Do you want to become a remarkable cameraman? The best place to start is to study the great masters of cinematography.
First of all, I want to say that the best way to master any part of filmmaking is to just go out there and do it. Do it and fail and try again until you get it right. While this may be the practical approach, there is definitely a more philosophical approach: study the art of filmmaking and learn from those who have mastered it over the years.
If we study cinematography specifically, we can look back on a long and rich history of legendary photography directors. They have contributed to the development of the craft and developed new styles and techniques. You are also the driving force behind the innovations that drive the art form forward on every project.
After having the opportunity to review over a dozen of the greatest cameramen of all time, here are my takeaways. I learned a lot about how they found and developed their style, how they work so skillfully with the contrasts between darkness and light, and how they continue to advance the art of cinematography today.
Find your passion
One of the most intriguing aspects of researching all of these remarkable cameramen has been just researching what makes them all tick. It goes without saying that the life of a cameraman is never easy. It takes extreme passion and commitment. You need to fully immerse yourself in the craft and work on projects 24/7 to bring your vision to life.
However, when you hear a renowned cinematographer like Robert Yeoman talk about finding his creative spark in the video above, it makes a little more sense. And when you delve into how Yeoman shapes his style and vision while promoting an introverted creative like Wes Anderson, you get a clear picture of how deep his passion goes.
Develop your cinematic language
If you look at the career of another notable modern day cinematographer like Rachel Morrison, you can also see just how closely these artists are connected to their craft. Like many DPs, Morrison talks about how she grew up with a camera in hand. To really stand out in cinematography, you need to be passionate about the medium and constantly strive to improve your job.
A cameraman's journey is also shaped by how he can develop his own language as a vehicle for his cinematic storytelling. In the video essay on Morrison above, you can see how she was able to subtly create a unique style and view many of her films using several of the same recording techniques and color palettes.
Explore different angles
It's also interesting to explore the different angles and lenses that cameramen use to bring their worlds to life. Some like to shoot very flat and macroeconomic, exploring the subtle nuances of faces and emotions in the process. In the meantime, others like to work in wide-angle to capture larger-than-life sets and give space and action more context.
The video above, looking at the wide-angle world of legendary DPs like Wally Pfister, is a perfect example of how he directs his films. In his multiple collaborations with Christopher Nolan as well as in his other projects, Pfister uses his wide-angle approach to capture the size of his subjects and to bring the scope of the action to life.
Become a character in the scene
Another fun piece of advice that I find really intriguing comes from aspiring DP director Reed Morano, who has managed to capture their characters with remarkable sincerity and attention to detail. This is in large part due to her approach (which she outlined above) to "become a figure in the scene" with her camera.
A good DP shouldn't just be a fly-on-the-wall or in the background of conflict and action. A strong cameraman like Morano wants to be in the middle of the scene, move with the characters, deal with them and their emotions and give the audience that POV perspective as if they were also in the room.
Experiment early and often
In many ways, those who are just starting out with cinematography are the happiest. In these early years, cinematographers have the leeway to really explore and experiment with the fascinating medium of film. If we look at the innovative cinematography and career of Matthew Libatique, who helped shape many of the Darren Aronofsky cerebral films he directed, you will see how much experimentation there has been.
Libatique owes much of its innovative styles and techniques to its earliest days, playing around with cameras and tinkering with various footage and speeds. His experiments have really enhanced the skills he has relied on throughout his career.
Create a lookbook
Of all of the cinematographers we've introduced and interviewed over the years, Bradford Young gives perhaps the best advice I've ever heard for anyone interested in getting into cinematography, or even just filmmaking in general. Create a lookbook! As he notes in the video above, not only does it help you develop your own look and style, but it also prepares you to overcome the nerves of getting into the industry.
A lookbook doesn't have to be as clear and precise as you see in the example above, as Young explains. As a practical matter, the practice of lookbooking will get your cinematic mind and eye to spot looks and styles that you can eventually develop in your own compositions.
Use cinematography to create sound
One of my favorite examples of the power of cinematography comes from The Quiet Place by DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen. In this film, Christensen does the unthinkable by actually creating sound from the silent practice of cinematography.
Originally trained in the Dogme 95 style and philosophy of filmmaking, Christensen developed a naturalistic approach to cinematography over the years. Their approach gives the filmmaker the ability to use imagery to address the audience in a way that is much deeper and louder than just characters and movement.
Understand the importance of contrast
Another important consideration in reviewing the careers of so many distinguished cinematographers is how much they focus on contrast and the importance of darkness and light. These are really the basic building blocks for the construction of images and recordings. While a cameraman may focus on other elements of color and composition, contrasts are always paramount.
There is perhaps no better example of this than Steven Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. Kamiński shot such famous sequences as the opening scene “Candle Prayer” from Schindler's list. In the interview above, Kamiński shows how important these contrasts between light and darkness are for his cinematography and who he is as an artist.
Use your camera as an extension of yourself
This quote applies to any seasoned DP who has spent a lot of time behind a camera. At a certain point, the art of cinematography is no longer a task and simply becomes an extension of yourself. The camera basically becomes a limb or third eye so a DP can view and capture the world around them.
If you look at some of the exemplary and mind-boggling cinematographies by Ellen Kuras (who made one of my favorite films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) as an example, you can understand how true this concept is. Just looking at her most famous project, you really get the feeling that her camera resembles her vision as we see some of the mesmerizing but truly human moments in the film before our eyes.
Be your director's employee
This should probably go without saying, but if you want to be a successful cinematographer, you're partnering with great directors! This is certainly the case with the legendary Robert Richardson, who has worked with great directors like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. The trick isn't just working with great directors, however. In fact, you are a great contributor yourself.
Richardson has consistently found work with some of the biggest names in the business because he can be a creative partner. He's also a clever servant of the film trade on set. It takes a perfect mix of compatibility and communication to work with a great director and bring his vision to life.
Remember to always wait for the story
Similar to the advice above, another tenet of great cinematography is to always remember that story comes first. When we look back on the cinematography of the late Michael Chapman, who was one of Martin Scorsese's earliest contributors to films like Taxi Driver and the black and white Raging Bull, we get a strong sense of history in every frame.
In the video above, Chapman attributed the success of his work to his constant focus on maintaining the story. He shared his focus with Scorsese, and that focus was why they both found such success.
Be part of a cinematography movement
It's also interesting to take a look at the history of cinematography to see different eras and movements. When Caleb Deschanel first started out with film and cinematography in the 1960s and 1970s, classic Hollywood was still the norm. However, when he set out, he quickly found himself part of a new movement. In addition to contemporaries like Robert Richardson and Roger Deakins, Deschanel brought cinematography into a new and modern Hollywood style.
This doesn't mean that you should just copy what your co-workers are doing. Instead, it means that, similar to Deschanel, it is important to realize that you don't have to do things the way they always have been done. Instead, look for new styles and techniques around every corner.
Push the art forward
One of the biggest hallmarks of what makes a working DP a true film master is his willingness to advance the art form. There are thousands of super talented DPs working on projects all over the world. In order to stand out in a highly competitive industry, however, a certain willingness to take advantage of new technologies and opportunities is required.
As a true innovation provocateur, we must mention Steven Soderbergh's unwavering willingness to move the industry forward. Soderbergh DPs many of his own projects under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. While many studio managers and directors make films bigger, more flashy, and more expensive, Soderbergh continues to use new smartphone video technology to bring filmmaking to a new generation of aspiring filmmakers.
For more insights and resources on cinematography, see the articles below.
Cover picture from bepsy.