in front of a railway engine were usually specifically referred to as “phantom rides”.
In 1897, Robert W. Paul had the first real rotating camera head made to put on a tripod, so that he could follow the passing processions of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in one uninterrupted shot. This device had the camera mounted on a vertical axis that could be rotated by a worm gear driven by turning a crank handle, and Paul put it on general sale the next year. Shots taken using such a “panning” head were also referred to as “panoramas” in the film catalogs of the first decade of the cinema. This eventually led to the creation of a panoramic photo as well.
Subtle camera movements can change the complete dynamics of a scene.
List of commonly used camera movements:
Pan: left or right horizontal camera movements.
Tilt: moves the camera up or down vertically.
Pedastal: lifting the camera to a higher level, usually extending the tripod legs as opposed to the tilt which functions with the tripod head.
Gimbal/stabilizer: allows you to fly freely. Great for tracking shots.
Dolly: dollying is setting the camera on top of a base that runs on tracks. It provides steady, smooth shots.
Crane: the crane is excellent for overhead perspectives and sweeping shots.
Handheld: in the right situation, a chaotic handheld shot can be the best option for the narrative.
Rack-focus: switching the focus from one subject to another to signify a switch in importance within the scene.
Zoom: switching the focal length moves in or out on a subject creating a distinct movement effect.
Notes on camera movement
Try to maintain the composition style when there is motion
Closed frames should stay closed
Open frames should remain open
Common bad camera work
The asymmetric frame becomes symmetric
The symmetric frame becomes asymmetric
On average music, video editors introduce a new image every three seconds meaning music videos require plenty of B-roll.
B-roll: In film and television production, B-roll, B roll, B-reel, or B reel is supplemental or alternative footage intercut with the main shot. The term A-roll referring to the main footage has fallen out of usage.
Get creative, use colors, light, shadows, silhouettes, camera angles, and camera movement. The great thing about music videos is that you can flex all your creative desires. Visual rhythm is significant on music videos, and editors need the right shots to edit in post-production.
Videographers wear lots of hats during the production of music videos. They are frequently playing the role of director and even screenwriter. While some music videos seem like a chaotic explosion of random scenes, they usually work well when there’s a storyline in place. To be explicit non-linear chaotic videos are ok as continuity is not a constricting factor within music videos, but a little narrative never hurts anyone.
Regardless of story or narrative, we find that the more engaging music videos usually find ways to photograph emotions weaving within it a web of faces, expressions, and desires. Often, the spectator is helpless over the hypnotic emotions, and engagement is inevitable.
DISCLAIMER: video commercials tend to have a pristine look. Achieving such a clean, well-lit scene requires the support of a video crew.
Let’s use the dollar shave club commercial as an example for our analysis. The video commercial will genuinely tickle your funny bone. It was written/acted by the founder of the company Michael Dubin who interestingly enough has some background in comedy improv.
The videographer/cinematographer used an assortment of angles and camera movements to progress the narrative while enhancing the comedic effect.
45-degree camera switches
Tracking shots (gimbal + post stabilization)
Focus pulling (follow focus)
Made use of available light
Made use of open spaces and depth
Re-framing (medium to medium-wide)
Videographer used camera pans to reveal comedic bits
Played with camera angles and character positioning
This commercial shun a national spotlight on the company granted most of it was due to the concept and delivery. Still, the camera operator played a hand in getting the right shots to convey the intended emotions.
Was the commercial shot flawlessly? No, but who cares? It’s good enough, given the limitations. It was produced on a budget of $4,500, which in the production world is a semi anemic budget.
The commercial has technical flaws, such as what seems to be jitters from post-production stabilization. It is possible the videographer was unable to get a stable enough tracking shot and needed help in post-production. The issue occurs several times during the sequences with camera movement. There were also some focusing issues, but again nothing major. We would take these issues any day over a boring locked off shot. This commercial simply required the dynamics of movement. Excellent job dollar shave cinematographer!
12,000 ORDERS in 48HRS | How to make a VIRAL COMMERICAL? | Breaking down the DOLLAR SHAVE COMMERICAL
Choosing Your Lens
Samyang’s Cine Lens series has been gaining popularity among videographers due to its reasonable price range. The 14mm T3.1 Cine Lens boasts a 115.7° ultra-wide-angle field of view when paired with a full-frame or 35mm camera. It features a de-clicked aperture as well as industry-standard gears on both focus and aperture rings to allow for follow focus systems. Its maximum aperture of T3.1 makes it perfect for low-light situations.
The 24mm is quite popular and a highly used cinema lense. On a full-frame camera, it provides a wide-angle view of 84° while on APS-C sensors, you get 57.6° equivalent to a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera.
The cheapest lens on this list, the Yongnuo YN 50mm II Prime Lens, is well-regarded for producing roughly the same image quality as its closest counterpart, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens, at almost half the price. With a maximum aperture of f/1.8 and a minimum focusing distance of 35 cm, this lens offers better controls on the depth of field while achieving great bokeh and creamy out of focus backgrounds. It enjoys a 46° angle of view as well as autofocus capabilities.
For portrait and product shoots, videographers can’t go wrong with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8mm lens. This short telephoto prime lens features a maximum aperture of f/1.8, allowing one to work in shallow depth of field (minimum focus distance of 85 cm) as well as in low light. Lens flare and ghosting is diminished due to its Super Spectra coating, which also heightens contrast and color accuracy. It also has a built-in autofocus system.
The Rokinon Cine DS 135 mm medium telephoto lens is one of the most sought-after lenses in portrait and event videography. Its T2.2 maximum aperture with a minimum focus distance of 79 cm makes it a dream for portrait videographers. At the same time, its long focal length allows event videographers to cover the action at a distance without losing sharpness. Although pricier than the other lenses on this list, the Rokinon Cine DS 135 mm lens is a flawless, multifunctional lens that aspiring videographers should consider.
How the pros use lenses
Like many other creative choices on a film set, the cinematographer’s decision on what lens to use can shape the way an audience interprets a film. For instance, the focal length of a lens can dramatically alter the way we experience things onscreen. An ultra-wide-angle lens creates warping and misrepresents characters, presenting them with a cartoonish look. In contrast, a standard lens conveys naturalism as it mirrors the perspective of the human eye. Telephoto lenses mimic the view from a telescope or binoculars, making this lens a standby for films about surveillance or voyeurism. Great cinematographers, however, can use different focal lengths for various situations, thus enriching their movies. So let’s dive into several examples of cinematographers using wide-angle, standard, and telephoto lenses in uniquely creative ways.
Wide Angle Lens (35mm and lower)
Most filmgoers recognize the distortion effects of the ultra-wide-angle or fisheye lens. It characteristically exaggerates depth, which makes the foreground seem unnaturally large, and the background falls off at an abnormal distance, all while bulging the edges of the frame. Russell Metty’s work on Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which was filmed almost entirely on an 18mm lens, takes advantage of the lens’ distortion to lend the film a nightmarish atmosphere. Directors like Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Terry Gilliam – whose trademark use of the 14mm lens has led other filmmakers to call it “The Gilliam Lens” – have also used the ultra-wide angle lens to heighten the otherworldly aspect of their films.
Standard lens (35mm – 70mm)
The standard lens, especially the 40mm and 50mm lens, is a favorite among cinematographers for its removal of distortion and its reputation for being the most accurate representation of human vision. The legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis was the most famous proponent of the 40mm lens, also known as the “Gordy Forty” as a tribute to Willis. The late Willis had a clear preference for the 40mm lens, but even he would hesitate to call it a one-size-fits-all solution. Willis’s inclination for the 40mm lens was simple; it produced a natural-looking picture that would not rob any attention from the story. In this sense, Willis was a classicist, and in his masterpiece The Godfather, he’s able to maintain a level of visual consistency, a purity of sorts, by filming scenes strictly at eye-level through the use of the 40mm lens. Willis wanted his work to be inconspicuous, in total service of the story, and it ironically turned him into an icon.
Telephoto Lens (70mm and higher)
If wide-angle lenses distort images through exaggerated depth, then telephoto lenses distort images by flattening space, seemingly compressing background and foreground together. Telephoto lenses are usually reserved for particular situations – such as binocular shots – because of their ability to magnify action from a distance. However, the shallow depth of field and softness of these lenses makes them the perfect tool for abstract compositions.
No mainstream director used the telephoto lens with such bravado as the late Tony Scott, who rarely allowed his cinematographers to use a lens with a focal length lower than 100mm. Scott and his cinematographer Tobias Schliessler shot As seen in The Taking of Pelham 123, primarily on 135mm-420mm and 24mm-275mm zoom lenses, as to exploit the lens rack-focus capabilities. The cinema duo locked in these lenses for their capacity to produces a parallax effect during camera movements, giving this scene an electric kineticism impossible without the telephoto lens.
Brief History of Video Cameras
As cinematographers, we are certainly more than whatever equipment we have available to us. However, we should not, for a moment, underestimate the endless ways our camera equipment defines how we work and conceptualize our craft. If we suggested to the Lumière brothers an underwater shoot, using remotely controlled equipment, they would laugh in our faces. But if we showed them, it would have opened their eyes to the fantastic video production gear that is available today. Of course, this innovation extends far beyond the camera, but that is our focus today; cameras themselves and their recording form