Cinematography is so important in film that sometimes a plot can be weak, but the camera work, lighting, and other visual elements make for a pleasing experience for viewers. This aspect of film is especially important for people who are interested in a more painterly style of filmmaking. In general, the key elements of cinematography are: exposure, shot size, camera angle, camera movement, composition, type of lens, depth of field, and white balance. In the following paragraphs, these fundamentals will be explored.
Basically, exposure refers to the amount of light picked up by the camera. According to the website Elements of Cinema, there are three types of exposure: “An image is said to represent normal exposure when it is similar to what the eye sees. Overexposure happens when too much light is reflected into the camera, rendering an image that is brighter than normal exposure. Underexposure is the opposite: not much light enters the camera, thus creating a dark image” (“Elements of Cinematography”). All of these types of exposure are used to convey certain moods, scenes, and ideas.
In general, shot size means how much of the scene is included in the frame, and deals with what the camera is focusing on. As stated by the website Learn About Film, “It’s important to use different shot sizes in your movie. It’s a way of spelling things out, to make sure that people see exactly the things you want them to see. If you shoot everything in long shot (head to foot) people will probably miss details and expressions which would help them understand the story” (“Introduction to Shot Size in Filmmaking”). By adjusting the shot size, you can show the setting, introduce people, give close-ups, transition between shots, and demonstrate a change in position.
It is important where the camera is placed in connection to its scene and characters, as it shows the mood of what is happening and how the audience views what is happening. According to Elements of Cinema, “Whereas shot sizes direct who and what we see, camera angles affect how we perceive it. Is a character going to appear dominant and tall? Or short and weak? A strong weapon in the cinematographer’s arsenal is the ability to position the camera in relation to the subject or scenery” (“Elements of Cinematography”). So, the angle of the camera can drastically change the perception of viewers.
How the camera moves can not only change the perception of viewers, but it can also suggest the pace and emotion of a scene. According to the Beat, a production blog, “You can use movement to guide the audience through the scene, slowly revealing certain people or objects in order to create suspense — or simply control the pacing of the scene” (Mccullagh, John). Therefore, a stagnant camera will create monotony and should express the way the plot is progressing.
This refers to the way a scene is set and framed to make it artistic and appealing. Filmmakers borrowed ideas from photography and painting for these concepts. For example, “lead room” refers to when a character is looking left, and because of this, the person should be placed to the right to make the framing comfortable. Another classic principle of composition is the rule of thirds, where, as Elements of Cinematography says, “…one must imagine the frame with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, as to create three vertical sections of the same dimensions and three vertical sections also of the same size” (“Elements of Cinematography”). This is done to make the frame comfortable for the human eye to view.
There are various lenses on cameras that filmmakers employ for a multitude of purposes. For instance, zoom lenses are standard lenses that are used when camera tricks and effects are not being set. Prime lenses cannot zoom in or out, but the image quality of these lenses are much higher than the zoom variety. Onto telephoto lenses, they are effective for showing fine detail. The opposite is a wide-angle lens, which sufficiently supplies sweeping panoramas and broad fields of view (“Elements of Cinematography”).
It is the area in front of the camera that is sharp in the frame. Adjusting the focus of the camera will change this aspect. The aperture, focal length, and focal distance of the camera creates different effects that convey mood and selective focus (“Elements of Cinematography”).
Essentially, white balance is the process of taking out unrealistic colors that are being cast. Different sources of light can come into play in a shot, and as a filmmaker, you have to decide which type of light source to focus on. For example, you have a room with light from the sun and light from bulbs. Each of these lights will be shown as a different color or “color temperature” on screen. Therefore, it is important to know which light source to focus in terms of the color that is emitted.
These are the extreme basics of cinematography, but a solid starting point in knowing how to work one’s head around the subject. Exposure, shot size, camera angle, camera movement, composition, type of lens, depth of field, and white balance all are tools for filmmakers to employ to convey mood, focus, pace, importance of certain elements in the frame, and more.
“Elements of Cinematography.” Elements of Cinematography | Shot Sizes, Camera Angles, Exposure, and More, www.elementsofcinema.com/cinematography/elements_of_cinematography.html.
“Introduction to Shot Size in Filmmaking.” Learn about Film, learnaboutfilm.com/film-language/picture/shotsize/.
Mccullagh, John. “Cinematography Tip: Working with Motivated Camera Movement.” The Beat: A Blog by PremiumBeat, Shutterstock Premium Beat, 10 Jan. 2019, www.premiumbeat.com/blog/cinematography-tip-motivated-camera-movement/.