On Cinematography

Revised from materials found in "On Cinematography". Written 30 June 1978, revised 10 December 1978 and updated on 30 September 1999 for the Web.

It is assumed that your Director of Photography (also called the DP, the Cinematographer or the Cameraman) knows something about the basics of photography and can properly use a camera and light meter. The term "Cameraman" when used alone, does not refer to the Camera Operator.

This section is not meant to be a textbook explanation of the activity of camera work, but rather a quick guide so you know what your cameraman is doing, or supposed to be doing, and so you can get out there yourself and shoot if an emergency comes up. This description is written from the point of view of an Editor and Director, hence these are the points to know so that footage is accorded the best result possible under the circumstances.

Getting Setup and Ready


The ideal scene is that, in addition to this, the set is lit in accordance with the natural light sources present in the situation. Further, when the film is processed, we cannot tell that there was any lighting at all (unless, of course, a special effect was desired).

In order to get set-up and ready, the DP gets together with the Director first thing at the beginning of the shooting day. The Director will indicate the set-ups that will be needed. Once the DP knows this, he will know the basic direction the scene will be shot from and can light it accordingly.

The first thing he does is to find out where the main source of illumination for the scene is naturally coming from. This will then give him a starting point as to where to place the key light. For our purposes here, the exposure index will be 125ASA, as with the 5247 stock. The main light, (the "Key Light"), should be about 125-250 footcandles. (Of course, if you are using the higher speed 5295, stock (ASA 400) your Key light should be reduced by a factor of about 3.2.) The Key Light should be placed near where light is naturally emanating from, be it a window, or a lamp, whichever is the proper source.

The space that the actors will be in should have the most lighting, unless a special effect is wanted or some object is desired to be lit for story purposes or to provide depth. Do not light the set. The DP should concentrate on aiming the key light where the actors will be. The gaffer will assist the DP in doing this because he will have gloves and it is his job to physically place these lights. The DP should have the light meter and be constantly vigilant to how bright (hot) the light is when the subject is lit. (If the actors are not present on the set, use stand-ins to adjust the lights.)

Once the key light is up, the DP should check to see that it is the correct intensity. The correct intensity is the intensity that was established at 125-250 footcandles for 5247 stock. The DP should try to keep every shot lit at the same key light intensity. This will give uniformly exposed footage and the background will stay reasonably the same in density.

The main thing is to light the actors, not the backgrounds. They can be dealt with last if they need to come up or go down. The DP will have the desired footcandle intensity at the point of the subject when The DP can register 125-250 footcandles on the incident light meter when pointed at the camera lens. This should be done with a flat reader on the meter so that direct light from the key is read. There will be more information about the setting of exposure later.

Once the key light is set, the DP should make sure that it does not get too hot on the actor if he or she walks close to it. The way to avoid this is to place what is called a half scrim over the key light. This is nothing more than a piece of screen that cuts the light intensity down at the bottom portion of the light bulb. The DP can improvise scrims by using gaffers tape placed at similar places in front of the light or he can use light management tools called, "cutters," to get the right light intensity at all the necessary places.

Placing the Fill Light(s)

The fill light should just fill in the shadows created by the key light. It should not light them all the way to as bright as the key but to a point about half as bright or a third as bright. This is called the contrast ratio. If the key light is 250 footcandles, the fill light should read about 64-125 footcandles. This intensity is read with the flat reader on the incident meter from the location of the subject to be filmed. The intensity of the fill light should be checked with the key light off.

The fill light should be diffused light and can be sprinkled into the shadows with a number of different lamps. Even 250 or 500 watt photoflood bulbs (in or out of a reflector) can be hidden around the set. These can be placed wherever more shadow detail is wanted but be careful not to let them glare into the camera.

Check the overall lighting contrast with a contrast viewer.


The ideal scene for the exposure is:


Basic exposure (BE) is attained by pointing a good incident light meter at the key source of light from the position of the subject. To get the most accurate results, The DP should change the flat meter over to the hemisphere reader. This hemispherical reader will give the DP a reading of the combined effect of all the lights. The reading should be appropriate to the emulsion speed (ASA) being used.

The DP is the only one that sets the T stop (f stop) on the camera and does so with each take.

Camera Movement

MOVE A CAMERA SLOWLY AND STEADILY. This is the basic rule. A camera does not see like an eye. Eyes don't see bumps and jerks and vibrations; cameras do. Bumpy, jerky photography equals headaches.

The camera should be on a fluid head tripod as most other tripods are useless. A fluid head tripod allows The DP to start up a pan without a little jerk. Almost all other non-fluid head (friction) tripods cause this little jerk when you try to pan (or tilt).

Keep the subject looking into the frame, not out of the frame.

There is nothing worse than "painting the screen" with a camera. This is the action of indecisively sweeping the camera over the subject and around and then back again as if one were painting and they missed a spot or zooming in and then zooming out in the same shot within a few seconds. This looks like crap and is amateurish (unless you're shooting a modern commercial). The camera should be put where it needs to be and kept there long enough to pick up whatever it has to pick up.

Also, a word on moving the camera too slowly: If the Operator moves the camera too slowly, when an action requires finesse, the camera is dead. It is sluggish and the audience's attention is on the camera work for a second. Example: The actor stops, turns, and walks over to the door. The camera stops on the actor, but the actor gets going over to the door before the camera gets moving to follow him. The actor almost walks out of the frame for an instant and then the camera "catches up" at the door. This is discount-cinematography. One way to correct for this is to ask the operator if he is listening to the camera while filming and if so have him practice following an actor around with an unloaded but running camera until the "sluggish" camera phenomenon is gone. Sometimes the cameraman tends to introvert his attention into the camera by being too aware of its running noise. His attention is not totally on the subject that he is filming and hence the subject "gets away" from him.

Feature Film Camera Movement

The basic difference to the technique used in features as opposed to documentary work is the fact that the feature is done in a more controlled environment, controlled in a sense that the camera is set up deliberately every time to record a portion of the action.

Classically, the camera should be aimed at the subject and kept rock-steady throughout the shot. When it is necessary to record action that moves throughout the set, it is, of course, necessary to move the camera in accordance, but much of the time it is not necessary because the continuation of the action can be picked up by a new angle and this new angle can usually be best ascertained when in editing.

Modern technique allows more fluid movement, especially when a Steadycam is used, which is quite common. The point is that, in feature work, there need not be as much camera movement (as in documentary work) but instead a higher variety of angles whether arrived at by many set ups or through a complex tracking arrangement with the steadycam constantly reframing the subject. Movement can be used as long as it is kept under good control and there is a purpose for the movement.


There is something about a BIG picture that a cheap looking low budget picture doesn't have - what is it? Cinematic DEPTH. The fact that almost always on a BIG picture the camera is slightly moving in almost every shot. This generates DEPTH to the scene.

This motion can be a tracking motion with objects moving past the foreground or a lowering or rising motion on a crane. The motion many times should be so slow one can only barely perceive it. Never should the motion draw attention away from the story, (unless it is desired, such as a series of mini jump cuts in). If it does, calm it down or use motion on a combination of different axes.

Action Shooting

High energy action scenes require that the action be followed by any means possible so long as the mosaic of cinematic images can be put together to establish important events and tell the story at the require tempo. Blurs and swishes of objects moving in proper directions are usually built in the editing room.

Hand-held shots are a very useful tool for action shots that require a frantic or running look - such as POV shots. Steadicam or Panaglide shots are useful for providing continuous objective shots that will constantly reframe the subject and keep the scene cinematically dynamic.

It is not unwise to shoot the entire production with a Steadicam or Panaglide.

The DP should see to it that the operator, if he himself is not operating, understands all this.



A zoom is nothing more than the z coordinate of the camera's motion. The x coordinate is pan, the y coordinate is tilt. Like the other motions, its execution abides by the same rules. A track is like a zoom but it should be done when the camera has to get a new point of view in order to execute a more effective pan or tilt.

Quick Shots

A camera should not be used like a rapid burst machine gun. Any rapid shots can be cut out in the editing, even the mini jump cuts described above. Sometimes, the editor may need, and usually does need, head and tail footage if he wants to put in a fade or a dissolve. This does not mean shots should be too short either.


A film's quality is not equal to its shooting ratio (even though Von Stroheim may beg to differ with you). There is no reason why an Oscar-winning feature cannot be made at a filming ratio of 2 to 1.

In the world of feature filming, the editor, whose job it is to make some sense out of thousands of feet of footage, wants certain things.

1. He does not want the greatest shot in the world (or the worst) covered from three or four camera angles differing by only a few degrees.

2. He does not want unsteadiness in the middle of the shot and all the rest of the shot perfectly steady and award-winning. Do the whole shot over and get it right.

3. He does not want all the shots of a dramatic passage atdifferent pan, tilt and zoom rates (xyz rates) unless the passage changes in tempo.

4. And (a documentary editor in particular) does not want a great shot that has only one entrance.

While it is the Director's responsibility to make sure that these things do not happen, Directors do flub on them and this is where the editor can come in very handy. There are not millions of things to keep in mind. Most of cinematography comes down to common sense and the point of view of: "WHAT WILL THIS LOOK LIKE PHYSICALLY ON A SCREEN."

Focus Pulling

The larger the T stop (f stop) number, the more depth of field the DP will have to work with.

Generally, a tape measure or a rolling measurer are the best means of measuring the distance from the film plane to the subject for the focus setting. Sometimes the camera's through-the-lens focus is off.

WHEN A SHOT REQUIRES A ZOOM IN, ALWAYS SET THE FOCUS AT THE LONGEST FOCAL LENGTH AND THEN PULL BACK TO THE WIDER ANGLE FOR THE HEAD OF YOUR SHOT. If there are many different focus steps on the way to telephoto position each point will be in focus. The point to be made here is, unless focus is grabbed at telephoto position the operator may find that the in-focus picture at 25mm goes disappointingly out of focus as you approach that 75mm focal length.

Little pieces of tape should be placed on the lens barrel to indicate the various focus stops to be made by the first assistant cameraman.

When in doubt, focus as if the subject were farther away than closer.

Glares & Loud Colors

Glares show up if you squint and can be reduced by spraying them with dulling spray, readjusting the light or twisting the glaring object (to change the polarization sometimes in connection with a polarization filter over the camera lens).

The contrast range should be kept within the ability of the film being used. Get rid of any pure, bright whites in the wardrobe or on the set as these usually wash out the image. It is better if your actors wear off-whites and shades of colors.

Make sure extras do not wear loud colored clothes that will attract in the background.

Working with the Crew

The people the DP works with and can do the hats of are:

a) The Camera Operator

b) The Gaffer

c) The First Assistant Cameraman

d) The Second Assistant Cameraman

e) The Key Grip

The DP is mainly responsible for seeing that these posts are operating correctly so that he can get his product of QUICK EFFICIENT SET-UPS. He stays in direct communication with the Director at all times, unless the Director is in the middle of a thought process. The DP works directly with the Gaffer in getting the lights right.

When things are ready to be filmed, the DP should let the Director know. If there is an Assistant Director (First AD), the DP tells him that he is ready and the First AD will relay to the Director the state of affairs of not only the DP and his crew, but also all the other departments and their states of readiness.

Lee Garmes

These materials were inspired by a dear friend and associate, the late Lee Garmes who was an unaccredited DP for "Gone With the Wind." Lee showed me many of his fantastic lighting techniques while on the set of SHAME, SHAME ON THE BIXBY BOYS, the last feature he was connected with. I have only scratched the surface of what he taught me with the material in this chapter as his experience was gained from DPing over one hundred classic feature motion pictures. I showed earlier versions of this write-up to Lee when I used to work with him as his personal assistant each day in LA and he endorsed it. In fact, we made a tape about his career and cinematography. This is the last such tape ever made. We covered many fascinating subjects such as how he worked with Alfred Hitchcock, his view on videotape technology, lighting sets, cameras, lenses, and how he would like to see the industry change after he is gone.

© 1979, 1989, 1996, 1999 by James R. Jaeger II All Rights Reserved