Top 5 Things Any First Time Cinematographer Should Know

Cinematography can seem like a complex art form, especially when you are starting out. And the gap between holding your iPhone and an Arri Alexa on a film set can seem quite vast. Breaking it down there are a few basic principles that everyone should know when starting out as a cinematographer:

1. The camera doesn’t matter as much as you think 

Cameras have become so prevalent in the last 20 years, it’s very likely that you – the reader – own one for yourself. And if you do, you probably are coveting a bigger, badder more expensive camera as one of your next possible purchases. This is a cycle and it never ends unless you change your view of cameras themselves.

Resolution doesn’t tell a story, bitrate doesn’t move an audience and colour profiles don’t determine view-counts. As the cinematographer, it’s your job to make the Director’s vision a technical reality and however you can do that with the least amount of technical roadblocks, least amount of menus and items between you and the story – the better. This is why 90% of the time I choose an Alexa if possible, because after years and years of trying out every digital camera under the sun I realized that the right one, was the one that got out of my way and let me achieve what I saw in my head to begin with.

2. Establishing a common language with the Director is key

Good working relationships are key to maximizing your experience and input in a project. The relationship you have with your director is so important to both of you telling the best story together. You will both be literally sharing one imagination as your carry words from a page and turn them into images on screen. You have to establish what is commonly known as a “short-hand” – basically the subtle, sometimes telepathic language that you both speak to get onto the same page as quickly as possible.

How do you do this? For me it always starts with creative references. Taking a look at what style you both have, maybe viewing each other’s past work and sharing what you like and don’t like about any other creative works. From there you will have a common bank of visual “words” you can use to discuss your film together.

Really try to dig into the “why’s” when creating together, getting right to the source of why choices have been made a certain way.

3. Invest in your crew

Your crew is the lifeblood of your creative abilities, the preverbal muscles and organs that carry the being that is you across the finish line. Treat your crew well and give them respect, and they will do the same with you. There are some key things to remember when working with your crew:

  • Let them take pride in their work
  • Give them space so they can do their best work
  • Delegate and follow up with them to see how things are going with setups, but don’t hover over them
  • Let them make mistakes so they can learn – just like you did
  • Share the love – a lunchtime coffee run to show your appreciation can go a long way

You will find as your career goes on, that the crew you respect and give your energy to, will stick with you and help you grow your career.

4. Be Humble

Ego is such a big trap that a lot of filmmakers get lost in, and Cinematographers are some of the worst for this. Getting lost in what you think you know, and how much you think can do – and not letting yourself accept that you haven’t encountered some things, maybe a lot of things and being able to let yourself make mistakes is the only way you can grow.

One of the coolest parts of working on a film, is that everyone working in the creative departments has a slightly different vision for what you are all creating. Our imagination uses collections of our own experiences and projects them onto what we are trying to make. With that in mind, let other people share their vision of what something could look like and listen with an open mind. You are being trusted with achieving the technical side of this vision but it doesn’t make you any less of a DP to take someone’s advice or account for how they see things.

5. Never stop learning

Always be open to learning, being mentored, going on other people’s set to see how they do things. This is an ever-changing art form and growth should never stop being a part of your journey as a cinematographer. And this doesn’t just relate to researching the newest/latest gear and trying it out. This is also about setting aside time for participating in the art form you are creating.

This means every day watch something new – whether it is a short film, episodic, music video or even 30 second TV spot. Watch something new every day with a critical eye, asking yourself how it was accomplished and use the world around you as a school you can tap into every single day.

There are many, many more things you will learn throughout this journey, but if you keep these 5 things in mind as you start your career every day will remain exciting and every experience will be one that you learn and grow from.

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