Basic Cinematography for Independent Filmmaking

Thanks to advantages in technology, independent filmmaking is available for anyone who has an interest in it, regardless of their budgets. If you have a great idea and an excellent work ethic, then you can make a movie. However, there are certain rules that you need to follow if you want your hard work to be accepted by a mainstream audience. One huge factor that determines if a movie is embraced or rejected is the cinematography. Poor cinematography will turn an audience off before the story even begins. Here is a guide to help you achieve basic cinematography worthy of Hollywood.

The Camera: Your Most Important Tool

The camera you use is going to have the most direct influence on the quality of the images you're shooting. A few years ago, the argument in the independent community was whether to shoot on film or video. Film was the more expensive option but produced a higher quality image. Thanks to HD, this has all changed. You can now shoot a movie at film quality for video prices. 

Whatever camera you choose is determined ultimately by your budget, but there are two requirements you should strive to meet. The first is at the very least, have a camera that can shoot HD. The second is to have a camera that can employ interchangeable lenses. Lenses have a huge influence on the depth of field in an image and that focus layering can make your film look like it's high quality.

Staging and Composition

Part of what makes great shots look great is their staging and composition. You want to set the camera in a place that reveals the most visually interesting part of a location, and then you want to stage the set dressing, props and actors in positions that create a wonderful composition for the images. You don't need a huge budget to do this; you just need to invest some time.

Motivated Lighting

Once you've determined where the camera and actors will be, it's time to light you shot. Try to develop a lighting strategy that makes everything look great while appearing natural. In other words, make the light look like it is coming from actual sources on the set like lamps and windows. You want your audience to consciously forget that they're watching a movie when they're sucked into your story.

Avoiding Double Shadows and Overexposure

You want to achieve great lighting in your cinematography and two things that take away from that are double shadows and unnecessary overexposure. Double shadow happens when you have two lights that aren't working together. It's visually ugly and calls attention to itself, which sucks the audience out of the story. Unnecessary overexposure is a result of poor lighting and is also visually ugly. You need to eliminate overexposure that comes from unmotivated sources.

Movement

Camera movement looks great when it is properly executed. In order for an audience to buy it, it needs to be smooth and not call attention to itself. That means that it cannot start and end with an abrupt jerk and that there can't be any bumps or hiccups in the middle of the move. There are exceptions to this rule like "Cloverfield" and "The Blair Witch Project," but these movies worked the handheld shooting aspect into the story telling, so it ended up being motivated.