by Nick Murray

  1. Read, Talk, Look, and Think. Read the script, talk to the director, look at the actual locations, and think about what will work on this project. The sooner you start thinking about a project, the more likely you will end up with a powerful look.
  1. Composition, Lighting, Camera Position, and Movement. Success as a cinematographer depends on mastery of composition, lighting, and camera position and movement. There is an interplay between each and you need to understand how changing one effects the others.
  1. Pre-Light. When you have advanced control of the locations and you have the equipment you need, pre-light every scene that you can. Setting lights is often the most time consuming part of a location move. When you can do it in advance, you have more time to evaluate the lighting, it allows you to focus on camera placement and shot composition as soon as actors become available, and it makes the entire shooting schedule more efficient.
  1. Experiment. There is no substitute for actually moving the lights from one set up to an alternative set up and turning the lights on. It takes more work than just thinking about alternatives, but actually moving the lights consistantly leads to better results.
  1. Subtle and Realistic. Nothing is worse than a scene that the audience knows is being lit artificially. Make your lighting subtle and realistic. Everything the audience sees is the work of the cinematographer – but the cinematographer should always be unseen.
  1. Practice and Test. Take a still frame from some of the films you admire most and try to replicate it or improve on it. Reverse engineering makes you a better cinematographer.
  1. Bounce Available Light. A bounce board or reflector is an invaluable tool for creating a subtle fill light or for adding light to a subject when power is unavailable or inconvenient.
  1. Color Balance. Begining cinematographers are often quick to focus on the intensity and direction of light, but are slow to master working with light color. Different types of lighting sources (e.g., fluorescent, incandescent, LEDs) have different color light. A good cinematographer needs to use the internal camera settings and gels on the lights to control color and white balance.
  1. Back to Front. Try composing and lighting scenes back to front. Most often the subject is in the front of the scene (and is most important). If you light the front first, when you add lights to the back you may be effectig the front lights already set. You are changing the most important lights with secondary lights. If you light back to front, the last lights to be set will be the most important.
  1. Neutral Density Filters. Specific focal length lenses and aperture settings effect the depth of field in your shots. When shooting in bright sunlight and seeking more depth of field, ND filters are essential to reduce the light present to allow for use of a wider aperture (and greater depth of field).

Nick Murray is a National Gold Addy Award Winner and an IFA member. Hit him up at nsmurray@cox.net.