Film & TV

Understanding Cinematography

Martin Scorsese

Lesson time 10:59 min

Martin teaches you how to work with your cinematographer and tells you the best way to learn—by asking your DP questions.

Martin Scorsese
Teaches Filmmaking
In 30 lessons, learn the art of film from the director of Goodfellas, The Departed, and Taxi Driver.
Get All-Access


There's so much to know that you don't know. And I always found this to be something about film making. No matter what the technology is, you shouldn't be cowed by the technology. You shouldn't be cowed by the process in a sense. You should have the kind of passion and bravery and ignorance, I think, to a certain extent, of wanting to get something done. Because if you really thought about making a picture, if you really thought about it step by step, you'd never do it. It's always a situation where you wind up, like, three days into shooting or so, or two days, and you say, what have I done? What was I thinking? But you have to do it. When it came to light, I never really understood light. I still really don't. I don't really need to, I don't think. I never really became something that was prominent in designing scenes. And I think a lot of that had to do-- it took me years to understand a lot of that had to do where I grew up. I grew up in actually the tenements and on Elizabeth Street in the late '40s through the '50s into the '60s. And basically all I needed to know there was daylight at night. I didn't really-- if it was dark, it was dark. There was maybe a light bulb in the hallway. It wasn't complaining about any deprivation of nature's beauty. It was where you were. And it had its own beauty, you know? Yes, there's a nuance that I did learn. On a daylight, in a daylight situation there could be clouds and there could be sun. I got that. But aside from that, where the sun is and where things to be shot at a certain time of day, I really don't-- I still don't know. I still don't know. Maybe that's why I like a lot of British cinematographers too because of the overcast in their country. But in any event, I learned to work very closely with the directors of photography over the years. And in designing the shots, they would add the element of light. I would change. I would work it. I began to understand something about it. And so this is something that I think can be, if not learned, can be coexist with the necessity of making the film. You deal with it. You-- if you don't know something ask. Try it. You know, learn as much-- you may forget afterwards, but you learn a little bit each time a little more. But it's something that shouldn't stop you. If there are certain elements of the actual production, or how to get an image on screen or how to tell a story, you'll find your way through. Freddie's work I'd seen as a cinematographer. But also he was the camera operator on Tales of Hoffmann and a couple of other films of Powell, Pressburger. So he came out of that group and got to know him a bit. I was there the night he won the Academy Award for Glory and said he was looking for a job. And so I thought of possibly working with him on this film Cape Fear, which was a film I hadn't...

Study with Scorsese

Martin Scorsese drew his first storyboard when he was eight. Today he’s a legendary director whose films from Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street have shaped movie history. In his first-ever online film class, the Oscar winner teaches his approach, from storytelling to editing to working with actors. He deconstructs films and breaks down his craft, changing how you make and watch movies.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Getting is great feedback and being a greta speaker. It was enlightening to see what Mr. Scorcese went thru on all those films.

Better lessons ever in filmmaking ( way better than film school for almost nothing in cost)

This masterclass felt to me like everything I thought about filmamking that was a big Hollywood mystery, and everything I thought couldn't be achieved by me as a 19 year old was just opened up to me. Like I was given both the gift of inspiration, and the secrets of the trade by my absolute idol. Thank you!

Inspiring, on point, useful... Highly recommended


Jimmy S.

This lesson gives me a lot of confidence about something I was kinda nervous about.

Doddi E.

I love the little anecdote about Houston, and generally any mentioned all throughout this course. It makes me feel like I can get an insider glimpse of working with these incredible figures of film.

Teddy W.

Use the lens and the camera to find a different world from the normal life. It's like a magic. I first have this concept from a teacher who is a painter, he told us how to use the camera shot the normal thing but change the status of them. Like the painting what see and then you paint with you hand. The painting is what you see and what you feel. Shooting a picture is harder because the image is too real, you need try to find the best way to tell the story with picture.Find the unusual way in the normal world. Recommend a book Cinematography for Directors: A Guide for Creative Collaboration by Jacqueline B. Frost, you will find the relationship between director and the cinematographer how they work together.


To know that you don’t know is the inner key to open the hidden door toward knowledge , M S constant humility over the years is a testimony of his genius

Pétainguy M.

With big data and big five, I am anxious for independent creation. What was done will never. We have to invent a new wave of film makers. Martin expertise is very useful. Thanks a lot for the lessons, very great idea !


i know a couple of young cinematographers who are going to be great one today.

Robert A.

Yeah it's great to work with your cinematographer. Yes you are the director and it's all about what you want and what your vision is. But it's good to listen to your cinematographer because what he or she suggests could also make your film good aside from your own vision. Thank you again martin!!!. Onward!!!.

Gene B.

Shot composition is crucial, as well as shot interpretation! A single shot might seem like it's nothing, but in fact, it could convey so much in the tone and mood of the film, as well as determining how the filmmakers will tell the story in the world of the film through the use of lightning and shot angles. A single shot could convey so many interpretations that allow​ the audiences to figure out where the film is progressing towards to.

Mia S.

"He had a sense of transforming the image. In other words, a shot of a two eyes, a person looking, is a shot of two eyes, unless you interpret it. At one point, I remember very clearly I designed this action sequence. Prior to the boat breaking, there's Nolte staring through the window through Venetian blinds, and a storm-tossed houseboat of his wife. I said, 'He's out there, he's looking through the window, these Venetian blinds were on the eyes, and there's rain hitting the windows so it's streaking. We lined up the shot in anamorphic and two eyes. 'It doesn't feel right - it's just a shot of two eyes looking through a window.' He said, 'One eye. Just show one eye.' We did that, it took on some other aspect, and that is that it was like something from the ocean depths, you didn't quite know what it was at first - and you realize it's an eye, covered with raindrops, shadow light, all kinds of things, so that it created a mystery, an understanding of how to tell a story with pictures that was extraordinary for that mood and tone, and from the one eye we tracked out. He was the camera operator on this valiant effort to do a version of 'Moby Dick,' he was told at one point to go and get a few shots of whales in the North Sea. Three-strip Technicolor, big camera. He shot it, they screened it, Huston said, 'Well, it's a shot of a whale.' It had very little interpretation. This is the lesson I learned: It's still simply saying, 'We're going to get a shot of a door.' Well, what's the angle? The light? Is it moving, not moving? Sometimes I start to work on an image of a telephone, infinite amount of ways to do that - I'm talking about a land line. It needs a lot of thought, which leads to the use of inserts, leads to Bresson and Hitchcock. But with Freddie it was a very interesting experience because it took me to the old pros as opposed to other directors of photography I'd been working with up to that time. Not to say that one was superior to the other - it's a different thing."

Mia S.

"Freddie's work I'd seen, as a cinematographer, but also he was the camera operator on 'Tales of Hoffman,' and a couple of other films; I was there the night he won the Academy Award for 'Glory.' 'Cape Fear' was a film I hadn't planned to make, and was an attempt at trying to make or extend or enrich a genre, or revise a genre, possibly. Freddie agreed to do it; he had a set of five lenses that he used on 'The Innocents,' for example - a beautiful film that Jack Clayton directed. Extraordinary focus in the film, in black and white scope, anamorphic. But extraordinary deep focal length in this picture. There's Deborah Kerr walking through the halls of this Victorian house, dark, and she's wearing a black dress which is very full... but everything's in crisp focus. I asked him how did he achieve that, he said he shot it F11, which meant that it was the smallest opening, he had to pump in more light. I didn't fully understand this until later on, 'Cape Fear,' I would ask for certain scenes to be even more focused, in terms of the characters (this character in focus with that one, and this one). He would always tell me, 'I can give you what you want if you give me a few moments.' That's when I fully understood the impact of the intensity of light to focus the screen, focus the image. All that deep focal work must have incorporated extraordinary lighting - the heat of the lighting, the intensity. Naturally, you're talking to somebody here who - the impulse for me to make movies was the New York independent cinema, very often were using the available light. This was inspired from the French New Wave, that sort of thing. Available light isn't always available light, by the way - there's always some fill or something like that. In any event, it was lighter equipment. I didn't understand the necessity of arc lights and the power of the heat for focus. That was a revelation."