Film & TV

Film 101: What Is Cinematography and What Does a Cinematographer Do?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 27, 2019 • 4 min read

Telling a story on film isn’t just about recording the action. It’s also about how the images are captured. In the film and television world, this is known as cinematography.


What Is Cinematography?

Cinematography is the art of photography and visual storytelling in a motion picture or television show. Cinematography comprises all on-screen visual elements, including lighting, framing, composition, camera motion, camera angles, film selection, lens choices, depth of field, zoom, focus, color, exposure, and filtration.

Why Is Cinematography Important to Filmmaking?

Cinematography sets and supports the overall look and mood of a film’s visual narrative. Each visual element that appears on screen, a.k.a. the mise-en-scène of a film, can serve and enhance the story—so it is the cinematographer’s responsibility to ensure that every element is cohesive and support the story. Filmmakers often choose to spend the majority of their budget on high-quality cinematography to guarantee that the film will look incredible on the big screen.

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

A cinematographer, also known as a Director of Photography, is in charge of the camera and the lighting crew. They’re the person responsible for creating the look, color, lighting, and for framing of every single shot in a film. The film’s director and cinematographer work closely together, as the main job of a cinematographer is to ensure that their choices support the director’s overall vision for the film. The cinematographer may also act as the camera operator on more low-budget productions. Cinematographers who work their way up in the film industry can join the American Society of Cinematographers, which gives awards for the best cinematography and allows members to put “ASC” after their name in credits.

6 Duties and Responsibilities of a Cinematographer

  • Chooses a visual style for the film. A cinematographer determines the visual style and approach of the film. For example, a cinematographer on a documentary film determines whether to use re-enactments, or to rely heavily on photographs and found footage.
  • Establishes the camera setup for every shot. A cinematographer decides which types of cameras, camera lenses, camera angles, and camera techniques best bring the scene to life. Additionally, a cinematographer works with the script supervisor and, if necessary, the locations manager to scope out each scene and design what the most effective vantage points for the camera will be. This helps preserve the intention and scale of the film.
  • Determines the lighting for every scene. A cinematographer uses lighting to create the right visual mood the director aspires to achieve. They must know how to enhance an image’s depth, contrast, and contour to support the story’s atmosphere.
  • Explores the potential of every location. A good cinematographer understands what visuals excite the director and can make recommendations about what shots to capture.
  • Attends rehearsals. A cinematographer attends rehearsals with the actors since the blocking for a scene will likely change and evolve. During rehearsals, cinematographers adjust the camera in response to a particular gesture or action, and as actors adjust their body positions and blocking, to better fit the framing of the shot.
  • Elevates the vision of the director. A good cinematographer will introduce ideas and concepts the director may not have considered.

21 Cinematic Technique Terms and Definitions

Cinematographers should think carefully about every shot, considering the angle, the light, and the camera movement, because there is an infinite number of choices they can make. Common cinematography techniques and terms include:

  1. Close-up: a shot that closely crops in on a character’s face or on an object.
  2. Extreme close-up: A tightly framed close-up shot.
  3. Long shot: a shot showing a character in relation to their surroundings.
  4. Extreme long shot: a shot so far away from the character, they are no longer visible within their surroundings.
  5. Establishing shot: a shot at the beginning of a scene that gives context for the setting.
  6. Tracking shot: a sideways-moving shot that captures a landscape or that follows a character as they move. Often used interchangeably with “dolly shot,” though they technically refer to different motions.
  7. Dolly shot: a shot where the camera moves toward or away from a character on a dolly track. Technically, a dolly shot refers only refers to backwards and forwards camera motion, though the term has come to mean any camera movement tracking a character.
  8. Crane shot: an overhead shot where the camera is suspended in the air on a moving crane.
  9. Steadicam: a lightweight camera stabilizer that captures smooth moving shots. A Steadicam is either hand-held or attached to the camera operator’s body, giving them more freedom to move while filming.
  10. High-angle shot: a shot where the camera is placed higher than a character or object.
  11. Low-angle shot: a shot where the camera is placed lower than a character or object.
  12. Medium shot: a shot that shows an actor from the waist up.
  13. Point of view shot: a shot that shows the action through the eyes of a specific character.
  14. Panning: a shot where the camera turns left or right on its vertical axis
  15. Tilting: a shot where the camera turns up or down on its horizontal axis
  16. Cross-cutting: an editing technique that cuts between multiple events happening at the same time.
  17. Diegetic sound: sound that both the characters and the audience can hear, like dialogue, a knock on the door, or a telephone ringing.
  18. Non-diegetic sound: sound that only the audience hears, like a narrator or the film’s score, placed into the film during post-production.
  19. Key light: the main source of direct light shining on a character or object. High-key refers to key light that is the main source of a scene’s light; low-key refers to key light that is not the main source of light.
  20. Side lighting: lighting used to illuminate the areas in a scene that aren’t lit by key light.
  21. Backlighting: when the main light source comes from behind a character or object.