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Cinematography Techniques


Cinematography techniques are of vital importance to any filmmaker as they help tell the story of the film in the most effective manner possible.  As a director of photography, it is important to learn the most precise and effective cinematography techniques to not only do the job effectively, but to keep up with the ever evolving world of cinematography techniques.  Cinematography is often defined as ‘painting with light’ and as such, it is important to remember that it is a discipline that is both technique and art.  Below are five of the most important cinematography techniques employed by ace cinematographers.

Digital Video Lighting

Lighting is of course one of the most paramount aspects of cinematography – in fact, it is probably the single most important element that needs to be successfully achieved for a filmmaker to create the kind of film he or she desires.  With the plethora of digital video cameras flooding the market in the last ten years, many amateur and professional filmmakers alike have had to struggle with learning how to properly light a scene shot with a digital camera.  Some filmmakers believe that a digital video can be shot with inferior cinematography and still appear comparable to an actual film in the end.  This is not the case.  The rule for successful digital video lighting is simple: a digital video has to be lit like it was shot on film for it to appear as though it was shot on film.  There is no shortcut around this!  Every director of photography with their salt knows this.  Cameras come and go, but the tried and tested techniques are permanent.

Three Point Lighting Technique

The standard lighting technique used by cinematographers is known as the three point lighting technique.  It is named as such because it includes three separate lights positioned to illuminate the subject being filmed.  It can be adjusted to enhance or diminish light ratios, shadows, shading, etc.  The three lights involved with this standard technique are known as the key light, the fill light and the back light.  The key light is the primary lighting device used to illuminate the subject being filmed from the front.  The fill light is typically placed at an angle and adds to the lighting in order to achieve the desired effect.  The back light is, of course, shone from behind and focuses on creating a contour of the person or scene being filmed.

Size of Shot

Another technique that has a profound effect on the way a film is perceived is the size of the shot.  For example, a subject being shot at close range will have a much more dramatic and intimate effect on the viewer than a scene shot from several hundred feet away.  The most common shot sizes utilized by cinematographers are the following: extreme close-up, close-up, medium shot, long shot, and establishing shot.  Most of these are self-explanatory, with the establishing shot being a shot that indicates to the viewer that change of location or time has occurred.


Matte is an old technique used by cinematographers and film editors that combines two separate shots or images into one shot.  This is generally applied to situations where an actor must be placed in a different environment than that in which they were originally shot.  This was particularly popular back in the 70s and 80s where many television shows and films depicted characters in locations created separately during production.  For example, many of the Superman films show Superman flying through space.  Of course, the actor did not fly through space but was superimposed over a background which made it look as though he was flying through open air.  This technique is being slowly phased out with the advent of green screens and other technology that seamlessly blend actors with any type of background.

Forced Perspective

Forced perspective is a technique applied by not only cinematographers, but engineers, architects and even army personnel.  Simply defined, it is an optical illusion that convinces the viewer that they are seeing an object (or person) from a distance that is in fact completely different from the actual distance at which the object is placed.  This is achieved by using objects that are not of standard size which manipulates the brain into thinking the object is farther or closer than it is in reality.  For example, recall the old monster movies of the 1940s in which it appeared as though giant monsters (like Godzilla) were attacking hordes of civilians.  In actuality, these giant creatures were simply large dolls or models shot at a distance which made them look like they were towering over their victims below.  This is the most common example of forced perspective in modern cinema.