Stanley Kubrick

When shooting video, choosing the right camera is an essential decision.  But seeing them in action isn’t easy.   The best way to see this for yourself, aside from testing each camera on your own time, is to watch Zacuto’s “Great Camera Shootout 2011 & 2012”. They gathered up the top cameras used for short and feature motion pictures and put them through a fairly extensive series of real world tests on an interior set. Here’s a link to the shootout on Vimeo.

Spoiler alert! The most common conclusion was that cameras matter less than the artist behind it. With tools in hand, the better results will come from the cinematographers with the most tricks in the bag, so to speak. That said, choosing a camera is the job of the cinematographer. The bigger the budget, the better the cinematographer, and in general, big boys play with bigger toys. Yet, as we will see, an experienced artist will be able to produce high quality content with a lesser camera, and that can be YOU!

I want to show you how to become an experienced cinematographer, and how to do it without spending a fortune. It’s going to a be a rather long journey, spanned across a series of blog posts. This is no simple procedure. Making videos is a lot more complicated than turning on your camera. In the end, you will have the knowledge of what it takes to produce high quality content with a DSLR or another prosumer level video camera. Now, don’t get me wrong:  just reading this is not going to make you a better shooter. You need to practice.

This series will get you ready to explore the world through your own lens.

What is Cinematography?
The art of motion pictures is more than point and shoot.  Cameras can be expensive. The best digital video cameras are used now for major motion pictures by independent producers and studios alike. For example, the latest Will Smith flick was shot on the Sony F65. Capturing moving images with a tiny computer at the end of a camera lens is no small feat. Price points vary and like any other tangible electronic technology, you get what you pay for.

Director M. Night Shyamalan and Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky on the set of After Earth, the first major motion picture to be shot with the new Sony F65 4K camera.

The best digital cameras are incredibly intricate machines designed with very specific functions needed to smoothly and routinely capture the scenes we expect to blow us away in the movie theatre. In the basic sense, cameras capture reflected light. The art of cinematography is not simply the use of a camera, but more significantly it is the placement of light, or painting with light.

With this in mind, consider that a great camera will make lighting a more simplified procedure, where less light is required because of the camera’s sensor and compression codec. This also means that in locations with low ambient light readings, the camera will produce a less noisy image. Cameras with high signal to noise ratios look cleaner and allow for less time spent in post production. Professional cameras also have professional hardware components and features like timecode sync, optical viewfinder, professional lens mounts and of course, a professional quality sensor.

I hope I’m not scaring you. But let’s be clear: there is certainly a difference in consumer and professional camera equipment. The picture above is from a very high budget production. I mean, it’s friggin Will Smith. Most of us aren’t going to be directing photography for M. Night Shyamalan in the near future. But we can go out and produce some really awesome content for a no-budget production.

The DSLR Revolution

The impact of cinematic production is depth of field. That’s what really sets apart the emotional cinematic shots from “video”. Depth of field, or DoF is the separation of two planes in “z-space”, or front to back on a graph. Shallow D0F is when the background is blurred and the foreground is out of focus. You might also notice the opposite, or even a transition from an in-focus background to an in-focus foreground, where the background is now out of focus.

Before we get into DSLR cameras and how they provide this shallow DoF on a budget, it is critically important to note that depth of the field is not everything. There are always exceptions and this one is a whopper. Citizen Kane is often called the best film ever made, and guess what? It was the first major film to throw away the shallow depth of field and put everything in the scene in focus! What! But I thought…it was…the depth of field. Yeah, it is, and it isn’t.

You see, cinematography is about expression of an emotional statement. That’s why it really doesn’t matter what tools you use. It’s about the implementation of those tools you have and how to effectively tell your story.

DSLR cameras are the digital version of 35mm still cameras that use 35mm film.  The digital versions have sensors instead of film but can use the same lenses. More expensive cameras, like the Canon 5D mk II and III, utilize larger sensors that are the same size as a single frame of 35mm film.This means the sensor captures every millimeter the lens is capable of showing it. Cameras like the Canon 7D feature a smaller sensor, which crops the image seen by the lens.

The main reason for using these cameras, even the cheapest DSLR cameras, rather than low cost video cameras, is the larger sensor size. We are going to get into large/small frame DSLRs in the section about sensors. For now, it’s important to note that using a DSLR, and in fact, any camera with the ability to change lenses, is going to provide you with the option of the more cinematic shallow depth of field.

So in short, get a DSLR if you want to learn how to become a cinematographer. I have the Canon T3i.

For more production tips, stay tuned as I explore the ins and outs of digital video production. I’m just getting started.