cinematography tips

4 Tips to Create Depth in a Shot

When it comes to 2D images, like a standard photograph or a film you’re watching projected on your local multiplex’s screen, depth is an illusion. From cinematography to photography to painting to hand-drawn animations, artists must fool the human eye into thinking it’s viewing something in a three-dimensional plane when it’s actually flat.

Piecing together a captivating story becomes easier when you master different techniques proven to add depth (or the illusion of depth) to a shot. Here are four tips that will help give your cinematography the power to convince viewers that they are experiencing a world as real as their own.

Shallow Focus

Focus is perhaps the most powerful (and common) method of creating depth in both photography and film. Our human eyes have evolved to do this wonderfully—hold out your finger in front of your eyes, focus your vision on it, and notice how everything behind it becomes a blur.

This lens technique, called shallow focus, allows filmmakers to achieve depth by fooling our brains into naturally believing there’s space in between the plane in focus and the one that’s out.

Depth

Light and Shadow

If there’s one natural agent that influences our depth perception in the real world, it’s light. Point a light at something, whether near you or behind other objects, and your eyes will be drawn to focus there. By using high contrast lighting, filmmakers are able to inject both depth and dimension to their compositions.

Whereas soft lighting can make an image appear flatter, sharper lighting delivers harsh shadows that help add an illusion of depth. Usually, the higher the contrast you create between shadow and light, the stronger depth you’ll get in a shot.

Linear Perspective

If you want a quick (and fun) way of better understanding linear perspective, take out a blank sheet of paper and draw from the perspective of someone looking down a long hallway, bridge, or railroad tracks. You’ll notice that to match a realistic sense of depth you’ll have to draw converging lines that start wide near the bottom and become closer as they recede toward the vanishing point.

By using camera placement in combination with wide angle lenses, you can add depth by making the horizon seem farther away. Veteran cinematographers learn to get creative by utilizing different camera placements to achieve depth and energy via varying perspectives.

Depth

Occlusion

Though it may seem like a simple concept, occlusion is a powerful tool for creating depth, especially in CGI films and video games. Occlusion refers to the visual obstruction of a distant object with another object in the foreground. Similarly, for astronomers, occultation is all about studying what stars become visible and hidden depending on the course of the Moon’s orbit around Earth.

In filmmaking, this technique works alongside parallax to create depth. Usually, this effect comes naturally when filming people and objects positioned in front of other things. But if you ever find yourself with a tracking shot that feels like it’s lacking depth, considering having more objects in order to have a sharper occlusion effect. If there’s one filmmaker who learned how to make the tracking shot his own by using different techniques, including occlusion, it’s Steven Spielberg.

You can find more information about studying cinematography at New York Film Academy here.

Cinematography Jobs: How to Shoot Stylish Wedding Videos

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If you’re studying cinematography or currently between jobs, there are plenty of opportunities outside of the world of film to lend your talents and make some money along the way.

One of the most enjoyable – and lucrative – is shooting wedding videos.

But it’s also not without its pressures, especially given that you may be the sole party responsible for capturing exceptionally personal footage (and there’s only one opportunity to get it right.)

Luckily you’re a cinematographer, ergo you’re already far more qualified than the bride’s drunk Uncle Tom. So, let’s get started!

1. Communication > Videography

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Poor communication skills won’t only create a bad impression (and therefore stymieing future recommendations), but it’ll also leave you woefully under-prepared for the couple’s big day.

No two weddings are alike, and the same goes for the couple’s expectations. Will there be any outside-the-norm events they want you to capture? Has the groom got a special surprise he wants you to be there for? Any particular guests or parts of the venue that need extra attention?

Even just agreeing on the times you’ll be there and shooting need to be established long in advance so that everyone is on the same page.

This doesn’t just stop at the couple, either. It’s imperative to speak to the venue, too, and find out the rules, regulations, logistics and possible restrictions that you may face on the day. Same goes for the DJ or band, although for different reasons (more on this later.)

And when the day is done, you job isn’t. There’s an element of customer aftercare in wedding videography; naturally you’ll  want to carry out editing and post-production work, but also ensure they’re happy with the footage you deliver. If you’d set up expectations properly in the initial steps, this should be easy to achieve and you’ll be rewarded with a glowing testimonial.

2. Pack for Expedience

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By all means pack your car with as much videography equipment as you like, but bear in mind that when the action starts, it’s no understatement to say that you’ll be running around like a lunatic. Capturing a wedding video is a full-contact sport!

To help you get from one side of the venue to film the bride’s make-up session to the other side of the venue to film the groom’s side of the wedding party, try to limit yourself to no more than a single camera and two lenses (three, at a push.)

You can always return to the car during brief reprieves to swap out gear ahead of the evening’s festivities.

3. Two Halves of the Equation

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A wedding photographer need only worry about light; you’ve got the envious job of not only capturing video, but audio too.

Avoid the crying baby at the back of the venue, use multiple audio recording devices (especially if the one in your camera isn’t great) and consider putting a lavalier on the groom and/or wedding officiant – be sure to allow for extra setting-up time to arrange this!

The other consideration to make is the evening’s entertainment – needless to say, bands and DJs can be louder than your portable mics can handle without peaking. If possible, ask the act if you can plug directly into the PA system (not always doable, but great if you can.)

4. Hit the Same Beats as the Photographer…

… but keep out of their way! Definitely liaise with the photographer before the ceremony if you get the chance, but either way, don’t get under their feet when the fun begins.

Giving the photographer room to move comes with another benefit: the more you blend into the background, the more relaxed the couple will be. Being constantly aware that you’re being recorded is enough to make anyone paranoid!

Otherwise, your aim as a videographer is to capture the same key moments that the photographer will be aiming for, albeit in live-action format.

5. Keep Calm and Carry On

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The run-up to the ceremony itself can be the most tense and nerve-wracking moments of anyone’s life. Don’t let the atmosphere get to you personally; a videographer running around in a fluster only exacerbates things.

Stable video is also the main goal – given that tripods aren’t usually effective (aside from the main ceremony), it’s doubly imperative that you remain as calm as possible while in the eye of the storm. Stay focused, keep tabs on the key players, and identify the best shots. The happy couple are counting on you.

Have any great tips for creating the best wedding video? Let us know in the comments below!

10 Cinematography Tricks for Working With Only Natural Lighting

When asked why he preferred shooting with all-natural lighting, Stanley Kubrick simply replied, “Because that’s the way we see things.”

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It’s a trend that’s growing in filmmaking. The excellent “Dallas Buyers Club,” for instance, used only all-natural lighting during filming. This sounds like it might make things difficult, but it actually came with its own benefits. Director Jean-Marc Vallee stated that the actors didn’t have to worry about hitting their marks to keep within lighting zones, so it offered a lot more creative freedom for the cast. The sheer heat of artificial lighting rigs was also not missed!

Whether you’re shooting with natural light simply because you’re on a budget or for stylistic reasons, we’ve got some tried and tested tricks on how to get the best out of it.

When Shooting Indoors:

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    • If the room has windows, it’s generally a bad idea to shoot towards them. This will lead to overexposure and a nasty, bleached-out effect to the background (as well as anything in front of the windows being underexposed). Rather than wrestle between the two extremes, place place the camera adjacent to the window — to get more of a sidelight. This provides natural lighting from the window and avoids blow-out. This is extra important when interviewing for documentaries!
  • Load up on gel sheets. Specifically, ND gel. When applied to windows, it really cuts down on the amount of daylight and makes exposure a lot easier to manage (more on how ND filtering works here)
  • Aside from lighting itself, the most important thing in any cinematographer’s lighting kit are reflectors.  We cannot understate this: they’re definitely vital outdoors, and even more so when shooting inside using only natural light. It’s by far the easiest way to manipulate and maximize whatever lighting you do have to get rid of problematic shadows. Note: You may find it difficult to get a proper return if you are reflecting indirect light.
  • Shake it up. You can’t always manipulate the light exactly to your liking, so manipulate the subject instead. Extreme planning before a natural light shoot is important so as to not waste time on the day, but be mindful that it’s sometimes best to scrap what you had on paper if it’s not looking right in the camera. Reposition everything if you must, and be mindful of those shadows as you go.
  • Scrims are your best friend. Scrims will not change the quality of light from hard to soft, but it will knock down the intensity by diffusing light. Diffusion may be your best friend.

When Shooting Outside:

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    • Take advantage of blue hour and golden hour. Blue hour refers to the sliver of time after the sun disappears over the horizon but the sky is still lit, while golden hour is well known to filmmakers as the hour leading up to sunset (or an hour after sunrise). Blue hour is really handy for when you want to illustrate that it’s nighttime but don’t have any way of lighting a scene during actual darkness, and golden hour simply makes everything look gorgeous. There’s even a website that helps you plan for it in advance. That all said…
  • It’s not all about the golden hour. Keeping track of the sun is a very important factor in outdoor filmmaking, but you’ll also need to be conscious of what might get in between you and the sun at any moment — i.e.: clouds. While there’s not much you can do about the weather, you can note down any trees or buildings that might cast shadows at any given time (ideally when you do your first location scout).
  • Make sure everyone on the crew is prepared ahead of time. As with shooting indoors, you don’t want to be spending any more time than necessary setting up a shot or running through lines with the actors, especially when the sun is rapidly heading towards the horizon.
  • Make use of flags. Just as reflectors give you better control of how much light is going where, you’ll often find yourself in a situation where you’ve got too much light (particularly during summer day shoots). Flags — or cutters — are sections of thick black cloth stretched around a metal frame that allow you to block out sections of light and add some dramatic contrasting to the shot.
  • Pay attention to color and emotion. Getting the optimal amount of light is one thing, but getting the right “flavor” is another altogether. Be sure to check out our guide to color design, since a clinically perfect shot without any emotion whatsoever isn’t very compelling.

So there we have it: Hollywood-style cinematography without a Hollywood budget.

Got any of your own tricks on working with natural light? Any lessons you learned the hard way while out in the field? Hit us up in the comments below and share with the class!

Ways to Create Space When Filming in a Small Area

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If you’re having trouble making a confined area appear larger when filming in a small area, you’re not alone; professional filmmakers also find themselves returning to the drawing board when attempting to create space and illustrate depth and scale in a small area. And even with all the fancy CGI and other advanced technology at their disposal, filmmakers often choose to rely on techniques that have been around for almost as long as cinematography itself.

Below are some of the ways you can make your small space feel much grander and make the most out of a limited area — so that you’re not forced to cut any awesome ideas you had in mind. With enough practice, soon you’ll also have an eye for making even a tiny room appear bigger.

DEEP SPACE

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One of the oldest tricks in the book for creating the illusion of depth is called deep space, and can be used to trick the audience’s brain into imagining that the space is deeper than it actually is. Why do we use the word “trick?” Because any screen you are looking at, whether it’s a movie screen, a computer, or your handheld device, the image has height and width but there is no depth. The audiences’ eyes are always focused on the surface of the screen. Depth is an illusion created by photography. But in the look of “deep space,” we are doing everything possible to enhance this illusion.

Here are a number of things you can do to create deep space:

1. Use wide-angle lenses.

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Wide-angle lenses expand space, while telephoto lenses compress space. By using the wide-angle lens, we can create the illusion that the space is much deeper than it actually is. The wider the lens, the deeper the space.

2. Use high number F. stops.

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Using the higher number F. stops (f. 11, f. 22, f. 32) when exposing your image, will dramatically increase your depth of field.  Depth of field is a technical term used to describe how much of the image is in focus. We can have everything in the frame from three inches to infinity in focus or we can shrink depth of field so that someone’s eyes are in focus and the tip of their nose is out of focus. By using high f. stops, we can put the background into focus; the audience will be more likely to look at it. And when they do, their brains will be fooled into thinking that they are refocusing from the foreground to the background and back again, heightening the illusion of depth.

3. Stage your actors perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

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By staging one of your actors in the foreground and another in the background, the audience will be fooled into imagining that they are looking into the distance of the shot.

4. Move your actors perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

Watching the actors move toward or away from the camera will reinforce the illusion of depth in your shot.

5. Move the camera perpendicular to the flat picture plane.

Moving the camera into or out of the shot, even slightly, is like taking the audience by the hand and leading them through the space, giving the depth more credibility.

6. Light with shadow.

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Shadow is something our brains use to determine the depth of objects. Just imagine if I drew a circle on the page. It would appear flat. But as soon as I began to shade it, the circle would have the illusion of a third dimension. So use light to create shadow on your actors and your set, to reveal the contours and depth of your image.

7. Place bright objects in the foreground and keep the background dark.

Bright objects have the illusion of advancing, while dark objects have the illusion of receding. By placin actors in bright costumes, against dark backgrounds, we can enhance the illusion of depth.

8. Place warm colors in the foreground and cool colors in the background.

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Just like bright and dark objects, colors have a similar effect. Warm colors have the optical illusion of advancing, while cool colors have the illusion of receding. So by placing actors in warm colored costumes against cool colored backgrounds, we can, once again, enhance the illusion of depth.

A SIMPLE TRICK FOR DEALING WITH EXTREMELY SMALL SPACES

This all sounds good, doesn’t it? But what if you’re shooting in a really small space, say a bedroom in a typical student apartment. It’s probably the size of a closet! Perhaps the room is so small, you can’t even get the camera inside it. Some cameras are large. If you throw in the tripod, assuming you’re using one, you might find that you’ve taken up 2-3 feet just with the camera. In addition, some lenses have a minimum focusing distance. In other words, even after squeezing the camera into the room, you can’t get far enough away from your subject to focus on it.

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Well, here’s a handy guerilla shooting technique: shoot into a mirror. That’s right. Get a mirror and mount it on the wall and back your camera away. By doing this you can effectively double your distance from your actor. If the mirror is 3 feet from the actor and the camera is 3 feet from the mirror, you’re now 6 feet away from the actor. This means you can use a longer lens if you choose and solve that tricky problem of minimum focus distances. Of course, your image will be flipped left to right. But if that bothers you, you can always flip it back again in the editing room. Naturally, the better the mirror, the less likely you’ll have ripple distortion in the reflected image.  

What’s your favorite trick for capturing expansive footage in a small space? Let us know in the comments below!

Top 10 Cinematography Resources

There are few fields in filmmaking as nuanced as cinematography, and when it comes to getting the best out of your work as a director of photography, knowledge is definitely power.

Today, we’ll be sharing a few well-established ports of call that all cinematographers should check out in order to take their craft to the next level. No matter what level of experience you currently find yourself, the following list will put you in good company:

10 Great Resources for Cinematographers

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Advanced Filmmaking A superb resource with an abundance of video content, much of it aimed squarely at the cinematographer. The premium content comes with a rental fee, but there is a (rather excellent) free video over on the site which will leave you itching for more.

Cinebag No director of photography should be without a good cinematographer’s bag, and this is definitely the place to go in order to pick one up. If you can’t find what you’re looking for over on Cinebag, it probably doesn’t exist.

AbleCine Need quality gear for a production but don’t have access to any and can’t afford to buy it outright? AbelCine is a very reputable rental site with an extensive selection of high-end equipment available, including the mighty Phantom Flex line of high-speed cameras. They also offer attractive equipment financing options (like, 100% financing with no down payments) and other useful cinematography resources on the site too.

Ron Dexter – A cameraman and director with more experience than most of us will ever hope to amass, and he’s not shy with sharing his knowledge, either. His website has, at this point, grown into something of a bible on…well, everything, and you’ll be hard pressed to find an aspect of filmmaking or camerawork that isn’t covered here.

IEC The Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers is exactly what it sounds like; a comprehensive list of a sizeable number of professionals who have or still are working in the industry. It’s by no means a finished list and is indeed ongoing, but it’s already reached a fairly all-encompassing scale.

Cinematography.Net Its presentation might be a little clunky and the idea of a mailing list will sound positively quaint to younger cinematographers, but there has been a wealth of great discussion held on it so far. Even if you don’t want to sign up for the mailing list, over 3,000 pages of all the gold has been archived so far for your browsing pleasure.

Robert Bresson: Notes on Cinematography A short, concise, and highly recommended book from the legendary director Robert Bresson which is widely heralded by many as an essential read for anyone working in the field. Best of all, it’s freely available as a PDF via that link.

American Society of Cinematographers While membership with ASC is conducted by invitation from the organization only (based on their body of work), there is a wealth of free content on the site to benefit from and even more if you become a paid subscriber. The ASC is neither a union nor a guild—in their own words, it’s an ‘honorary association’—and as such should not to be confused with our following entry…

IATSE Dedicated to representing DPs and other camera professionals the world over, the International Cinematographers Guild is the main union for the field operating within the Inernational Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

NYFA Student Resources Okay, so you’re already here but if you surfed on in at random you may not be aware that we’ve got a mountain of other content, from industry trends, useful how-to’s and discussions to get your inspiration flowing. The content is split across fifteen different departments, so no matter whether you’re at cinematography school or studying the art of screenwriting, there’s something for everyone.

Got any other great resources for cinematographers or other film professionals to check out? Sharing is caring—drop a comment with your suggestion below for the rest of the group!