What is Cinematography? Definition & Examples

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

Cinematography is the art of motion-picture photography—that is, recording moving images of an action in front of a camera. To a filmmaking layperson, a cinematographer is a fancy Hollywood term for a cameraman. Yet cinematography as visual storytelling includes all visual elements and defines how the result looks and feels to the audience. Because of costly equipment and extra crew, it is a big budget item for any television or film production. So let’s take an in-depth look at a cinematographer’s job and the elements of cinematography with examples!

What is cinematography?

Cinematography is the art form of visual storytelling through motion picture photography. It includes all visual elements on screen for both television production and motion pictures. The actual cinematographic work for a three-camera sitcom on set can appear more static than filming a movie on location, but cinematography always revolves around translating the director’s vision into the composition of each shot.

Cinematography involves technique and highly technical skills around photography and camera work, optics, lighting, film stock, movement, and even special effects. To become a cinematographer, film students typically pursue a degree in photography or cinematography and gather experience and knowledge on film production sets. The degree programs of most film schools offer a general overview of filmmaking, including cinematography techniques.

The American Society of Cinematographers is a professional organization that was founded in 1919 in Los Angeles to advance the art. It’s not a guild or union but gives out cinematography awards. Members receive the credit ASC after their name. The British Society of Cinematographers is an equivalent credited as BSC.

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Cinematography in the film production process

Filmmaking goes through development, pre-production, production (also known as shooting or principal photography) and post-production. The cinematographer's contribution to the film production process is integral and may touch all stages to capture the director’s vision. However, the bulk of the actual work in cinematography for the camera crew and department will take place during filming.

What does a cinematographer do?

The cinematographer works closely with the director to establish the look and visual style of a film. They’re in charge of the camera crew and lighting crew. They can select and direct a camera operator - though, on a low-budget production, the cinematographer might also be the cameraman. Director of Photography, or DP for short, is another title for a cinematographer.

Pre-production

A cinematographer’s job on a film production begins before any shooting takes place. Typical tasks in this phase are:

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    Create production material: The cinematographer collaborates with the director, production designer and art department leads to establish the visual storytelling of the film. This can involve designs around visual style, tone, color and look. They will contribute to material such as look books, mood boards and storyboards.
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    Locations: With on-location shoots, the cinematographer will assist during location scouting and might conduct tests around lighting, camera setup and space.
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    Equipment: The cinematographer will communicate with producers and the director to make equipment choices around cameras, lenses, filters, film stock, and even special effects.
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    Crew: A director of photography needs to rely on a skilled and trustworthy team, so they want to be involved in decisions around the camera and lighting crews. Crew members that interact closely with cinematographers are the cameraman or camera operator, the first and second assistant, the gaffer, and the key grip.

Principal photography and post-production

The cinematographer’s job during shooting includes the following responsibilities:

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    Shooting: On set, the cinematographer instructs the camera and lighting crews and decides on composition, framing and exposure for shots and scenes. For the choice of techniques, they will consult with the director.
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    Review: The director of photography will review the unedited footage of each day, called the dailies, with the director to ensure cinematographic continuity and the director’s vision.
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    Grading: During color grading in post-production, the cinematographer will work with the colorists on the palette of the film.
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    Special effects: The cinematographer might advise on special effects, either during photography so that effects align with the visual style and don’t overexpose a shot, for example, or during post-production.

Storyboards and shot lists in cinematography

Storyboards created during pre-production help the director, the cinematographer, and the entire production team visualize what each scene will look like. They provide a visual guideline for principal photography and the capture of each shot, and are often essential in saving time and staying on budget.

Storyboards inform the shot lists of a production. The crew will group shots in the same location, with the same or similar setup and identical angles so that the cinematographer can get them in an optimized way. Shot lists need to consider logistical details from nearly all departments to achieve continuity and availability of everyone involved in each shot.

Examples: What are cinematography techniques and elements?

The artistic choices around the visual style of a film and the technical knowledge and skills of motion picture photography come together in the art form of cinematography techniques. These examples summarize the elements.

Camera

The cinematographer decides which camera equipment serves the needs of the film production best. A low-budget production will have to make economic choices, whereas a blockbuster has a wide range of options regarding the type of camera or cameras.

Camera lenses affect the look of a film with focus, zoom effects and visual qualities. Lens choices might go along with filters, which can help achieve a certain look by highlighting or blocking colors or diffusing light. Lenses and filters for a shot will also depend on lighting conditions.

Film stock has a production cost of its own as the physical medium and the development of film, especially in large format, are expensive. Digital formats can have an associated look of their own and facilitate production, for example through an all-digital workflow.

Camera placement

The distance between the camera and the action unfolding in front of it has a tremendous impact on how the audience will perceive the scene and interpret its meaning. The camera placement can give a sense of intimacy, emotional distance, claustrophobia, importance, coincidence, pressure, closeness, and emotional weight, and subtly influence how viewers will position themselves in relation to what they’re seeing.

Camera movement

Similar to distance, a static or moving camera will affect how the audience will follow the action. Camera movement decides what stays in the frame and what is cropped out when a lot is happening at once. Cinematographers will often use moving cameras for dramatic effect and to give an overview, for example in an establishing shot.

A tracking or panning shot is moving sideways to capture a landscape or follow a character. If the motion happens on a dolly track, typically towards or away from the action, the term dolly shot applies, though these two are often used interchangeably. A cinematographer might also use a crane, heli-cam or drone for moving overhead shots and aerial views.

Steadicam technology allows the capturing of smooth-moving shots, either with a hand-held camera or a camera stabilizer attached to the camera operator’s waist. Steadicam filming enables the cameraperson to move around freely and spontaneously, especially in confined spaces. It’s often used for continuous shots, improvised action, and POV or over-the-shoulder shots.

Composition

Shot composition refers to the framing of each shot. Essentially, the cinematographer decides which elements will be inside or outside the frame. This plays a role in giving the audience information, what they know and when they know it as the scene unfolds. For example, shot composition can subtly show a detail to viewers that the character misses, or it can crop out the character’s immediate surroundings to keep the audience guessing what is happening or about to happen.

Focus

After deciding what’s in a shot, the cinematographer can then choose what to focus on. A layperson might assume that focus merely refers to sharp or blurry images, but in a shot, hardly all elements are equally in focus. The depth of field decides how deep the focus in a shot can be.

A shift in focus can guide the eyes of the viewers and direct attention elsewhere or show far-away objects and characters without changing the angle or shot. Blurred images or a hazy focus can show a dream sequence, a different time period, or the faint point-of-view of a character.

Lighting

The cinematographer will usually decide on a light design as part of the visual style of a film, and then rely on the Lead Lighting Technician (or gaffer for short) to execute the lighting, together with the lighting crew. The choices here affect the audience and will elicit an emotional response. Lighting influences the tone: high-key light reduces darkness and shadows in a shot and viewers associate it with comedies, romantic movies, or general upbeat scenes. Low-key lighting has the opposite effect and creates a dark, moody atmosphere used in thrillers, drama, crime, and film noir. Even when they’re not following a specific genre, cinematographers will consider lighting to influence the tone and the emotional response.

Types of shots

A cinematographer can use various camera angles and types of shots to realize the desired effect in a scene.

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    Extreme close-up: A shot framed very tightly on a single detail or even just a fraction thereof.
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    Close-up: A shot cropping in on part of an object or a character, typically a face.
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    Medium shot: Showing a character from the waist up.
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    Wide shot, long shot, or full shot: A character in relation to their surroundings.
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    Extreme long shot: Far away from the character, they are no longer visible within their surroundings.
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    Establishing shot: A shot to provide context of the setting for the scene.
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    High angle: Places the camera higher than the action.
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    Low angle: Places the camera lower than the action.
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    POV: A shot to show the action through the eyes of a character, i.e. from their point of view.
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    Single shot or long take: This technique uses long takes from a single camera to create scenes or entire films in a single or continuous shot—or to give the impression of that. The single shot can create immediacy, intimacy, a sense of urgency, constant action, breathlessness, or inevitability.
Learn more about camera shots & angles in our comprehensive guide.

Special effects

We might think of modern CGI when it comes to artificial visual effects, but special effects have been part of the visual language of filmmaking nearly from the beginning and are hardly new in filmmaking.

Cinematographers use camera effects, practical effects, or digital effects, as well as hybrids between these, such as a partial green screen, for example. Special effects are often a collaborative effort with other departments and the final shot might only come together in post-production as envisioned.

Best cinematographers

Roger Deakins is among the most critically acclaimed modern cinematographers, and cinephiles may hail him as the best of all time. He can claim 15 Academy Award nominations and two Oscar wins, including a rare Best Cinematography Oscar for a science-fiction film with Blade Runner 2049.

His work in Hollywood spans other stunning cinematography examples 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.

Aspiring directors of photography study the best cinematographers to develop their own creative and unique approaches. Here are a few names who have redefined the visual language of filmmaking in their work:

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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 published a list of one hundred milestone films in cinematography in the 20th century. It commemorates inspirational and influential movies, representing a range of styles across eras by the best cinematographers. While the rest of the list is unranked and in order of release, these are the top ten titles:

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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

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