Learn the Techniques and Styles of Great Cinematographers

Understanding the Cinematography of Conrad Hall

A quick look at the cinematography techniques and style of Conrad Hall.

What makes Conrad Hall a great cinematographer is he adapts his style to the director and movie he is working on.I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style. Just to be clear: Conrad Hall changed his style to suit the movies he shot. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.


I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else. 

How he started lighting

He started with the key light. He pointed it at the actors (see next), to set up the exposure and mood.

Once he completed this, he started placing peppers, fresnels, bounce sources, etc., to throw light around the set. His unique contribution to this approach was that these additional pockets of light were always motivated by the key itself, and not any other lighting supposedly in the scene.

He also used mirrors a lot to get directionality and contrast.

Lighting faces

He had three signatures:

  • The slash light or liner – which is the traditional kicker or slash light, except he uses it almost like it was an ‘accident’.
  • The top-side light- which is to the top and side of an actor’s face, so the temple is hottest.
  • The under-light – exactly like the top-side, but from the bottom. This was his key look, and he used it a lot.

The frequently put his faces in half shadow, and he loved playing with those edges of light. He exposed for a lot of contrast, and he was unafraid of the shadows.

Lenses and aperture

He loved to shoot wide open for a shallow DOF look. His unique lighting style allowed him to project a perception of depth even though the depth of field was so small.

He typically used mid (28mm) to telephoto (250mm) lenses, and rarely used wides. He chose the lens for the story.

Camera movement

He followed classical movement techniques, and rarely used handheld. He had a lot of aerial shots in many films, but that could be because the director called for it.

He never imposed his views on the director, so he stayed out of composition and blocking, unless he was asked to take over these functions.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Conrad Hall’s work, please watch the movies he shot. Not only is the lighting top notch, the movies are actually good!

2 replies on “Understanding the Cinematography of Conrad Hall”

You seem very sold on the Sony your techniques apply to say canon 5d? or do you think the sony a7s does stuff the 5d cannot?
have you done any training for the canon 5d? or do you take a view.
(respect your work so much)

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