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What Is Cinematography?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cinematography is the art of capturing images during the creation of motion pictures. In the past, artists working as cinematographers generally relied almost exclusively on cameras that captured footage on film, but over time, video capture technology has become more advanced, and as a result, many films are also made with high-definition digital cameras and other similar devices. The main focus of cinematography is capturing images for movies that are both beautiful and powerful in the way they drive narrative. When it comes to the visual design of a film, the cinematographer is usually a close collaborator with the film's director, and is generally the second highest ranked person in most movie crews.

The abilities needed in the field of cinematography are somewhat similar to those needed in still photography, but there are also many differences. The camera and the actors often move around while a shot is being captured, so lighting across a whole scene and manipulation of the camera during moving sequences are both crucially important aspects. There are also many tools, such as camera dollies, that a cinematographer must fully understand, and these things aren't used in still photography.

Even though cinematography is the art of capturing imagery for a movie, the cinematographer himself is not necessarily the main person responsible for the way a movie looks. In many cases, the director is equally or even more responsible. Often, the director may choose the angles and camera movements in a movie, while the cinematographer focuses on lighting and camera lenses or other technical aspects. The dynamics of this relationship can vary quite a lot depending on the particular skills of the director. Some directors know very little about camerawork, so they mostly focus on working with actors; others might have more knowledge of cinematography and collaborate much more closely on the visual aspects of the movie.

There are many different ways for a cinematographer to affect the way an audience feels about a movie scene. Small changes in lighting, manipulation of the colors in the frame, and subtle adjustments of lenses and focus can all play a role in creating emotions. Sometimes the techniques of cinematography can be very flashy and noticeable, leading to movies that are notably unusual in a visual sense, but sometimes they are very subtle and naturalistic, often to the point where the audience doesn't even become aware of the visual manipulation.

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Discussion Comments
By anon994780 — On Mar 06, 2016

Cinematography is such an art that can make an average film watchable. We all appreciate variety in any kind of art and in film, and we can watch the same film over again just for the visual pleasure it gives.

I especially enjoy Hitchcock for his camera angles and atmosphere.

It's like using a camera the way an artist uses his brush.

By anon328778 — On Apr 05, 2013

I agree. One example of cinematography I really admired and enjoyed was in a music video called "Green Garden" by Laura Mvula. I'm not sure who the director and cinematographer were who made it, but I really thought it made for an interesting and visually appealing music video that really suited the mood, especially with the lighting and white balance also used.

By MrSmirnov — On Sep 29, 2011

@lonelygod - If you want to view the work of some of the best cinematographers I would suggest taking a peek at some cinematography magazines as they often feature the work of a particular cinematographer, alongside all of the technical stuff and industry related news.

For myself, my favorite modern examples of cinematography include some of the Academy Award winners in history. The movie I will recommend you should watch first is by Guillermo Navarro. Pan's Labyrinth is a fantastic example of really dark and beautiful cinematography. I have to say the lighting, and way this movie was filmed really make it the masterpiece it is.

By lonelygod — On Sep 28, 2011

Can anyone think of some really impressive examples of the best cinematography that you would recommend?

I am a huge movie fan, but have mostly been watching mainstream blockbuster releases for most of my life, and I would really like to try and branch out and start watching some more interesting and visually striking films.

I am open to just about any genre, and am up for catching foreign films as well. Right now I have started out by sampling some of Oliver Stone's work, as I've been repeatedly told that he consistently has some of the best cinematography out there.

By whiteplane — On Sep 28, 2011

A lot of time the director gets credit for the look and style of a film but in many cases it is the cinematographer that is responsible for these aesthetics.

Directors are more like managers while the cinematographer thinks only about artistry. It is really an impressive and under appreciated job.

By Mammmood — On Sep 27, 2011

@Charred - I think cinematographer jobs have to be the most creative and enjoyable jobs around. That’s for one simple reason: no two jobs are ever alike.

You get to work in all sorts of production environments and different projects, from TV commercials to movies and film. At the same time, you would have to be very technical too.

You would need to learn to use advanced camera gear and be proficient with it, so that you can be nimble as needed to move around in a scene or a setting.

By Charred — On Sep 26, 2011

@miriam98 - I love going to the movies and watching how the scenes are shot. I do recognize aspects from still photography like you said, and frankly, I think the really beautiful films are shot as if each frame of the movie is a standalone photo.

That’s why they have tons of crew to help out with light, set design, color coordination and so forth. It’s a far cry from the average home movie’s “point and shoot” approach to filming.

I also like watching the motion shots, where the camera moves in on its subject or descends from on high to swoop in for an aerial shot. I look at those shots and think to myself, I have to get me one of those camera cranes! The motion is so smooth and seamless.

By everetra — On Sep 26, 2011

@miriam98 - If you want to learn more you should probably look into getting into wedding cinematography.

I wouldn’t sell your services just yet, but see if you can volunteer to help out an existing cinematographer who needs the occasional aid of a freelance video specialist. I wouldn’t worry about getting paid. Just learn to use the camera.

The reason I recommend wedding work is that light, composition and sound are the dominant factors that make or break a good wedding video. We all have heard horror stories about weddings where the bride and groom hired a “friend” to shoot the wedding video, and the results were horrible.

For something as important as a wedding, you need professionals who have been doing it for awhile. I guarantee you that what you will learn will increase skills in video a hundred fold.

By miriam98 — On Sep 25, 2011

I bought a high end digital camcorder some years ago with the aspiration to someday shoot my own independent movies.

I never went to film school so I had to get my own cinematography training by watching movies and taking some classes. The stuff you learn in class is very useful, and some of it borrows from the same ideas you learn from still photography.

For example they taught us about the “rule of thirds,” which is where the screen is divided up into thirds. You use these visual divisions to help frame the image so that the shot is most visually appealing.

We also learned basic stuff like wide shots, close up, medium close up and things like that.

With that bit of knowledge my friends and I got together and put together a simple ten minute movie.

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