top of page

Maty Young's beginners guide: The 3 Pillars of Cinematography (for indie filmmakers)

I'm going to say right away that being a cinematographer isn't for the faint of heart. It's a complex gig involving a truckload of work, heavy equipment, long, long days and nights and managing crews, people, places, directors and all whilst trying to stay focused and create beautiful, story-motivated frames. Imagine the film set as having three departments, camera, lighting and grip. The DP oversees them all. To be a cinematographer, you've got to be the maestro of these three elements, orchestrating them to create a visual style that fits the story like a glove.

Cramming all that information into a simple blog post isn't my aim here, instead, I'm going to give you a 101 beginner's guide on the three most crucial basics of being a cinematographer: EXPOSURE, LIGHTING & CAMERA. These are the fundamentals of the director of photography. (DP)

I.EXPOSURE essential piece of the puzzle. The camera captures images by letting light pass through a lens onto a digital sensor or film stock. The magic happens when you control how much light hits that sensor. We call this exposure. More light, brighter exposure; less light, darker exposure. It's like painting with light to set the mood. Think about comedies with their bright, cheerful look, and then imagine dark, eerie horror films. Exposure is the secret sauce that helps tell the story visually. To tweak exposure, a cinematographer has three tools in their arsenal: SHUTTER, APETURE, ISO (or film speed).

1. Shutter: Controlling Light and Motion

The shutter in a camera is akin to a gatekeeper, regulating how much light is allowed to reach the film or sensor. It's a spinning disc positioned right in front of the film gate, and its function is pivotal in determining both exposure and motion aesthetics. The shutter's primary role is to manage exposure. When you press the shutter button, the disc begins to spin, and as it rotates, it alternates between blocking and allowing light to pass through to the film or sensor. This action is measured in degrees and referred to as the shutter angle. Adjusting the shutter angle directly affects the duration of light exposure.

  • Smaller Angle, Less Light: When the shutter angle is reduced, it means the disc spends more time blocking light. This results in a darker image. This technique is often used to create a sense of urgency or tension in a scene. The reduced exposure time can make fast-moving subjects appear sharper, adding a certain crispness to the image.

  • Larger Angle, More Light: Conversely, a larger shutter angle allows more light to hit the film or sensor, producing a brighter image. This technique is commonly employed in scenes that require a sense of openness or fluidity. It can introduce a degree of motion blur, which can enhance the fluidity and smoothness of moving objects. A classic example of this is the "buttery" look of a slow-motion shot.

  • Simplify both: For achieving a natural look with optimal sharpness and motion blur in the majority of scenarios while also gaining greater control over your exposure, all you need to do is set your shutter speed to 180 degrees or 1/50. It's a simple "set and forget" approach that works effectively.

Motion Blur and Cinematic Aesthetics:

Beyond exposure control, the shutter angle also influences motion blur, a critical element in achieving a cinematic look. When the shutter angle is increased, it allows for a longer duration of light exposure on each frame. This elongated exposure time results in more pronounced motion blur, which can lend a dreamy or surreal quality to the image. It's often used artistically to convey a sense of time passing or to create a sense of visual poetry. Conversely, a smaller shutter angle reduces motion blur, making fast-moving subjects appear sharper and more defined. This technique is frequently employed in action sequences or scenes requiring a heightened sense of urgency. In essence, the choice of shutter angle is a creative decision that goes beyond mere exposure control. It shapes the visual aesthetics of a shot, impacting how the audience perceives motion and time within the narrative. BUT! remember the set-and-forget rule. 180 degrees or 1/50 for that "natural" cinematic look. It can take out the guesswork completely.

2. Aperture: The Lens's Gatekeeper

Imagine the aperture as the camera lens's iris, a variable opening that governs how much light enters the camera. This fundamental element of cinematography plays a pivotal role in exposure control and creative composition.

Exposure Control:

At its core, the aperture controls the amount of light that reaches the film or sensor. It's the size of this opening that dictates the quantity of incoming light. The aperture is measured in f-stops, and here's how it works:

  • Larger Aperture (Smaller T/F-stop Number): When the aperture widens, allowing a larger opening, more light enters the camera. This results in a brighter image. This setting is often used in low-light conditions or when you want to achieve a shallow depth of field, creating a pleasing background blur while keeping the subject sharply focused. It's a common choice for portraits or close-up shots where isolating the subject is essential.

  • Smaller Aperture (Higher T/F-stop Number): Conversely, a narrower aperture constricts the opening, allowing less light to pass through. This results in a darker image. Smaller apertures are employed when you need a deep depth of field, ensuring that objects in the foreground and background remain in focus. This is commonly used in landscape photography or scenes where intricate details throughout the frame are crucial.

Depth of Field:

The aperture also plays a significant role in controlling the depth of field. A wide aperture (small T/F-stop number) produces a shallow depth of field, isolating the subject from the background with a creamy, blurred backdrop. In contrast, a narrow aperture (high T/F-stop number) increases the depth of field, ensuring that more elements in the frame remain in sharp focus. This creative choice allows cinematographers to guide the viewer's attention and enhance storytelling.

3. ISO (Film Speed): Sensitivity to Light

ISO, often referred to as film speed, determines the sensitivity of the camera's sensor or film stock to light. Understanding ISO and its impact on exposure is crucial for achieving the desired image.

Exposure Control:

ISO is a tool that allows cinematographers to adjust the camera's sensitivity to light conditions. Lower ISO values, such as 400 (typically a cinema camera's native iso), indicate lower sensitivity to light, resulting in darker images. Higher ISO values, such as 800 or 1600, signify increased sensitivity and brighter images. This sensitivity adjustment is particularly useful in situations where changing the shutter speed or aperture might compromise the desired creative effect. An increasing number of cinema cameras are currently incorporating dual ISO technology. This innovation entails the inclusion of two distinct clean base ISO levels: a lower one, usually ranging from 400 to 800, and a higher one, typically spanning from 2500 to 5400. This feature empowers cinematographers by affording them the flexibility to capture footage with exceptional clarity at a low ISO setting, like 400, when confronted with well-lit scenarios, such as bright sunlight. Simultaneously, it enables them to achieve almost pristine results at a high ISO setting, such as 2500 and beyond, when confronted with challenging low-light conditions.

Image Quality:

While higher ISO values can provide flexibility in low-light conditions, they come with a trade-off. Increasing the ISO introduces digital noise and grain into the image, which can degrade image quality. In comes dual iso again. Having a second high-base ISO is undoubtedly beneficial; however, it's essential to note that it doesn't serve as a universal solution. It's a common misconception to believe that having a higher native ISO allows for simply cranking up the ISO setting to address all lighting challenges. Typically, an elevated base ISO can result in a reduction in dynamic range, making it even more critical to illuminate your scene correctly. When shooting in low-light conditions, the quality of your footage can teeter on the edge between being clean and sharp or appearing muddy and lacking depth. Therefore, it's important not to be misled by the availability of dual ISO settings. Cinematographers must continue to strike a delicate balance between achieving proper exposure through effective lighting and preserving image clarity.

Creative Control:

ISO isn't just about exposure; it can also be employed creatively. Intentionally using a higher ISO setting can introduce a gritty, textured quality to the image, which may be desirable for specific scenes or genres. Conversely, a lower ISO setting can produce a cleaner, smoother image. And remember when using a digital camera, if you shoot clean and clear, you can always add grain in post. The advancement of editing technology, exemplified by noise reduction tools like those found in Davinci Resolve, has certainly made significant strides in eliminating grain from the footage. Nevertheless, it's important to recognize that this process is not flawless, and it can impact the sharpness of your image. When considering grain removal, it's crucial to deliberate on the amount of grain you desire, what level is tolerable, how it complements the narrative, and whether you have the intention or flexibility to either remove or introduce it at a later stage of editing.


Balancing the Trio:

Achieving the perfect exposure involves a delicate balancing act between the shutter (albeit "set-and-forget" can remove much of the shutter from the equation), aperture, and ISO. Consider the creative intent, story, available light, and desired image quality when making these adjustments. This trio of exposure control tools offers endless possibilities for crafting visually compelling and emotionally resonant images in the world of cinematography.


I'm going to confess: in my first forays into making short films, I drastically underestimated the power of lighting. Back then, I believed that having a fancy camera was the key to unlocking that cinematic look. This is (mostly) incorrect. It didn't take long for me to realize that the true sorcery, the beating heart of cinematography, resided within the realm of lighting. (However, it's worth noting that possessing a high-quality camera and premium lenses can significantly enhance the results of your meticulous lighting efforts, creating a uniquely captivating visual impact.)

In the enchanting realm of cinematography, understanding the basic concepts of light is absolutely key to crafting a compelling story, and good product. There are a few fundamentals that are the bedrock of visual storytelling. These principles encompass intensity, direction, color temperature, and quality. I'll also touch on the importance of utilizing shadows and practicals in the space. These fundamentals are a cinematographer's craft, let's take a closer look at each one.

1. Intensity

Intensity dictates the brightness of a scene guiding the viewer's emotional journey. In the hands of a cinematographer, intensity becomes a storyteller's wand, capable of emphasizing or concealing intricate details, setting the mood for a romantic rendezvous or enveloping a sinister alley in shadows. It's the intensity of light that transforms a mundane room into a cozy haven or shrouds it in ominous secrecy. Through intensity, cinematographers summon emotions, revealing the profound depths of characters and scenes.

2. Direction

Talking direction in cinematography is about navigating a 3D canvas. We use it to control the viewer's focus, crafting scenes that not only traverse horizontally but also possess depth, much like adding intricate textures and layers to a painting. Visualise a wide shot of a living room. We can see the entire space, stretching all the way to the distant back wall. This back wall might be brilliantly illuminated by sunlight streaming in through an open window, creating a vivid contrast against the dimly lit area between the wall and the centrally positioned couch. Meanwhile, the couch itself is bright from the glow of an overhead lamp, while our central characters, standing closer to the camera, are enveloped in enigmatic shadows.

Here, we've sculpted light to traverse from the rear to the forefront, as well as from side to side. This manipulation of light direction, combined with a strategic layering approach, imparts a compelling illusion of three-dimensionality to our frame, despite the fact that it is ultimately presented through a two-dimensional medium. The interplay between light and shadow, masterfully influenced by direction, has the remarkable ability to transform ordinary sets into captivating, immersive environments.

3. Color Temperature

Color temperature is all about psychological resonance. Warm hues, akin to the soft embrace of candlelight, envelop characters in intimacy and affection. In contrast, cool tones, reminiscent of moonlight's detachment, cast scenes in an air of mystery and solitude. Wielding color temperature is a brilliant and somewhat simple way to imbue a scene with the desired emotional intent, whether it's the passionate glow of love or the icy grip of suspense. Each color temperature choice is an invitation for audiences to experience emotions on a visceral level.

4. Quality

Essentially, quality is a discussion about soft and hard lighting. Think about the soft caress of diffused light, wrapping characters in gentle luminescence, in contrast to the sharp focused beams of hard light, chiselling narratives with dramatic tension. Cinematographers can use quality to mould the very fabric of a story making landscapes ethereal or stark, faces angelic or enigmatic. It's in the texture and drama of light that scenes acquire their poetic resonance.

5. Painting with Shadows

Shadows become the silent, sometimes forgotten partners in storytelling, their dance with light creates depth, mystery, and drama. A well-placed shadow emphasizes a character's inner turmoil or casts an air of suspense over a pivotal moment. Shadows are the sculptor's tools, carving emotions into the faces of characters and shaping the contours of spaces. Visualise, if you will, how invaluable this can be when filming wide interiors. Shadows are shape and add interest, drama and story to even the most seemingly bland of spaces. Shadows are your friend, learn how to layer them (returning to direction). Don't just "light" your scene, think of it in terms of also "shadowing" your scene.

6. Harnessing Practical Lights

Practical lights, those unassuming sources nestled within the scene, infuse authenticity into cinematic moments and can be an enormous time saver. A bedside lamp's warm glow bathes a room in a comforting ambience, conversely, the harsh fluorescence of a police interrogation room intensifies tension, amplifying the psychological drama. These seemingly ordinary lights are the cinematographer's ally. Certain scenes can be effectively captured using only practical lighting sources. However, when using non-cinematic fixtures, it's essential to be cautious about potential issues such as green-magenta color shifts, which are commonly associated with inexpensive bulbs, and sensor flickering. To overcome these challenges, we recommend acquiring cinema light bulbs from reputable brands like Aputure and Nanlite. These bulbs can easily be screwed into standard light fixtures, providing a solution that eliminates the drawbacks often associated with typical cheap light bulbs.


Enjoy Light:

In the hands of a skilled cinematographer, these fundamental concepts and the artistry of painting with light and shadow become the tools that turn ordinary moments into indelible cinematic memories. Each frame, each play of intensity, direction, color temperature, and quality is a stroke of visual poetry, an invitation for audiences to immerse themselves in the profound art of storytelling through light.


From tripods to shoulders, dolly systems to gimbals, cranes, drones, vehicles, and helicopters, it's highly likely that movement stands as the quintessential tool in a cinematographer's toolkit. Let's take a look.

1. The Director's Vision and the DP's Execution

In the collaborative process of (indie) filmmaking, the relationship between the director and the cinematographer is a delicate dance. Some directors entrust the entirety of camera placement and movement to the DP, while others offer their creative insights, forming a partnership that brings their collective vision to life. Regardless of the approach, it is the cinematographer's primary job to translate the director's vision into visual reality.

2. The 180-Degree Rule

The standard guideline is known as the 180-degree rule. This rule serves to guide cinematographers in maintaining visual consistency when switching between characters in a scene. Imagine a line drawn between characters engaged in dialogue, the camera should remain on one side of this imaginary axis. By adhering to this principle, cinematographers ensure that the spatial relationships between characters remain coherent, preventing disorienting visual shifts that can jolt audiences from the narrative's flow.

3. Framing the Emotion

Camera placement is the writer's pen, allowing cinematographers to craft frames that resonate with emotion. Each shot should always be a deliberate choice, a composition that echoes the characters' inner worlds and supports the story. Whether it's a close-up that delves deep into the soul of a character or a wide shot that captures the vastness of a landscape, the composition is a language of its own, conveying emotions that words alone cannot express. To master this art, the key is to keep filming, constantly and consistently. You don't require an expensive camera; your smartphone will suffice. Experiment with various focal lengths, shooting scenes up close and at a distance. Position your subjects in different thirds of the frame. Capture shots from low angles, high angles, through objects, from inside and outside spaces, and from both high and low perspectives. Pay close attention to the emotions these shots evoke, both as a creator and as an audience. Reflect on the impact they have on your feelings and the emotions they convey. Internalize these sensations, comprehend the emotional depth, and gradually build your library of framing emotion.

4. Movement is Musicality

Just as music sets the mood in a symphony, camera movement orchestrates the emotional cadence of a scene. The cinematographer's choice of movement, think handheld tremors that infuse urgency or the silky glide of a tracking shot that imbues a scene with disconnected elegance. It really is a silent conductor, guiding the audience's emotional journey and oftentimes completely unnoticed. It's the difference between a heart-pounding chase and a contemplative meditation. Cinematographers are not mere technicians but psychologists of motion. Master the ability to comprehend the profound connection between your audience's emotional reactions and your camera-handling techniques. A handheld camera, with its organic tremors and unpredictability, imbues scenes with a raw, visceral quality. In contrast, a smooth tracking shot, gliding effortlessly through space, elicits a sense of grace and serenity. A static shot can intentionally imply almost nothing, leaving the interpretation of the scene entirely up to your audience. Each choice is a brushstroke on the canvas of audience perception, shaping how viewers engage with the narrative.

5. Tools of the Trade

Technology reigns supreme, and innovation is opening up the world of cinematography to an ever-growing community of aspiring filmmakers. It empowers us to achieve shots that, just a decade ago, would have been well beyond our grasp, often due to financial constraints. From stabilizers that magically transform handheld shots into graceful movements, to drones that replace entire helicopters, these tools broaden the cinematographer's creative palette. The selection of equipment is as intentional as the choice of composition and camera movement, with each component contributing to the visual symphony that unfolds on the screen.

However, it's essential not to become ensnared by passing trends. While gimbals, drone shots, and enhanced production values have become commonplace, the question remains: do they truly serve your narrative? Here's a piece of advice: become a master of the locked-off shot. Explore whether you can convey your message effectively by discovering the perfect static frame and then building from there.



In the end, camera placement and movement are not mere technicalities; they are the soul of cinematic storytelling. They are the means by which emotions are channelled, narratives are sculpted, and audiences are transported to new worlds. Through the lens, cinematographers breathe life into stories, allowing viewers to journey through the rich tapestry of human experience, one frame at a time.

The DP's Triad

That's a lot of info!! In the end, being a cinematographer is about balancing these three elements to tell a visual story that captivates and moves your audience. It's an art form that requires practice, experimentation, and a keen understanding of how to use light, camera, and movement to convey the essence of a story. So, if you're up for the challenge, dive in, and start crafting cinematic worlds that leave a lasting impression. Remember, the best camera, is the one you have in your hand.

- M. Young

68 views0 comments


bottom of page