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Whether you’re a writer trying to break into directing (congratulations) or you’re a budding young writer/director who’s just looking to do a deep dive into filmmaking for the first time (congratulations) it can be a bit intimidating to talk camera with your crew.

While you can take a course on cinematography or even go to a four-year university for filmmaking, the truth is you can also learn everything you need to learn about cameras when it comes to filmmaking in less than an hour.

You don’t need to know everything about cameras to be a great director, you just need to know what they’re capable of doing

When I went to UCLA I focused on writing. Even though I had a few production courses nobody ever laid out the basics of cameras for me and I remember being on my first movie set not knowing how aperture worked or what film speed rating meant or anything. I felt more like a useless writer than ever.

If you’re planning on becoming a director you actually don’t need to learn how to operate a camera or even all the ins and outs of one but there are some basics to learn if you’re going to have a competent conversation with your DP. Below is literally everything I ever talk about when it comes to camera with any DP I meet. It is by no means everything but it is more than enough to allow you to have articulate conversations and at least make you look like you’ve done your homework.

Digital only

I am not a fan of film. If you haven’t read my rant about why I refuse to shoot on film or use celluloid on any project you can read it here: why I hate celluloid. With that in mind, I’m going to assume that we’re talking digital cameras here only.

For the most part this information is interchangeable between film and digital but there can be some slight differences so I just want to clear the table that we’re talking about specifically digital cameras in this post. So anything from a handycam or a dslr all the way up to an Alexa are being covered but I’m not going to be talking about any terms specific to 16 or 35mm.

Exposure Triangle

You may have heard the term “exposure triangle” before when reading about cameras. When you expose your sensor to light you are creating an exposure. How bright or dark an image appears is controlled by three things: the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed.

ISO

ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is in general. This is a borrowed term from film. Film stocks used to be rated with a certain speed. You would get a role of 100 iso if you were shooting outdoors where the massive light the sun gives off made it necessary to make sure the film wasn’t too sensitive to light, and a role of 800 iso if you were shooting indoors and were shooting in dimmer settings. It was also called ASA at times and you might hear some older DPs still refer to the “ASA rating” instead of the “iso.” They are the same thing.

In digital cameras it is also referred to as gain. To be honest, when talking digital cameras the term “gain” is much more accurate but in general very few people use that term. You will hear old videographers use it quite a bit though because video cameras for news work or event style videography used to exclusively use the term gain so it’s burned into their vocabulary.

Now with all three elements of the exposure triangle you have trade-offs. You can make the image brighter or darker with any of them but usually something else in the image suffers or changes. In the case of ISO the higher your ISO the brighter your image but the more grain or noise you get in the image. Some cameras, like the A7Sii, are infamous for their low-light capability because their ISO level can be pushed to 40,000 without introducing much grain at all. Each camera’s sensor is different though so you really have to ask your DP how far they can push it without the image totally turning into garbage.

An important thing to note is that most feature films shot in Hollywood never change their ISO. They just use whatever the camera is rated for (called the base ISO – which is usually 800 these days). Occasionally if the scene is very dark they might bump it up to 1600 but that’s rare.

In terms of numbers you should know that ISO generally starts at around 100 (although there are exceptions) and goes up from there. Everytime you double it, you get twice as much light as the number before, also called a “stop” of light. So full stops would be 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200 and so on. You can do ⅓ stop or ½ stop increments on some cameras though.

Aperture

Aperture is technically not on the camera but on the lens. Every lens has a bunch of blades that can expand and contract like the iris of your eye does to make your pupil get bigger or smaller. It’s the same concept and, in fact, another word for your aperture is your iris (but hardly anyone really calls it that in the real word).

There’s usually a part of the barrel of the lens that turns to close or open the iris of the lens (although some lenses like Canon photography lenses don’t have a ring and are controlled through the camera electronically). The amount that the iris is opened or closed is called the aperture of the lens. The wider it is the more light gets through and brighter the image. The more closed the iris gets the smaller your aperture and the less light comes through.

The amount your aperture is open also has a number assigned to it and this is called your f-stop and on some lenses it’s called a t-stop. Why they’re different sometimes goes beyond the scope of this article but you can say t-stop or f-stop and everyone know what you’re talking about.

The smaller the f-stop, the more light comes in, the larger the f-stop, the more light is blocked. So as the numbers on your f-stop go up the darker your image (assuming you’re not changing any other settings on the camera).

There is one other big thing to know about aperture – it affects depth of field. Depth of field controls how much of the image is in focus. You’ve no doubt seen images where the character is in focus but the background is a total blur – that’s called a shallow depth of field. Here’s an example of a shallow depth of field

shallow depth of field example

See how the crate is out of focus but the lemons are in focus? That’s shallow depth of field.

Here’s an example of deep depth of field

deep depth of field

Notice how almost everything is in focus? This is a good example of deep depth of field.

Generally shallow depth of field focuses the audience’s attention on whatever is in focus. And there are ways to play with this. You can have characters walk into focus, you can change focus from something in the foreground to something in the background (called racking focus) which will shift your viewer’s attention from one thing or another, and there are other techniques to play with this as well.

If you’re a more audio/visual learner, here’s a three minute video that has some good examples and explanation of depth of field:

So here’s a recap

Low f-stop:
More light (brighter image)
Shallow Depth of field

High f-stop:
Less light (darker image)
Deep depth of field

Also, people tend to know their f-stop numbers on the camera crew by heart. Remember that each stop of light is double the amount of the previous stop. The order of full stops that are generally used are as follows:

1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32

That may seem confusing but if you remember the first two numbers you’ll actually be okay. You’ll notice that every other number is just a double of the one before it.

1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32

1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32

For those of you who learn better hearing someone expain this kind of stuff than reading it here’s a great short video from Griffin Hammond (who’s a wonderful indie filmmaker and teacher):

Generally movies shoot with a more shallow depth of field these days. People like to be between f/2 and f/5.6 but if there are occasions where you want to shoot at higher apertures of course. Penny Marshall (director of a League of Their Own) doesn’t like shallow depth of field at all so her movies tend to shoot with a higher f-stop across the board.

A quick note about sensor size

One other important thing to note is that depth of field is also different from sensor size to sensor size. The main sizes of sensor are:

Full frame
APS-C
Super 35mm
Micro Four Thirds

Full frame will give you a much shallower depth of field at the same f-stop than an APS-C sensor will, Super 35mm will be an even deeper depth of field, and micro four thirds will be even deeper.

So if you’re going for that look where someone’s nose is out of focus but their eyes are in focus then you’ll most likely want a full-frame camera. If, on the other hand, you want more of your image in focus than a micro four thirds is a good choice for sensor size.

Generally speaking most professional cameras like the RED or Alexa are built on the Super 35 sensor size because they were transitioning away from actual super 35mm film.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how many pictures you’re taking in a second to make up your moving image. The gold standard for film is to have 24 frames/second. In fact, if you want a movie to qualify for the Oscars it MUST be shot and projected in either 24 or 48 frames/second. Typically your shutter speed is double your frame rate or 1/48 of a second. If you’re working with a DSLR you might not have 1/48 – in which case most people just use 1/50 as it’s close enough.

You can slow down your shutter speed or speed it up. If you’re shooting 24 frames a second you can slow it down to 1/24 of a second – which would mean that you’re opening the sensor up to light for twice as long and it will result in an image that is twice as bright (or 1 stop brighter).

You can also speed it up and make each one of your 24 frames shoot at 1/2000 of a second – which would be MUCH darker. The trade off here is that double the frame rate generally looks the most natural to the human eye. If you go faster than that it starts to look choppy – which could be good for action sequences but generally is not great, and anything slower starts to look like you’re drunk and movement leaves trails that are unnatural.

Shutter Angle

Back in the days of actual film there was a round gate that protected film from being exposed to light. This gate had a gap in it that allowed light to pass through for a fraction of the time that the camera was rolling. The shutter angle is based on a 360 degree circle. So if you wanted the gate to be open for half as much as the frame rate you would open the circle up 180 degrees to get exactly half the frame rate. Some digital cameras use shutter angle instead of or in addition to shutter speed as an option for filmmakers.

Other than being another way to transition over from film, it’s also handy because you don’t have to keep doing math if you change your frame rate. If you set your shutter angle to 180 degrees then you’re always set to shoot double the frame rate whether you’re shooting 24/48/60 or any frame rate.

Here’s a clip from CVTP on youtube where Kai is explaining shutter angle with some great examples:

As a quick recap:

Slower shutter speed/shutter angle:
More light (brighter image)
More motion blur

Faster shutter speed/shutter angle:
Less light (darker image)
Less motion blur and more choppy image

The Exposure Triangle

ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed make up the three points of an exposure triangle. Now that you know the three points you’ll know what you can do, in a pinch, to darken or brighten your image.

Generally speaking though you don’t want to touch any of them to actually control light. On a professional movie set you generally will keep your ISO at the recommended camera setting (or base ISO), your shutter angle will nearly always be 180 degrees, and you’ll want to use the aperture to specifically make creative choices to the amount of depth of field you have in your image. The amount of brightness the image gets is therefore usually addressed by how many lights you set up on set.

This is changing with the advent of more sensitive sensors having clean images with no grain at higher ISO though so things are changing in the professional world of cinematography everyday with these new advancements.

Focal Length

Focal length is the length of your lens and it also tells you how close or far your image will appear in relation to the camera. A short lens has a low number and a wider field of view. A long lens has a higher number and a longer field of view.

So if you’re shooting on a 20mm lens you’ll be able to see wider than seems natural, whereas a long lens will appear very “zoomed in” on your image.

Some lenses only have one focal length and they’re called prime lenses. Others have variable focal lengths and they are called zoom lenses.

Generally speaking prime lenses have better optical quality than zoom lenses but again the game is changing everyday so just ask your DP what kind of lenses he or she wants to shoot on and you can discuss why.

If you do get your hands on a nice zoom lens though I will say that shooting on a zoom lens can save time on set because you can get your close ups with a quick flick of the wrist instead of having to swap out your entire lens.

Another thing that is important to note about focal length is that the wider the image the more an image will appear a bit distorted and warped. Mid-range lenses (like a 50mm) tend to mimic the human eye the best in terms of proportions. Long lenses tend to flatten images out making the background look like it’s right up against the foreground objects. All things to consider as they affect the impact the image has on your audience.

Frame Rates

We already touched on frame rates a bit above but essentially the frame rate is just the amount of photos in a second that you are shooting to make up your moving image. Twenty four frames in the standard that film cameras have used for decades and nearly all modern digital cameras have a 24 frames per second setting on them. If you’re shooting narrative films, be they short films or feature length, you are generally going to want to shoot in 24 frames a second. Peter Jackson did do an experiment where he shot The Hobbit in 48 frames a second and had it projected at 48 frames a second and the results were a mixed bag. Some reviewers thought it looked great but most of them didn’t care for it – which brings me to my next point:

It is important to note, however, that there are really two frame rates: the one you shoot in and the one that the project is screened in. When Peter Jackson shot in 48 frames per second he had to arrange with theaters to set their projectors to 48 frames a second as well. He was only able to do this for a handful of theaters because movie theaters, by and large, have standardized systems and messing with those systems takes a lot of time and money.

If he took that 48 frame film and projected it at a standard 24 frames per second rate, the whole film would have been in slow motion with everything lasting twice as long – which is exactly how slow motion is accomplished. If you want to shoot something in slow motion you actually need a camera that has the capability of shooting more than 24 frames per second. Then, when the film is edited on a timeline that watches the film at 24 frames a second, those extra frames result in clip being stretched longer than it actually occurred – this is also called overcranking the camera.

You can do the same the other way where you shoot less than 24 frames a second, also called undercranking, and the film will appear to be in fast forward.

The only other thing to quickly note about frame rate is that TV has a different frame rate altogether. In America TV is screened at close to 30 frames per second (29.97 is the NTSC standard) and in Europe and most of the rest of the world they use the PAL system which is based on a frame rate closer to 25 frames a second. Why goes way beyond the scope of this but you don’t really have to worry about it anyways. If you shoot in twenty four frames a second and your film gets accepted to screen on television anywhere around the world there are ways to change it to 30 or 25 fps for television.

Resolution

Resolution refers to how many pixels an image has. Almost all cameras these days shoot at least full HD which is 1920pixels wide by 1080pixels tall (1920X1080). 4k is a bit misleading. True 4k means that the width of the image is at least 4000 pixels wide but 4k TVs are not actually 4k – they are double 1920X1080 which is 3840X2160. The proper term for 3840 x 2160 is Ultra HD or UHD. True cinema 4k is actually 4096X2160 – which is 6.25% wider than UHD.

Now it’s really a matter of debate but in my opinion I can not tell the difference between 4k and HD over 99% of the time even when screened in a theater so I think the whole thing is one big marketing game but there are others who will tell you they absolutely can tell the difference. Just keep in mind that you’ve seen a ton of movies in the theater that were shot either in HD or 2.8k (which was the resolution of the Alexa camera). If you haven’t noticed the difference now I can almost guarantee you won’t notice it moving forward. The moral of the story is if you want to shoot your movie in HD because that’s all you have access to don’t sweat it – it can still look amazing.

The feature film I’m working on now called Immortal is actually being shot in 8k – and I’m going to explain what that’s done for post-production and why we chose to shoot it that way in another post coming soon.

Dynamic Range

Much much much more important than resolution is the dynamic range of a sensor. Dynamic range is the technical term for how many shades of grey a camera can see at any given time. In real life there is an infinite number of shades of gray but a camera can only see so many colors. Usually it’s millions of colors and shades but even millions doesn’t compare to infinity. You’ll hear people talking about how many stops of dynamic range a camera has…in general the more the better. Just like a negative of a film slide, if you have a larger dynamic range you can treat your digital images like a film negative and make them darker and lighter when you get to your digital dark room which is your editing and coloring software.

That being said, in order to take full advantage of camera sensors that shoot in wide dynamic ranges you have to have to shoot at a high enough bit-rate and in a raw or log format on a codec that can be manipulated in post-production – which leads us to….

Bit-Rate and Codecs

Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras shoot at low bit rates. Bit rates tell you how much data is being consumed per second of data capture. This is usually expressed in Megabits/second (MBs). Generally speaking if you want to shoot high dynamic range images that can be manipulated in post-production you’ll need a pretty high bitrate. For HD images prores shoots at around 220Mbs and that is a good rule of thumb for how you can get the most of your image. For 4k or UHD you should be looking at somewhere around 400Mbs for an image where the color and exposure can actually be manipulated in post-production.

Anything lower than those two options and you will usually get some issues in editing where you try to change the look of the film and big chunks of the image start to look pixelated and nasty. As far as Codecs, that’s a whole other ball of wax. There are 8bit codecs, 10bit, 12big, 16bit and then there’s the color space which is either 4:2:0, 4:2:2, or 4:4:4. The higher the numbers on both bit rate and color space are better but generally speaking if you have at least a 10bit 4:2:2 color space you have some flexibility to mess with colors and exposure levels when you’re editing or doing your coloring of the film.

Anything less than those two is still just fine to shoot with but know that you will have less flexibility with what you can do so try to get your image looking as close to perfect on set as possible and don’t shoot in any kind of raw or log format. What is a raw or log format? I’m glad you asked:

Raw/Log/Flat Picture Profile

Raw and Log formats (also called flat picture profiles) capture as much of the color data as possible on any given camera sensor. Most cameras have some kind of log or raw picture profile. If you’ve never seen one it actually looks washed out – like some turned the dial down on the colors. It’s confusing to see but what it’s actually doing is making sure that all of the colors are being preserved so they can be manipulated in post-production. Here’s a quick video that will show you how this works and what exactly this looks like:

LUT

LUT is actually an acronym so it should be spelled L.U.T. but nobody does. It stands for look up table. There’s a lot of math behind it that we won’t get into but essentially what a LUT is meant to do is record all the different color changes you need to make in your image to make it look a certain way and then saves it into one digital file. When you apply that digital file to your footage it changes the entire character of the color of that image.

Luts are great to have in post production but they’re even better to have on set. Some cameras or monitors allow you to load a LUT into the monitor just so you can shoot your footage in that super flat washed-out profile to get the most data but see it as something in normal color. It’s really helpful to look at your image in a way that is close to the way you eventually want it to look like so be sure to ask your cinematographer if they have or can get a monitor that can load LUTS so you can see what the picture looks like more accurately while shooting.

Neutral Density Filters (NDs)

We talked a lot about how bright or dark your image can be and how you can get more brightness by changing certain levels on the camera or adding lights but we didn’t talk about how we can darken the image so that everything doesn’t look white and washed out if there’s too much light.

This usually happens in the sun more than anywhere else but it can happen on set too if you’re using a camera with a super high base iso. There’s one or two Sony cameras on the market, for example, that force you to shoot at 2000 iso under certain settings which is usually way to bright for a lot of situations.

If you’re forced to shoot at higher iso ranges for some reason or your shooting in the sun and it’s just entirely too bright for your sensor the best solution is what are called neutral density filters. These are essentially sunglasses for your camera, they make everything darker.

You can buy screw on neutral density filters for your lenses but be careful, the cheaper ones will tint your image with a color (usually a slight green/brown) that is not very pleasant to look at. They come in different strengths and they can even be stacked on top of each other to make the image much much darker in case you need it to be.

There are lots of nice, expensive ND filters out there but the best nd filters are usually ones built into the camera and not ones you add to the lens. Some cameras have built in ND filters that go between the sensor and the lens. Because the camera manufacturer created these ND filters they are almost always perfectly tuned to the sensor itself and have no color shifts of any kind.

Also, because they’re built into the camera they are super fast turn on or off and make for a faster shoot. If you’re trying to get a lot of shots off in a limited amount of time with varying light scenarios or if you’re shooting in unpredictable conditions – like in a documentary – I would say getting a camera with built in NDs is going to be a life-saver for you.

In-Body Stabilization

This is the last thing we’re going to cover. There is so much more you can get into with your camera but if you understand the concepts of everything I’ve laid out here in this super, ridiculously long post about cameras than you’ll be absolutely fine to talk to your DP and explain the image you want and how you might be able to go about capturing that image.

Stabilizing your camera is somewhat of a necessity. There are lots of ways to stabilize it. You can use a tripod, a monopod, a shoulder mount, a steadicam, a crane, a jib – there are tons of options out there. The reason you need to stabilize your camera these days more than ever is because the cameras have gotten very light and as a result they can be held comfortable in the hands without getting fatigued for quite some time.

Unfortunately, because they’re so light they also pick up every little move and vibration that your hands give off as you hold it. This is even more pronounced if you’re walking, running or holding a camera for extended periods of time. I’m sure you’ve seen weird jitters in videos on youtube or the internet – those are a result of the camera not being stabilized.

About fifteen years ago or so most professional cameras were so heavy that they had to be worn on your shoulder. With a camera on your shoulder it wouldn’t shake much at all so it was a good system to getting shots that didn’t jitter. But now, the camera size requires you to figure out how to prevent it from wobbling all over the place.

There are a few cameras that have internal stabilization though. This is also called Internal Body Image Stabilization or IBIS for short. One that has an absolutely amazing system, for example, is the Panasonic GH5. Essentially there’s a shock-absorbing set of springs that are built around your sensor, much like a car has a shock system, and it lessens the effect of camera shake without the need for extra parts and pieces. So you can have your tiny little light camera, hold it in your hands and still get great looking footage!

There aren’t any super high-end cameras that have this feature. But then again, if you’re paying $30,000+ for a camera the manufacturer is assuming that you’re also going to be spending more money on accessories and stabilization systems. But if you’re starting small I would highly recommend picking up a camera that does have a decent in-body stabilizer because it just helps everything look a lot better when you’re starting out.

Phew that was a long post

That was a super long post but if it’s between reading through that and taking a 2 or 6 week course on cinematography I would chose this any day of the week. One thing I would highly recommend is to go out and buy a cheap camera or even just rent one from a site like borrowlenses.com and experiment with all this stuff. See what happens when you change your shutter speed, your aperture, your iso. See what it’s like to hold a camera in your hand and play with all the options.

You might find that you are more into it than you originally thought and read more about each one of the things I outlined above, or you might find that you have absolutely no interest in learning about the technical side at all and that’s totally fine too. Steven Spielberg and his DP don’t really discuss the process much. Steven works with the actors and focuses on the story and his DP Janusz Kaminski handles the image and they make some of the most beautiful stories together. I actually think a director’s time is usually best spent working on the performances. I wrote another post on this blog about working with actors that you might enjoy as well – you can find it here: working with actors.


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