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The Picture: Basic Cinematography for Beginner Filmmakers

There are lot of things to think when you’re planning each shot. You need to think about the individual shots, and how they’ll fit together. How you set up, light and film your shot is called cinematography.

Shot size

What will be in the shot and how big will it be?

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Use different shot sizes to help tell your story. You could use a distant extreme long shot to set the scene; closer long shots and mid shots to introduce people and show action; and closeups and extreme closeups to show the expressions on people’s faces and important details.  More about shot size… 

Composition

How will you arrange things in the shot?

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The way you arrange things in a shot can make it seem natural, formal or strange.

For a natural look, put important things a bit off centre (around a third of the way across the screen). To be more formal or stylish, put things dead centre or use symmetry.

For a creepy or unsettling feel, you could put the camera on a slant or make the composition really unbalanced. More about composition

Camera position and angle

Where will you put the camera?

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Don’t just shoot everything from eye level. Point the camera upwards – a low angle shot – to make people or things look powerful or threatening, or use a high angle shot to make them look smaller or weaker. You can even use a birdseye shot from directly overhead.

Put the camera in different places around the subject as well. Film from directly in front to make people feel really engaged, or from the side to show an observer’s point of view. Change the camera position with each shot. More about camera position and angle…

Using the lens

What will be in focus? What kind of lens or zoom setting will you use?

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You could use deep focus so people can see what’s happening in the foreground and background. If you use shallow focus you can blur the background so your subject stands out. You can even pull focus between different parts of the scene during the shot.

Use a wide angle lens or zoomed-out setting to get close to the action and make perspective seem dramatic. A telephoto – zoomed in –  shot is better for closeups of faces and for details. More about using the lens…

Light and colour

What will the light be like? How you will use colour?

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Light affects the mood of your shot. Bright, high-key lighting from the front has a completely different feel to scary low-key side light with heavy shadows. Atmospheric rim light from behind makes the edge of the subject stand out from the background.

You can adjust the colour of the whole scene when you edit: warm, reddish tones feel comforting, but cool, bluish colours are alienating or futuristic. You could even make it black and white. Colours of things like clothes or walls in the scene can also help tell the story. More about light and colour…

Movement

How will you show movement? Will the camera move?

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You could just keep the camera still and let the action happen in front of it. That’s the best way to show subtle movements.

You can keep the camera in one place and pan sideways or tilt up or down. Moving the whole camera looks better, though: track in to build intensity, track out to reveal more of a scene, or track sideways to follow action. You can move the camera on a dolly or stabiliser, or use it handheld. You can even raise it above the action on a crane or jib. More about movement…

Check your shot before you shoot

When you’re ready to shoot, follow this simple ABCDEF rule to make sure you’ve got the shot right. Check angle, background, composition, distance (shot size), exposure and focusMore about setting up your shot…


Learn more

I provide face to face training for organisations in the UK and Europe.

You can also get online courses and classes:

  • CreativeLive has in-depth courses on filmmaking techniques, editing programs and cameras.
  • MasterClass courses give you insights from famous filmmakers, actors and writers.
  • Skillshare and Udemy also have courses on filmmaking techniques and editing programs.

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Tom Barrance

Tom Barrance I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots