Ask yourself: What makes you special?
Why would anybody hire you over the other person?
Is it because of the tools you are able to buy? Think again.
Your tools don’t make you special anymore
Tools are only special if they are rare or too expensive for the competition. Like a Rolls Royce car or He-man’s sword.
There was a time when cameras were out of reach, and color grading software was out of reach. Today, you can own everything for less than $5,000, all inclusive. It would look something like this:
- A Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (Amazon, B&H) – about $1,295
- Accessories, batteries and media – about $1,000 or less
- A good lens like the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 II (Amazon, B&H) – about $1,000 (or you can even buy cheap older prime lenses with adapters)
- DaVinci Resolve Studio (Amazon, B&H) – $299
- A decent PC or laptop – about $1,500.
You get the idea. This isn’t a back-breaking amount for most people, even in India where I live. If you are really passionate, you’ll find a way to get this much money.
Your tools don’t make you special anymore, at least not at the beginner level, where everyone starts from.
At the other extreme you have expensive cameras like the Arri Alexa, Master Prime lenses, Baselight color grading suites and so on. But even people with access to these are struggling. Once you start earning good money you can lease or pass on these expenses to your client or producer. Prices have plummeted, and people outsource a lot of work to the lowest bidder.
Back to cinematography…
Anybody can buy a cheap camera (and a good one!) and one great lens. You don’t need a lot of talent or knowledge to open up the aperture and get shallow depth of field. It’s not so special when everyone can do it!
What can make you special?
Good budgets and access to great crew can make you special. But we don’t have that.
Great production values can make you special. But that takes money. We don’t have that.
Great and well-known actors can make you special. But that takes money and success. We don’t have that.
Networking, that’s important. But it takes years.
What can we have that can help us stand out?
In between, learn lighting. For this reason:
Good lighting is hard to achieve.
Why you should learn film lighting
Lighting is one of the last few skills you can learn that will set you apart. It will help you deliver consistent and professional results quickly.
Let me explain.
What about production values?
Nobody will give you beautiful actors, expensive clothes and great locations when you start out. You might get lucky with one of these things, but not all three.
When you don’t have all three you won’t get the same results as those shows you see on Netflix. Good actors in good locations will look good regardless of the lighting.
But when you have average to decent-looking actors (with average makeup and clothes) in average locations, lighting is what will save the day.
The sad truth for most filmmakers is, your locations won’t match those found in Hollywood movies. You’ll be lucky to find one good background. Here are some reasons why even locations that appear okay on first look might not work:
- Audio – Noise pollution and reverberation can ruin audio, and your reputation. Human beings have a lot of tolerance for poor images, but very little for poor audio.
- Natural lighting – Windows or lighting fixtures in the wrong places just make people look bad on camera.
- Space – There might not be enough space for you to place a camera or lighting equipment. Or, your best angle might be in the middle of a corridor everyone needs to access all the time.
- Matching – Even if one scene has a great location, the others might not. And scenes and shots are meant to be cut together.
Or think about it this way – your competition has access to the same locations (unless you own a castle). Everybody can access the same parks, forests, cafes, restaurants, schools, cars and so on.
The budgets that we work under make it difficult to raise production values with great locations. My point is, don’t assume you’ll get good locations.
The mistake, is to expect it. What are you going to do when you don’t have great locations?
The only thing you can do.
Why producers are paying less
Below average cinema production is easy to achieve. Every kid with a camera is making a movie at some point. When all you can deliver is average or below average video, and everyone can match that – your producer looks for the lowest bidder.
Ask yourself: If you see the same bad lighting from every cinematographer or filmmaker who pitches for a job, wouldn’t you pick the cheapest? I would, because it’s cheap, and paying more won’t get me any extra quality.
So follow this rule:
The key to landing high-end projects is to deliver value that others cannot match.
Watch high-end commercials or movies. All said and done, the teams that execute those videos are at the top of their game.
They get access to the best equipment, studios, lights, actors, models and locations. You might wonder why they don’t call you instead.
Ask yourself: Would you call a plumber (no offense to plumbers) who specializes in low cost housing to work on your expensive mansion?
That’s exactly how the high-end video business works. If you want to land high-end movies or documentaries, you’d better have something your competition doesn’t.
This is the truth:
Most producers and moviegoers can’t tell the difference between a Red Epic and a red toothpick.
What about my “connections”?
If you have connections today, somebody else can make them tomorrow. After all, your connections usually aren’t your best friends. They’ll change their crew as quickly as they’ll change office chairs if that will get them more profits.
People retire or change jobs. Or they have just been handed a budget cut.
Exceptions exist, but they are exceptions. They might make an exception for you today, but they could just as easily take exception tomorrow.
Don’t think so? Won’t you do the same? Won’t you change cameras or your assistant if they don’t perform well enough? Aren’t you always looking for the best deal?
What if you aren’t the best deal today? What if you have great connections, but your way of doing things is so last decade? You do want to keep your advantage, don’t you?
Connections only come through when they feel confident about your abilities.
The easiest way to keep your connections is to remind them of your value – by demonstrating it continually.
So how can I stand apart?
Be being creative.
It doesn’t mean you have to win awards or anything. It doesn’t mean you have to sell large oil paintings for millions of dollars either. All it means is you have to be different.
And you are different, by birth. Your life is different, your experiences are different, and the people you know are different.
What you think is different, and how you feel is different.
Use your differences to your advantage.
In the world of filmmaking, the single-most powerful skill you can have to stand apart and be different is lighting.
Lighting is unique. It’s almost impossible to copy, it’s like a fingerprint.
At the very least you should attempt to get better at lighting, and the better clients will start noticing. Otherwise they’ll just look at your price tag.
How do I learn lighting?
There are only two ways to learn anything:
- By yourself, from whatever resources are available to you, or
- By learning from somebody who will save you time and money wasted on trial and error.
I learned the first way. And it took me years just to understand and grasp basic concepts. Then it took a few more years to actually use it, make mistakes, learn from some of my mistakes – and not learn from others.
It took me more than a decade just to get comfortable. I made it too hard for myself.
Learning this way helped my ego, but nothing else. But I have an excuse. I didn’t have the resources (especially the Internet) when I was young. I didn’t have any contacts either. The libraries I had access to had almost zero film books.
What’s your excuse?
Don’t bother answering that. By the time you do, somebody else is already pitching for the projects you want. Time is the only thing you can’t buy, no matter how much money you have.
What if people copy my lighting?
Not if it’s good.
When I started I thought it would be easy to copy lighting. There are countless YouTube videos that tell you where to place lights, and voila! You should get the same effect, right?
Maybe you’ll land one or two looks. But not the whole movie.
That takes expertise armchair YouTubers can’t match. They can’t do it, because it can’t be copied.
When I really started lighting I understood why it’s almost impossible to copy a great cinematographer. I have a whole series of videos on understanding the cinematography of great cinematographers, and the one thing they have taught me is:
Your vision is unique.
How’s that so? I’ll try to explain, though to really know you have to start lighting yourself.
You can see other people riding a bike, but until you do, you can’t know how it really feels.
Most aspiring cinematographers have been led to believe they have to buy a “newer light” or “better lens” or whatever. The constant stream of marketing from companies hides the one fact that’s truly important:
Light is light. The source doesn’t matter if you are skilled. A great artist can make something beautiful with just a pencil.
A bad artist can buy the most expensive brush and paints, the rarest canvas and the most beautiful studio with north light to kill for, and still produce crap. It’s guaranteed.
What makes a painting is not the tools, but the painter.
Or take music.
A guitar in the hands of a monkey is going to sound like a monkey, not a guitar.
It’s the same with any tool, from the humble pen and pencil to a supercomputer –
What are you going to do with those lights? Are there any settings you can switch on and produce work similar to Roger Deakins’? The great cinematographers use the same lights everyone else does, but what separates them is their vision. Cinematographers are painters of light. If you don’t see it that way, you’re not really seeing.
The good news is: Decent lighting isn’t as hard as playing a piano. It does take time to learn, but it is a skill that can be learned.
Like learning to ride a bike. You don’t need a professional bike to learn how to ride well, or to have fun.
When you start to have fun, you will learn automatically.
When you just try to ape the setups light manufacturers and their stooges designed to sell their lights (while hiding its flaws), you won’t get the same results.
When most people realize this, they get demotivated and just give up. It’s because in all that noise in the airwaves nobody’s telling them it’s they who matter.
You know I love teaching and helping filmmakers (hundreds of thousands of them) from around the world. It’s awesome to have had thousands of emails from them appreciating how I’ve helped. It’s your support that keeps me going. So by this point I have earned the right to confidently tell you there’s a solution.
It doesn’t matter where you start. It doesn’t matter what you own. If you have something that can produce light, I will show you how to light with it. If you can light a human face, you can light anything.
So if you want to learn lighting now, then I’ve got a course for you.
Where do I get it?
Glad you asked.