DP Bradford Young Reveals All His Cinematography Secrets

Want to be a cinematographer?

AlterCine just released a new video interview with Bradford Young, one of the hottest cinematographers working today.

Young is known for a variety of indie and studio films such as A Most Violent Year, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, SelmaArrival and Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Along the way, he’s learned some important lessons about how to be a DP.

We learned so much from this interview, from practical lighting setup tips to more general career advice about choosing who to work with.

Here are Bradford’s top 10 cinematography tips:

Know Who You Are and Where You Come From

“Having knowledge itself – knowing who you are and where you come from – is the most important skill,” he says. “It’s more important than the camera, it’s more important than the script.”

Bradford warns new filmmakers not to invest money in expensive equipment to work on stories that don’t reflect them. Tell personal stories first. Then when you move onto other projects, you can infuse your own personal voice and experience that you’ve spent time developing.

“You have to live life,” he says, advising young filmmakers to be “relentless” in crafting their own artistic “accent.”

Make Everyday Experiences Extraordinary Moments

“It’s not just a woman putting her coat on in the morning,” he says. “It’s an experience.” An action like putting on a coat can actually represent layers of backstories.

Think about the story BEHIND every action in your movie, he says.

Use Book Light, Natural Light Practicals and Negative Fill

Bradford says every movie has its own “rules” of light – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints didn’t use fluorescents, for example.

He loves book lights, which create soft light. A book light is a bounced source of light that is diffused with another layer of diffusion. The light is positioned 45 degrees to the reflector, and diffusion layer can be joined at the end of your bounce where your space is limited. This creates an image that looks like an open book (hence the name).

But it all depends on the mood you’re going for – be intentional and consistent with what the world of the movie should look like.

He also says a general rule is, “Any wall you don’t see, put black on.” He says this will let you get “attitude” even though the light is soft.

Filmmaking is not a Competition

“Take every opportunity to do your best, but don’t be distracted or persuaded by what is or what isn’t,” Bradford says.

“You’re responsible for every frame you create.” Be true to yourself and who you are, and then you’ll be proud to stand behind your work. You have to be willing to lose a career because you believe so strongly in your frame or image.

He says if you want to be a cinematographer just to make money and go home, he doesn’t know what to tell you.

Find Directors Who Respect Your Work

Choosing who you work with is important, Bradford says.

And similarly, you should work with directors who value what you specifically bring to a film.

The more you work, the more confident you’ll be in explaining why you want to make certain camera or lighting decisions. The best directors can help you become a better communicator.

But you also have to be flexible. “I’ve worked with directors who are better directors than I am a cinematographer,” Bradford says. “I’m always learning.”

Create Atmosphere, Vibe and Energy

As a cinematographer, creating the atmosphere, vibe and energy of a film is your job and responsibility.

This will bring a “heightened experience” and “sense of feeling” to watching movies, he says.

You can use your own memories and experiences to help create these feelings.

Get Your Lens Closer to Your Subject

The distance between your lens and your subject is important.

“Longer lenses don’t really work for me anymore,” he says. He wants to get closer and closer to get a stronger and more personal connection with the character.

Work With Directors Who Are Supportive

Building community is important, Bradford says.

He’s interested in collaborating with directors who want to be comrades, someone he can carry on a relationship with. “I want to be friends,” he says.

Part of it is also working with people you can be vulnerable and honest with. He wants to be able to admit when he doesn’t understand something and feel supported.

You Are Not Disposable – Only You Can Tell Your Story

“Don’t let this filmmaking process tell you that you are disposable,” he says. “It’s not true. Only you can tell your story.”

“It’s all about finding a safe space for you to tell your story.”

He doesn’t like the idea of a “starving artist,” and he also says your “hunger” should not drive you to make the wrong decisions. You have to stay true to who you are.

Lessons and Tips