Getting Back To The Basics Of Cinematography

Going back over the basic terminology and concepts of any chosen artistic field is always an important exercise. That's because learning the basics is always the first step in moving on to your next level. It's easy to loose those fundamentals when you're experimenting and evolving your own style. This is no less true of cinematographers, who tend to have a penchant for experimentation. To help you avoid going too far astray or just to give you a 101 course for the first time, here is a list of some bare bones cinematography terms to revisit and explore.


Pointing a camera at an object or person is something anyone can do. But what separates amateurs from pros when it comes to camera work is their knowledge of composition. That is, knowing the best techniques for placing objects and people within the frame. Here are several basic rules for ensuring a scene's composition is effective: Follow the Rule of Thirds. When you point your camera at something, it's common to want to place the subject in the center of the frame. However, central placement is something you want to avoid because it creates an unnatural experience for the viewer. Instead, you should try and place your subject(s) off to one side, both up and down, from the center. This is the where the "rule of thirds" comes in handy. This ancient aesthetic theory works by dividing the entire image into three parts, vertically and horizontally, and centering the subject within the intersections of the created lines. For example, the image below correctly follows the rule of thirds by composing the main subject (the seated character) within the intersection of the two lines on the right side of the frame. RuleOfThirdCorrect However, if you look at another image, putting the main subject in the center of the frame, the overall composition seems unbalanced and slightly askew. There are times when centering your subject can help evoke emotion from the audience depending on the shot, but for the most part you will want to use the rule of thirds to create the best compositions for your shots. RuleOfThirdInCorrect Balance Your Masses. One of the most important rules for effective composition is finding balance within the shapes that make up your overall image. Just like with colors, shapes and masses can be both balanced and unbalanced. What's important to remember when balancing a composition, is that the object's actual size isn't as important as it's relative size. For example, in the image below the burning structure in the distance (combined with the smoke plumes) is actually much, much larger in real life than the smaller embankment in the foreground on the right. However, their relative sizes have been composed in such a way as to balance their masses (i.e. they appear the same size). Also, they are both pointing in similar directions (towards the upper-right of the frame), which also helps balance the overall composition and draw the viewer's attention towards the burning structure. (See how this image was created using Photoshop) 1029_MASTER

Camera Moves

The three basic moves for a stationary camera are left and right horizontally (pan), zoom in and zoom out (zoom), and up and down vertically (tilt). Each move creates a unique effect and is often used to provide specific information to the viewer.
  • Pans: Moving the camera laterally from left to right is a powerful way to convey information, whether its taking in the immense vistas of a natural setting or conveying specific narrative information. You can see an example of using a pan for this purpose in the opening scenes of The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
  • Zooms: A zoom in usually directs you to a more specific part of a scene like a character and focuses your attention there as if to say "Hey, look at this!"  A zoom out, on the other hand, tends to be used to establish a setting by revealing the space your characters occupy. A good example of a zoom out that provides important setting information is the beginning shot in A Clockwork Orange (1971).
  • Tilts: Moving your camera up and down is the definition of a tilt. Tilting your camera lets you provide narrative information in a dramatic way. That is, you could pan from a high angle shot, following a fighter jet rocketing across the sky for example, and then tilt your camera downwards to reveal an aircraft carrier in the midground.

Depth of Field and Lenses

In composition you decide where to place your subjects within the frame. However, this is only one dimension of your image. You also must consider how close or far away your camera lies from your subject. This can be important for aesthetic reasons since having your subject within the foreground, midground, or background can have an important effect on how your audience reacts to your subject. However, choices in your depth of field can be just as important for practical reasons, the most important of which, is keeping your subject in proper focus. DOF_New Technically speaking, your depth of field (DOF) is the area in front of your camera that appears in sharp focus and is affected by the type of lens you're using. It's helpful to think of DOF as a "slice" of space that remains in focus within your camera's entire field of view. This slice can shrink and expand depending upon the focal length of your lens and aperture setting.
  • Focal length: Basically, a lens' focal length is the distance from the actual glass lens to the back of your camera's sensor. So a 50mm lens will focus light onto a sensor at an optical distance of 55mm, although the actual physical length of the lens may be different. It's important to remember that your depth of field (your "slice") narrows as you increase your focal length. A telephoto lens (normally 85mm and over) will give you a shallower depth of field while a wider angle lens (usually less than 35mm) widens your depth of field.
  • Aperture: This is the term referring to the adjustable opening at the back of your lens that varies the amount of light, or exposure, that reaches your camera's sensor. The reason the aperture is adjustable is because you will need to allow more or less light to strike your sensor depending upon the lighting conditions of your shoot. Aperture settings are known as f/stops and normally range any where from f/2 to f/22 on most lenses. When adjusting your f/stop, remember that the smaller the number, the greater the aperture's opening. For example, a f/2 setting will allow much more light into your sensor than an f/16. Using an f/2 stop would be appropriate for darker settings when you need more light to strike your sensor.
  •  F/stops are also importantly connected to your depth of field. As you close your aperture smaller and smaller (i.e. raise your f/stop), your DOF increases and your "slice" of focused area broadens. So an f/16 setting will give you a broader DOF than an F/2 setting. It's helpful when initially getting your subject in focus to open your f/stop to its widest settings so that you can narrow down the possible area where your subject is in focus. You have a smaller slice of area to investigate.
You have re-examined just a few of the basics of cinematography by look at how to effectively compose images, balance shot elements, move your camera, and apply depth of field. Re-familiarizing yourself with these essential concepts and techniques will help bring you back to the basics. Your work will benefit from it. You can extend your review into other areas like ISO's and color temperatures by visiting our Basics of Cinematography lessons.