5 Excellent Books on Cinematography and Lighting

The internet is abound with thousands of videos and articles on cinematography and lighting, but it is an impossible landscape to traverse if you’re a newcomer.

Books have the advantage of ‘having material in one place’, by an experienced and skillful teacher, that you can refer to at any time. This article lists five such books on cinematography and lighting that you shouldn’t start without.

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What makes a good cinematography book?

  • The quantity of information – whatever the topic, lenses, lighting, meters, etc., it should cover the whole gamut of issues associated with the topic.
  • The quality of information – good information comes from solid research. Great information can only come from experience. A good book needs both.
  • A good teacher – It is one thing to know something, and yet another to be able to teach that to those who don’t share your knowledge or talents.

It’s only if a book on cinematography has all three ingredients that it deserves a place here.

Remember, cinematography is not ‘which camera to buy’. It is the art of brewing aesthetics, composition, movement, exposure and lighting. You better ensure your brew is tasty.
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Here are my picks:

1

Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors, by Blain Brown

Start from scratch. This is the only book you need to learn the basics – quickly and efficiently. It’s not a thick book, and won’t take up much time. However, you will need to refer back to it often until the theory and tools have sunk in.

The only complaint I have about this book is that half the images are small and pixelated. But that can be forgiven. Writing books isn’t very lucrative, compared to being a dentist. Securing licensing and paying for copyrighted stills is not easy.

The words make up for it.

2

Reflections: Twenty-One Cinematographers At Work, by Benjamin Bergery

It’s time to step into the set, with real, hard-working cinematographers, to see how all the theory you read in book one is put into practice. It’s an eye-opener, and will keep your ego in check.

It will also inspire.
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3

Painting With Light, by John Alton

This is supposedly the first book by a cinematographer on cinematography. It doesn’t matter where it stands, but be thankful it exists. It’s by one of the masters of film-noir – also known as ‘How to light fast and cheap, and still make it look good’.

Sound familiar? I thought so. No matter who you are, you aren’t going to start with a Hollywood crew with truckloads of light. You have to start with small tools, cheap tools, and a lot of DIY tools. Get with the program.

4

Storaro: Writing with Light, by Vittorio Storaro

Don’t buy this book new. It’s way too expensive. This book is about the one thing most cinematography books lack – the tool that is often forgotten – yourself.

What are your thoughts, and how do you see and feel light? What should all this mean to you, and how are you going to translate that into your work? Where is your personal voice (some call it style) going to come from?

Many people misunderstand the purpose of this book. If you are afraid to look within yourself, don’t buy this book. If you do buy it, remember that it is his way, not your way. He is just showing you how to think.

5

A subscription to American Cinematographer

Learning is a lifelong pursuit. Once you know the basics and start practicing it, the next step is to keep getting better. There’s no publication like the American Cinematographer magazine. Here’s what you get:

  • Detailed advice on how major Hollywood movies are lit.
  • Resources and information about technical equipment.
  • Access to vendors, advertisements and other equipment currently in the market.
  • It’s available as a digital download worldwide.
  • They ship worldwide, if you prefer the paper version.

Really, there is no excuse to not get a subscription if you’re serious about cinematography.

That’s the list. There’s only so much books or teachers can teach you. Eventually you have to start doing things yourself. You have to learn to teach yourself.

It’ll take a lot of failure before you see consistent successes, and that’s the point of it all – to be able to deliver your vision under the constraints of a movie schedule and budget.

You are always being judged.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free swipe file on how to shoot night scenes well (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

11 replies on “5 Excellent Books on Cinematography and Lighting”

  1. I highly recommend “Lighting for Cinematography: A Practical Guide to the Art and Craft of Lighting for the Moving Image. The CineTech Guides to the Film Crafts” aswell. It’s well explained, and uses Low/Semi Budget Productions insteed of Hollywood Blockbusters for the illustrations and lighting schematics throughout the book. Plus, on the end of each chapter is a short recap and suggestions for exercises to practice with.

  2. Hai I want to be a cinematographer pls help me what are the book are very important for learn lighting and cinematography

  3. My 13 year old son likes digital photography and loves his Phantom 4 drone which he saved for 3 years for (still owes us money). Is like to encourage his interest in cinematography and wonder which book is best suited for him. He also likes mist and fog and wind…and is very sensory. Thank you. “An Encouraging Mom”

    1. That is some great parentage. As the article ended with, exploration and practice give exposure and experience to move forward in cinema making. Do encourage your kid to make niche projects, participate in festivals and join interest hubs. Wish you all the best.

  4. Am an intending cinematographer. thanks for your advise, i will start from the scratch by getting the book writing by Blain Brown..i think its an excellent book that will be a good beginning for me.thus, see how quickly it can help me…

    Henry

  5. I have “Cinematography” and “Film Lighting”, both by Kris Malkiewicz. These are old books from the 1980s. And though they don’t cover digital acquisition and LED lighting was used for nothing more than indicator lamps in that era, the sections on exposure, lighting techniques, and double system sound recording are all relevant today.

    That said, I’m sure these are all excellent books.

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