Can you learn cinematography on your own?

I get asked this question a lot.

Do I have to go to film school to become a cinematographer? In other words: Can I learn cinematography on my own?

Well, the short answer is yes, you can learn cinematography on your own, but…

Before we get into that, let me play devil’s advocate.

If at all you’ve Googled something along the lines of “Should I go to film school?” then you’ve probably come across loads of people telling you that film school is absolutely unnecessary and a complete waste of money. While this is true in so many cases, film school could actually be the right choice for you.

Let’s look at why you might want to go to film school.

  1. Your personality type works well with a school environment. Some people just learn best in a classroom, and then put what they learn into practice afterwards. If you’re one of those, then film school is for you.
  2. You can afford to go to film school. Most people you talk to will argue that film school is extremely expensive, and yes, it can be. But if you can afford it then the point is moot.
  3. You’re looking for instant guidance and support. If you go it alone, you have to find people to constantly validate your efforts, which isn’t easy especially in the beginning when you’ll probably be the only person you know who is interested in cinematography. Film school throws you into a pool of like-minded people whose goal is to see you succeed, and this can help shorten your learning curve.
  4. And finally, most reputable film schools will have vast networks within the industry itself, so it can definitely be easier for you to get your foot in the door as an intern or assistant, which, if you use the opportunity correctly, can help you build up your career much faster.

All that said, it definitely isn’t mandatory to go to film school. A degree in and of itself does not guarantee you a job once you finish film school.

With that in mind, here are some reasons you might opt not to go to film school.

  1. You just don’t have the money. Like most college degrees, at the end of the day film school will still cost you a pretty penny, and more than likely leave you terribly in debt because of student loans. If this isn’t something you’re willing to do, then skip film school altogether.
  2. You want to learn something specific, like how to be a DP. Most film schools will teach you every single thing about filmmaking. Some may help you focus on a single area of filmmaking. Either way, a lot of the time you may feel like your time is wasted learn a bunch of stuff you’re not really interested in learning, so film school may not be the best option for you.
  3. You prefer to work at your own pace and are really self-motivated. Going to film school means you have to go at the pace that the school has set up for you. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people learn much faster than what the curriculum dictates, so they get bored and feel like time’s being wasted. Others prefer to move a lot slower than the curriculum, so they wind up feeling frustrated and discouraged when they can’t keep up. So, if you prefer to do things in your own time at your own pace, then maybe skip film school.

The reasons for and against going to film school could go on and on forever. At the end of the day, you have to really know yourself and evaluate your own situation to make that decision. There is no one way to go about it, so do what works for you.

Here’s a video that will help you further with your decision-making process:

Now, let’s say that you decide not to go to film school. That’s totally fine. You can still become a cinematographer. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.

Here are some things you need to do in order to become a cinematographer without going to film school:

Learn the basic rules of cinematography

Believe it or not, there is quite a bit of theory that goes into cinematography. You don’t just pick up your camera and go. There are some rules and guidelines that you need to follow as a cinematographer.

Now if you’re thinking that rules are terrible and will stifle your creativity, then let me let you in on a secret; you’re a beginner! When you’re a beginner, rules help you create something that isn’t absolute garbage. When you grow from being a beginner, then throw the rule book out and go crazy with your creativity.

So, here are the basic rules of cinematography that you need to learn:

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO

These three are often referred to as the Exposure Triangle. Long story short these three camera settings are what you make sure that you have a properly exposed image that looks good and professional.

Composition

The rule of thirds is a guideline that teaches you how to frame your subject so that your video looks balanced, which goes a long way in telling your story and keeping your video from looking like you’re a complete amateur.

Basic lighting

You need light to create your images. That might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t occur to you to pay attention to your lighting when you first pick up a camera.

The most basic type of lighting that you need to learn is called three-point lighting. You can read this article I wrote to learn more about it. Once you master three-point lighting, you’re on your way to creating great looking films.

Camera shots, angles and movements

How you place and move your camera while you shoot has a massive impact on how good your film looks, your story, and whether or not you are a professional. Your choice of camera shots, angles, and movements will have some of the biggest impact on how your film turns out.

To learn more about the different camera shots, angles, and movements, read this article here.

As a beginner, these four aspects of cinematography are what you need to get started as a cinematographer. Learn these rules, implement them whenever you shoot, and once you don’t even have to think about them, get creative and start to bend them.

Should you be going to film school to learn these basics? Not really. Start with the wolfcrow cinematography playlist, and see how much you can learn by yourself:

Learning the basics of cinematography is very important, but knowing the theory will take you absolutely nowhere until you actually put the knowledge into practice.

Pick up a camera and shoot

Now before you go and start losing your mind over which camera to get, here are a few tips I want you to keep in mind.

  1. Set a budget and stick to it. Most cameras these days can shoot very decent, full HD video, even at entry level. So, before you start thinking you need to buy an Arri Alexa or a Red Dragon to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, take stock of what’s in your pocket, and buy what you can. Besides, you’re a beginner. You wouldn’t buy a 16yr old that just got her driver’s license a Lamborghini as her first car. You’d get her a basic Toyota. Yes, the Lambo is way cooler, but a Toyota can also get her from point A to B. Same thing with your camera.
  2. If you can’t buy, then rent. There are plenty of companies nowadays that rent out their cameras at reasonable rates. If that’s all you can afford at first, then do that. Challenge yourself to rent out a camera for 1 or 2 days a week while you save up to buy your own camera, and just get the hang of the cinematography basics along the way. An added advantage to first renting is you get to test out different camera systems and see which one works best for you, so when the time does come to spend money on your own camera, you already know what you like and don’t like. And if you can’t rent, borrow. I’m sure you know a friend or cousin or uncle’s best friend’s sister from work that has a camera and wouldn’t mind lending it to you. Of course, be respectful and responsible when you do use cameras that you don’t own. It’s just the courteous thing to do.
  3. Use what you have. You’ve probably heard this advice before, but you really can shoot with what you have available to you. While your iPhone definitely won’t shoot like a cinema camera, you can use it to practice the basics such as exposure, framing, composition and camera movements and so on and so forth. Given how good mobile cameras have become, you can squeeze some pretty decent footage out of it and get good practice. Again, the point is to get into the habit of practicing the camera basics until they become second nature to you.

Find a mentor

Whether or not you decide to go to film school, the truth is you still need to learn from someone experienced. No one exists in a vacuum. Find someone who is more experienced than you are and learn from them.

Lucky for you, we live in the digital information age, which means your mentor can literally be a virtual mentor. You can find so many filmmakers on YouTube and blogs who freely share their filmmaking knowledge.

Learn the basics from them, try them out, and keep learning until you get better.

You can also volunteer to work on shoots with local filmmakers in your area, or take on assistant roles in productions, or even look for internships. You will probably be doing a lot of grunt work in the beginning, but trust me, learning to run cables and set up monitors for clients and other such work is invaluable for your career. Plus, you get to watch pros work up close and personal, and you have the chance to ask as many questions as you like.

As your skills grow, you will have the opportunities to do less of the grunt work and more of the cinematography roles, and before you know it, you’re a cinematographer.

Learn to edit

Yes, you want to be a cinematographer, and don’t particularly love the idea of sitting in front of the computer to piece videos together. However, the advantage to learning to edit is you get so much better at telling visual stories.

You learn what shots go together to tell a specific story, how to pace yourself, etc. By learning to edit, you learn to shoot with intention because you now know how to shoot for the story. This will help make sure you always shoot the content you need, saving you time and helping you make a better film.

Editing also forces you to look at your footage from a different perspective. You get to see where your weaknesses in your shooting skills might be, which then allows you to really focus on learning a particular skill so that you get better and better.

Be patient and keep learning

Nobody comes out of the gate producing award winning work, so pace yourself. Don’t expect your first project to be outstanding. In fact, don’t expect your 100th project to be outstanding. But you can expect it to be hell of a lot better.

There is always more room to grow, more techniques to learn, more ways to be creative as a cinematographer.

As long as you’re willing to learn and grow you will get better.

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