Cinematography Tips

Cinematography Tutorial for Beginners

This is cinematography by numbers, for absolute beginners. Make great video from day one!

A cinematography tutorial for beginners should be so good you’ll win next year’s Oscar, right? Wait, if you really think you are entitled to that, please hit stop. All this video will show you is how to not suck when you are starting out. It’s cinematography formula 101, by numbers.

If this upsets you, don’t watch. I show you the exact settings you can start out with so your video is professional right from day one.

Exclusive Bonus: Download your FREE Blueprint: How to make a movie. A complete visual representation + video of the filmmaking process from beginning to end.

Here are the steps:

Number 1: Define your subject.

You can’t frame what you don’t know, or see. There’s lots to learn about composition, in fact, it’s my next video, so please subscribe to see that. It’s coming in a few days. For now, just remember to identify who or what you’re shooting, and ask yourself one simple question:

How much of this person or thing should I be seeing at this point in time in the story?

Is the head good enough, maybe a bit of…chest hair? Or the whole package? What do you really think the audience wants to see? Then show them that. In other words, make sure all of that is in the frame.

Number 2: Focus on that subject.

Either through the mystical powers of auto focus or the surefire techniques of manual focus, get your subject and his divine vessel sharp. Painters never paint their important subjects out of focus, at least not until the nineteenth century. They knew what your optician knows today, what is sharp draws attention. What is fuzzy gives you a headache.

If you’re focusing on a face, focus on the eyes. If you’re focusing on the whole body, focus on the eyes. If you’re focusing on a tree, then focus on the eyes of the imaginary bird sitting on its branch. If you’re focusing on anything else, draw an imaginary eye on the spot you want to focus on, and focus on that.

There’s a great story of Arjuna focusing on a bird, and he tells us what focus is. When everyone else was asked what they saw, they saw the bird. But Arjuna only saw the eye of the bird, and the universe ceased to exist. Moral of the story for cinematographers?

Focus on the eye, even if it’s not there, period.

Number 3: Head room.

Head room is space above the head. Whether you have a person or tissue paper in the frame, you give it some space above. You can break this rule, like every other rule in the book. But to a beginner, you must first follow and understand the rules before you can break them meaningfully. Otherwise you’re just breaking it blunderingly.

So give some space, but not too much space. Follow Hitchcock’s advice. The most important thing should be the biggest in the frame. So if it’s a head of a person, then let it fill most of the frame, but leave just an inch or two gap above. Don’t position them further down, unless you want to create the impression they’re sinking.

Follow this rule for anything, cars, coffee mugs and cats.

Number 4: The rule of thirds.

Keep the subject off center. Your days of imitating Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson will come, but not today.

The rule of thirds is simple, so simple cameras have them as reference guides – so use them!

  1. Divide the frame into three columns and three rows, equal in length.

The four points where the lines intersect are your anchors. Put the most important thing in any one of the four anchors. If it’s a face, then the eye will fall on the top left or top right anchor. If it’s a wider shot, you can anchor something to the lower point.


2. Draw a box around the four anchors. These are for longer objects.

A full person or a telephone pole or a rocket is vertical, so will fall on either the left or the right line. A car or a log is horizontal, so can fall on the horizontal lines.

As simple as that. Typically, try to avoid the lower line, so now you just have to deal with two points, one horizontal line, and either the left or the right vertical line.

How do you know you should pick the left or right vertical line? Simple. Pan your camera and look in both directions. Pick the one that has less distracting elements on the opposite side.

The rule of thirds is like lined paper toddlers use to learn the alpabet. With some practice, you won’t need the lines, and after a couple of years you’ll turn so cocky you’ll start scribbling like a doctor. But don’t start out like that, okay? You must earn the right to be illegible.

Number 5: Exposure.

Here’s my video on what exposure is:

Exposure is not a simple thing, yet it is something you need to do even when you’re starting out. Basic rules:

  1. Use the standard picture profile or preset. It’s usually the first on on the list.
  2. Don’t use autoexposure. Use the in-camera meter as shown below.
  3. Set your shutter to 1/50s, and try to keep your ISO as low as possible.
  4. Learn to manipulate either the aperture or the ISO for exposure, but as you progress through my learning cinematography playlist, you’ll see how you can break all the rules.

And do you see that cool squiggly thing called the histogram? Turn it off forever.

How to use the in-camera meter

Turn it to spot meter. Point it at the face you’re trying to expose, then follow this simple beginner’s rule. For Caucasian skin, it’s okay if the face is overexposed by one stop. For brown skin like mine, middle grey is good enough. This means your meter will read 0 or it’ll be in the center. For darker skin, half or one stop under is fine.

When you point the camera at your subject, tell them: “Wow, the camera really loves you!”, and it’ll make them more confident. Confidence will make them look good, and that’ll make you look good.

For complicated subjects where there are too many things in the frame, change your meter to multi or matrix metering or whatever the camera manufacturer calls it. It uses an algorithm to measure the entire scene and calculates an exposure. Of course, that’s not how the pros do it. But some pros still miss decent exposure with all the tools they have at their disposal, so you could be a lot worse off.

Stick with these two rules for exposure for now. Spot meter for faces and multi blah blah meter for wide shots.

Number 6. Use a slider on a tripod.

Why on earth am I asking you to complicate things by adding a slider on a tripod?

It’s simple really. If you start out by buying just a tripod you might never progress on to a slider, so you’ll never really begin to learn about camera movement. And if I told you to buy a gimbal so you can dance around like a monkey then it’ll be a long time before you understood the value of a tripod. Sliders are cheap, a two or three feet slider is more than enough.

What you do is move the camera gracefully, no matter what you’re shooting. It’s okay. It will teach you to focus and pan the camera at the same time. If you’re not confident you can lock it down and not move at all. But sooner or later you will get the itch, and then start moving.

How should you move? Simple, follow that famous equation you learned in high school. E=mv² (not c), just in reverse:

v (speed of movement) = E² (Energy of the shot)

The energy of the situation or scene decides how fast. If it’s a moody scene, we have energy 1. Music video or action or dance is highest, Energy 3. There is no energy 2. When the shot will actually not benefit from any extra energy, comedy is a great example of that, then energy is zero. The speed of the movement is always square of the energy required. In other words, square of energy 1 is still 1, so move real slow for moody scenes. Square of energy 3 is 9, so move faster than you think you need. How do you know when it’s fast enough? Just listen to the music if it’s a music video. If it’s not a music video, download a temp track and use that as reference. Move to the music. If there’s no music, hum something in your head.

The most important lesson here is to be consistent. If you have moved at a certain speed for one shot, then follow through with it for all the shots in the same scene, or you’ll have hell of a time editing it later.

And finally, number 7. The “spotlight”.

I don’t mean you need a light, because lighting is a whole different thing that you can’t take for granted.

But this is more about positioning your subject. Whether it’s a face or an object, try to get it more brighter than the background. If it’s dark skin tones, or if the object is dark, then try to contrast that with the background. So the spotlight can be light or dark, but the idea is to position your subject in such a way he or she stands out from the background.

You need to look around. Don’t just put your tripod down in some random spot and shoot from there. Do a spin, sometimes the opposite angle is better. You’ll never know if you didn’t take the extra three steps to see for yourself. So do that, and make sure when you position the subject, he or she contrasts with the background,

Then look at the face. Now here’s the thing. If the subject is the most important thing in the frame, and you’ve defined it already, remember? Don’t tell me you forgot point number one! The subject is the most important thing, so it stands to reason the audience wants to see it clearly. Good exposure is one way, but still, look for shadows. Do you see any ugly shadows on the face? If there are hard shadows, then turn the subject either completely towards the light or completely away from it. You can also try with the light at a 45-degree angle and make sure it’s a bit from above.

What light? You don’t have any lights. Of course you do. If you’re outdoors, it’s the sun. If it’s indoors it might be a window or a ceiling light or a monitor or a glass façade. You can always find some light, otherwise we would all be recording with the lens caps on.

Just make sure the subject has even light on their features, so you can see it clearly. We can worry about lighting patterns and other things later, I have a whole lighting guide for faces you could look into. But for now, just keep things even. Fully lit, or fully in the shade.

That’s it. Try these things and perfect them. Think of these as beginners exercises from which obviously you’ll move on to better and greater things. But seriously, if you actually follow these tips, even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll end up with decent video.