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What is Cinematography? Definition & Examples

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

Cinematography, at its essence, is the craft of bringing stories to life through the lens of a camera, capturing the dynamism and drama of narratives in motion. While the term 'cinematographer' might sound like glitzy jargon for 'cameraman' to those unfamiliar with the film industry, the role is actually one of a visual storyteller who orchestrates every aesthetic aspect that appears on screen, meticulously shaping the visual style of the production.

From the mood-infused play of lights and shadows to the strategic selection of shots and angles, cinematography is the language through which movies speak, immersing audiences in worlds both tangible and fantastical. Despite being a significant line item in film and television budgets, due to the high costs of sophisticated equipment and specialized crew, the value it brings to a production is unparalleled.

Join us as we delve into the intricacies of a cinematographer’s job and explore the multifaceted components of cinematography with real-world examples!

What is cinematography?

Cinematography is more than meets the eye: it's the art and science of telling stories through moving images. This encompasses everything you see on screen, from your favorite TV shows to blockbuster movies. Consider the difference between a sitcom filmed on a set with multiple cameras — it might seem less dynamic compared to a movie shot on various locations. But at its core, cinematography is about one thing: turning the director's vision into a visual narrative, shot by shot.

But there's a catch — it's not just about knowing how to use a camera. Cinematography requires a robust blend of technical skills, encompassing photography, understanding of camera mechanics, mastery in lighting, a keen eye for detail with film stock, creating fluid motion, and the ability to integrate special effects when necessary. Aspiring cinematographers often start their journey with a degree in photography or film, usually complemented by real-world experience on film sets. Film schools tend to offer a comprehensive introduction to the world of filmmaking, with a special emphasis on the nuts and bolts of cinematography.

There's also a prestigious circle known as the American Society of Cinematographers, established in 1919. Based in Los Angeles, this organization isn't a guild or union, but it plays a vital role in advancing the art of cinematography, offering awards and the distinguished 'ASC' title for members. Across the pond, there's the British Society of Cinematographers, serving a similar purpose with the 'BSC' accreditation.

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Cinematography in the film production process

In terms of the filmmaking process, it's a journey that includes several stages: development, pre-production, the hustle and bustle of production (that's the actual filming), and finally, post-production.

A cinematographer's role is crucial throughout all these phases, ensuring the director's vision is brought to life. However, it's during production that the cinematography team really kicks into high gear, working tirelessly to capture every moment through the lens. That's cinematography for you — a pivotal, fascinating aspect of the filmmaking process.

What does a cinematographer do?

So, what exactly does a cinematographer do?

Often working in tandem with the director, a cinematographer, also known as the Director of Photography or DP, is the visual architect behind a film. They orchestrate the camera and lighting crews, shaping the film's aesthetic from a mere concept to the striking images you see on screen. In smaller productions, you might even find the cinematographer doubling as the camera operator.


Before the camera starts rolling, the cinematographer is already knee-deep in preparation. Here’s what they’re up to:

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    Building the Visual Foundation: Working alongside the director, production designer, and art department heads, the cinematographer co-creates the film's visual style. This includes brainstorming over the film’s style, tone, and color palette, often materializing ideas through look books, mood boards, and storyboards.
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    Locations: When filming is set to occur on location, the cinematographer plays a crucial role in scouting prospective sites, conducting practical tests to assess lighting conditions, camera positioning, and overall spatial dynamics.
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    Equipment: In consultation with the producers and director, the cinematographer makes critical decisions about the technical arsenal required for the project, deciding the camera setup, selecting specific cameras, lenses, filters, film stock, and even special effects tools.
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    Assembling the crew: The backbone of every great cinematographer is their team. They're instrumental in choosing their camera crew and lighting crew, including key personnel like the camera operator, assistants, gaffer, and key grip.

Principal photography and post-production

Once production commences, the cinematographer's role shifts into high gear:

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    Shooting: On set, it's action time — the cinematographer directs the camera movement, camera angles, lighting setups, and shot composition, continuously collaborating with the director to ensure each scene is visually captivating.
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    Review: After a day’s shoot, they huddle with the director to review the footage, known as "dailies," guaranteeing consistency and alignment with the film's intended narrative.
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    Grading: Post-production sees the cinematographer collaborating closely with colorists to finesse the film's final look during the color grading process.
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    Special effects: The cinematographer provides critical input on special effects, safeguarding the film's visual style and preventing any technical faux pas, like overexposure, during both the filming and post-production stages.

Storyboards and shot lists in cinematography

In the world of cinematography, storyboards are the visual blueprints that guide the director, cinematographer, and essentially the whole production ensemble. They're pivotal in pre-visualizing each scene, ensuring an efficient and budget-friendly shoot.

These storyboards breathe life into detailed shot lists, which streamline the filming process. By clustering similar shots — those in the same locale or with identical setups and angles — the team can shoot more efficiently. These comprehensive lists are logistical masterpieces, coordinating inputs from various departments to ensure smooth sailing for each scene's capture. They're the cinematographer's playbook, essential for maintaining continuity and orchestrating the intricate ballet of characters and elements within every shot.

Cinematography techniques and elements

Cinematography is a perfect combination of artistic flair and technical prowess, a field where the cinematographer's deep knowledge of motion pictures comes together in an array of visual storytelling techniques.

Let’s unravel these elements and understand how they play a pivotal role in bringing a film to life.


The camera is the cinematographer's paintbrush, and choosing the right one is crucial. Budget often plays a role in this decision, pushing low-budget productions to make the most out of limited resources, while blockbusters enjoy a vast range of options.

The camera setup, including the body and additional equipment, is integral to achieving the desired visual outcome. Camera lenses are the secret sauce to a film’s visual flavor, with focus, zoom effects, and distinct visual elements at their disposal. Filters can enhance this further, manipulating colors and light to achieve a specific look. Using a particular set of camera lenses can dramatically alter the aesthetic and feel of a film, playing a critical role in visual storytelling and helping to immerse the audience in the world on screen.

And when it comes to capturing all of this, it's the cinematographer's job to decide between the tangible qualities of film stock and the convenience of digital formats, each with their unique impacts on production costs and workflow.

Camera placement

Mastering camera placement is an essential aspect of cinematography, going beyond just finding the right angle. It’s an intricate art form that deeply influences how viewers perceive and interpret a scene. The cinematographer's role is crucial here—they have to think critically about what the scene demands, whether it's a sense of closeness, an oppressive atmosphere, or a need for emotional detachment.

A savvy cinematographer or camera operator will know how to harness the power of camera placement to enhance the storytelling, using it as a tool to convey unspoken aspects of the narrative, manipulate the mood, and guide the audience’s emotional journey through the scene. They must have a keen understanding of spatial relationships and know how to exploit them to create a more impactful and memorable cinematic experience. In essence, mastering camera placement is about using space and perspective to bring a film’s story to life in the most compelling way possible.

Camera movement

Camera movement introduces a dynamic element to cinematography, shaping the story by strategically choosing what appears in each frame and what remains unseen. From grand, sweeping panoramic shots that take in vast landscapes or intricate settings, to an extreme close-up that captures the subtlest emotions on a character’s face, each camera movement is a deliberate, calculated decision aimed at bolstering the story.

The range of techniques available is vast, with a tracking shot keeping pace with the action and maintaining a continuous focus on moving subjects. A dolly shot can create a sense of depth and perspective by moving the camera toward or away from the focal point, while Steadicam shots can add a layer of smooth, unrestricted movement, capturing complex sequences with grace and fluidity. Incorporating a camera stabilizer in these movements ensures that regardless of the dynamism of the shot, the visual remains steady and polished. Together, these techniques empower the cinematographer to guide the audience’s gaze, seamlessly weaving visual elements into the rich tapestry of the narrative. In this way, camera movement becomes an expressive tool, allowing the cinematographer to manipulate time and space, and ultimately shape the viewer's emotional journey through the film.


Shot composition refers to the framing of each shot, in which the cinematographer decides what to include or leave out of every frame. This process goes beyond mere aesthetics; it’s a crucial tool for guiding the audience’s attention, shaping their perceptions, and controlling the timing of narrative revelations. Whether subtly unveiling key story details or keeping viewers in suspense, composition is a powerful element in the art of visual storytelling. The cinematographer uses this to craft a compelling visual narrative, striking a delicate balance between showing and concealing to enhance the overall cinematic experience.


Focus in cinematography goes beyond clarity; it’s a nuanced and creative tool that commands the viewer’s attention, subtly directing their gaze to where the story demands. The concept of depth of field is pivotal in this regard, determining the extent of the scene captured in sharp, precise focus, and influencing the audience's perception and engagement. A shallow depth of field might be employed to isolate a subject, creating intimate close-ups or highlighting crucial details, while a deeper depth of field ensures everything in the frame is in focus, perfect for vast landscapes or intricate action scenes. By manipulating focus and depth of field with skill and intention, the cinematographer crafts a visual journey, using these tools not just for aesthetic appeal, but as integral elements of visual storytelling, helping to navigate the audience’s emotions and understanding throughout the course of the film.

A masterful manipulation of depth of field allows the cinematographer to subtly shift focus within a single shot, drawing the audience’s attention from one subject to another, and thereby enhancing the narrative flow and emotional impact of the scene.


Lighting plays a critical role in setting the visual tone of a film production and the cinematographer decides on the appropriate lighting design. The implementation of this vision is then entrusted to the Lead Lighting Technician, or gaffer, and their skilled lighting crew. The way a scene is lit not only influences the audience's visual experience but also evokes specific emotional responses. High-key lighting, for instance, minimizes shadows and creates a brighter scene, often associated with light-hearted genres such as comedies and romantic films. Low-key lighting, on the other hand, introduces a darker, more somber atmosphere, intensifying the mood and creating depth in scenes typical of thrillers, dramas, and film noir. In employing low-key lighting a second time, a cinematographer can further manipulate these shadows and contrasts to accentuate mood and atmosphere, showcasing the power of lighting in shaping the emotional landscape of a film, regardless of genre.

Types of shots

A cinematographer can use a plethora of camera angles and types of shots to meticulously craft the desired visual impact and emotional tone of a scene in motion pictures.

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    Extreme close-up: An extreme close-up is framed very tightly on a single detail, honing in on a minute portion of the subject to draw intense focus and add dramatic emphasis.
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    Close-up: A shot that narrows in on part of an object or character, typically framing a face, to bring out subtle emotions and details crucial to the narrative
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    Medium shot: A medium shot captures a character from the waist up, striking a balance that offers a glimpse of the surroundings while keeping the focus on the character’s expressions and upper body language. The medium shot is versatile, used commonly in dialogue scenes and to maintain a connection between the character and the audience.
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    Wide shot, long shot, or full shot: This places a character in the context of their surroundings, providing a broader perspective and helping to establish a sense of space and location.
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    Extreme long shot: With an extreme long shot, the character is shown from a significant distance, to the point that they may become a small part of their surroundings or even completely engulfed by the landscape. The extreme long shot is instrumental in conveying the vastness of a setting, the isolation of a character, or the epic scale of a story.
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    Establishing shot: The establishing shot is a crucial shot that sets the stage, providing context and a sense of location for the scene, aiding in immersing the audience in the film’s world.
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    High angle: This technique places the camera above the action, creating a sense of vulnerability or insignificance, often used to diminish the subject.
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    Low angle: A low angle places the camera below the action, bestowing power and dominance to the subject, enhancing their presence on screen.
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    POV: The Point of View shot is designed to show the action through the eyes of a character, creating an immersive and personal experience for the audience.
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    Single shot or long take: This technique captures scenes or entire films in a single, uninterrupted shot—or at least gives the impression of it. It can imbue the film with a sense of immediacy, intimacy, and urgency, often used to heighten tension and draw the audience deeper into the story.

By mastering these various shots and angles, a cinematographer shapes the viewer’s experience, guiding their attention and manipulating their perceptions to serve the story.

Learn more about camera shots & angles in our comprehensive guide.

Special effects

Special effects in cinematography provide a powerful combination of illusion and storytelling, captivating audiences and bringing imaginative visions to the screen. While many today associate special effects with the digital prowess of CGI, their use in filmmaking spans back to the very early days of the film industry.

Cinematographers can choose from a wide set of tools, including in-camera tricks, practical handcrafted effects, advanced digital enhancements, and creative combinations such as partial green screen techniques. Each of these methods unlocks new storytelling possibilities, allowing filmmakers to craft worlds and experiences beyond the constraints of real life.

The integration of special effects is a collaborative effort, requiring coordination across various departments. The cinematographer plays a crucial role in this process, ensuring that the effects align with the story and contribute positively to the overall visual experience. The final, refined shot often comes together in post-production, showcasing the extensive work and attention to detail involved. This transition from initial concept to the final screen demonstrates the significant impact of special effects in cinematography, affirming their status as a crucial element of filmmaking's visual language beyond just contemporary trends.

Top cinematographers

Roger Deakins stands as a highly esteemed figure in the realm of film production, particularly in the field of cinematography. Many enthusiasts and experts in the industry consider him one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. His remarkable achievements include garnering 15 Academy Award nominations and securing two Oscar wins, notably receiving the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work on the sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

Deakins' influential career in Hollywood film production encompasses a range of visually striking films, such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 1917, Skyfall, No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Shawshank Redemption, and Fargo.

For budding directors of photography, studying the works of top-tier cinematographers like Deakins becomes essential. They seek inspiration and learn to develop their own unique and creative visual styles, contributing to the rich and diverse landscape of film production.

Here are a few names whose work has significantly redefined the visual language of filmmaking:

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    Robert Richardson: Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, The Aviator, Casino, Shutter Island, A Few Good Men
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    Emmanuel Lubezki: The Tree of Life, The Revenant, Gravity, Birdman
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    Christopher Doyle: Hero, In the Mood for Love
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    Greig Fraser: Dune, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Batman
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    Bradford Young: A Most Violent Year, Selma, Arrival, Solo: A Star Wars Story
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    Jack Cardiff: The Diary of Anne Frank, The African Queen, The Red Shoes
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    Ari Wegner: Lady Macbeth, True History of the Kelly Gang, Zola
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    Ellen Kuras: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Betrayal, P.O.V.
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    Harris Savides: Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Milk, Finding Forrester, Restless, The Game, Zodiac
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    Nancy Schreiber: Fugly!, A Short History of Decay
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    Rachel Morrison: Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope, Mudbound, Black Panther
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    Mandy Walker: Mulan, Australia, Jane Got a Gun, Hidden Figures
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Top 10 ASC milestones in cinematography

In 2019, the American Society of Cinematographers created a list, commemorating one hundred films that marked significant milestones in the art of cinematography during the 20th century. This list highlights transformative and influential works, embracing diverse stylistic approaches across different eras, all captured by some of the industry’s most esteemed cinematographers.

While most of the list is presented in an unranked fashion and follows the order of release, the top ten films have been specially distinguished:

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    Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), shot by Freddie Young, BSC
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    Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), shot by Jordan Cronenweth, ASC
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    Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
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    Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), shot by Gregg Toland, ASC
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    The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), shot by Gordon Willis, ASC
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    Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), shot by Michael Chapman, ASC
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    The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
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    Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978), shot by Néstor Almendros, ASC
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    2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC with additional photography by John Alcott, BSC
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    The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971), shot by Owen Roizman, ASC


Cinematography is the unsung hero of filmmaking, playing a vital role in storytelling, mood setting, and character development. From camera angles and movements to lighting and color, the cinematographer’s choices shape the viewer’s experience, adding depth and emotion to the story. Whether you’re a film enthusiast or simply a moviegoer, a greater appreciation for this art form can enhance your viewing experience, helping you see the magic in every frame.

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