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Thursday, September 17, 2015

7 Cinematography Techniques For Beginners

Cinematography is often considered the essence of filmmaking. It is said that although the actors give life to the characters and the director makes all the necessary decisions so as to make a worthy audio visual experience, they have to all work closely with the cinematographer to ensure that each shot is being taken from an appropriate angle, as this can make or break a movie.

Often, we see that some of the classics of today may have been very ordinary movies if it had not been for the brilliance of the cinematographer. This can be achieved even on a basic film, and converted to digital with 8mm conversion technology.

Cinematography, especially when it is taught in many of our prestigious film schools, is said to follow certain basic rules, beyond which, aspiring cinematographers are encouraged to experiment and innovate. With these basic rules in mind, one can begin to play with the camera, as an artist with his paintbrush.

Head Space and Nose Space

If the shot contains one or more people, the basic rule to consider is that there should be a considerable gap between the top of the person’s head and the top of the frame. This gap, known as headroom or headspace, can vary from shot to shot, depending on what feels right to the cinematographer. Another thing to be considered is nosespace or noseroom. This is the gap left in front of the face of the subject and shows, to a certain extent, where the subject is looking.

If these two rules are ignored then it leads to a lack in the aesthetic quality of the frame as well as the ease of viewing for the audience.

Rule of Thirds

A common cheat code, so to speak, in how to decide where to lay ones focus and how to build ones frame is the rule of thirds. Once a basic frame has been established in one’s mind, one should mentally divide that frame into three equal parts, horizontally and vertically, so that one has nine equal parts of the frame. The lines as well as the intersecting points will guide you in where to place the object in focus. This rule is especially useful when shooting landscape shots.


A three dimensional effect can be achieved even with a basic two dimensional camera with the Z-Axis rule. The Z axis rule requires that the cinematographer views the shot from three dimensions, the third one being depth, or, more simply, the dimension from the front left end of the shot to the back right end of it. Planning shots so as to maximise use of this mental line will give your shots a realistic effect.

180 Degree Rule

The 180 degree rule is usually helpful when choosing an angle to take the shot from. Cinematographers have a tendency to take multiple shots later decide as to the best one. This is a good practice, except that sometimes it can be confusing to remember which side to take the shot from and to maintain continuity. For example, if one shot shows a person going left to right, a shot taken from the opposite side will show them going right to left. TO avoid this, one can use the 180 degree rule, where one draws an invisible 180 degree diameter in one’s mind beyond which he does not go. This ensures that you do not stray into the opposite side of the frame and thus create confusion.

Pan and Tilt

Panning is one of the first techniques filmmakers began experimenting with. It is a simple shot, and is used to show the entire scenario/room etc. The camera is mounted on a tripod, at a certain level and moved from left to right or vice versa. Although an overused and abused shot, the most famous example of this is Steven Spielberg’s movies. The panning shot can be experimented with in terms of timing and the movements of the scenario shown as well as the subject of the camera.

Tilt shots are the same as the pan except vertical rather than horizontal. These can be used to show a tall figure, and are often used to establish the dominance of a figure, by placing the camera on a lower level and tilting upwards, thus making the subject seem large and intimidating.

Zoom/ Track-in

Zooming is common, even in our basic cell phone cameras, we all know of it as making the object larger so that it appears closer. However, zooming causes a severe compromise upon the quality of the video taken. Thus, zoom shots should not be too long and should be very smooth. Excellent examples of zoom shots are the movies Gladiator and Hannibal.

A long range variant of the zoom shot is the track in. This is when the cinematographer uses a dolly to literally move the camera closer to the subject. Incase of an uneven ground, a Steadicam can be used, however, this is not recommended. This ensures smooth shot and does not compromise upon quality.


This popular shot is usually taken when one wants to show things from one person’s perspective while still maintaining the third person perspective of the audience, thus giving them a sense of involvement with the onscreen action. Over the shoulder shots are usually taken during conversations or any kind of interaction between two or more people.

Perfect over the shoulder shots are difficult to take because a very specific portion of the shoulder has to be shown, out of focus. The person, people or things in front are in focus and thus concentrated upon.

Other than the above, there is much to be learnt from the world of filmmaking and cameras. Different kinds of shots, camera movements, angles and different equipment to enhance the filmmaking experience. However, the best cinematographers are the ones who have broken all the rules and made new and sometimes broken those too, simply to pull the audience into their movie and make them feel involved with the ongoing occurrences. Thus, instead of learning, it is best to teach oneself experiment and discover. 

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