photo credit: Ricardo Diaz
As a camera assistant, I almost never touch the lights on a set. I don’t run power. I don’t set flags. I don’t drop scrims. I don’t touch ballasts. And I don’t mount Kinos on stands.
Basically — professionally speaking — I have no experience lighting.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t picked up some cinematography tips by sitting next to the camera.
Even though I’m purely a camera assistant with only tentative long-term plans to maybe-kinda-sorta be a cinematographer at some point, working directly with the director of photography (DP) has illuminated the process of lighting for film.
So today I want to share five cinematography lessons I’ve learned from my spot beside the camera.
1. Less Lights Makes Everyone Happier
Cinematographers operate in a strange limbo where they have to reconcile their creative imagination with the practicalities of filmmaking.
And sometimes reality slaps them pretty hard. There might not be enough space for a light, the clouds might cover the sunset during magic hour, or there’s not enough money in the budget for the necessary gear.
But as my film professor would have said, “Creativity is problem solving.”
In many cases, the creative solution is to work with less lights.
From a practical standpoint, the less lights you use, the happier everyone will be. Literally, everyone. The assistant director will be happy with less setup time, the G&E departments will be pleased to lug less equipment, and the director will appreciate more time for rehearsals and takes.
There is, of course, a caveat — you must be able to use less lights in a way that satisfies your creative mind. If you are able to use less lights while still achieving the look you envisioned, everyone will love you for it.
While this can be a challenge, it is also rewarding and makes you more flexible as a cinematographer. You won’t have to fear lower gear budgets and you’ll be able to do run ‘n gun style shooting with skeleton crews with ease.
And you’d be amazed at some of the beautiful shots that can be had with few lights or no lights at all.
Often I stand next to the camera and watch a DP command 5 or 6 lights for a simple close-up shot. In the end it looks good, but I’ve seen similar shots use ambient light from a window, clever blocking, and 2 – 3 lights to fill in the gaps with similar results.
Basically, less lights will force you to be more creative while also saving time.
2. Just Point the Camera and Shoot the Story
As you begin to work on projects with higher budgets, it’s tempting to use all the amazing tools filmmakers have at their disposals: jibs, cranes, dollies, Steadicams, and sliders.
But just because you can use something doesn’t mean you have to.
Much like using less lights, a simple composition may be just what the scene you’re shooting demands. If the story, the characters, and the dramatic tension in a scene is strong enough, you don’t have to do anything more than point the camera and film it.
This is the first lesson I ever learned working on a large film set and one that I have subsequently come to believe 100% after studying several films.
And, again, like the lighting example above, this saves time.
I see a lot of DP’s panic and directors whine when their epic Steadicam tracking shot gets cut from the day because of scheduling issues. They’re then forced to re-think the scene in compositions that are easily achievable — usually static shots — and block the characters in a way in which they provide kineticism inside the frame instead of the camera.
Many times these shots become more powerful than the moving shot planned before it.
Of course not every scene or shot will benefit from this simplification, but you’d be surprised at how often they do — because nothing is worse than ruining the drama and performance in a scene by adding distracting camera moves.
Sometimes the audience cares more about what’s happening inside the film world than what’s happening with the frame.
And when a story is that commanding of the audience, don’t make your job as DP more complicated than it needs to be: just point the camera and shoot the story.
3. Ceiling and Wall Bounces Work Wonders
The ceiling or wall bounce blew my mind the first time I saw it used. I was in school at the time and I distinctly remember chuckling to myself at how brilliant of a trick it is. For whatever reason, I had never thought to utilize the location as a tool to manipulate light.
And when I showed some of my classmates how effective it was, they were also fascinated and stupefied they had never thought of it either.
(The concept of the ceiling/wall bounce is to shine a light at either surface in order to have it reflect into a scene or onto a subject.)
Now I’m no Roger Deakins so I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you reading this are thinking, “Well, duh. Everyone uses ceiling bounces!” To which I say, “Good!”
Because the ceiling/wall bounce is one of the most underrated lighting techniques in use.
I work with one DP who uses them heavily and the images he creates are stunning. He swears by them and, after several films with him, I’ve come to learn the advantages:
- The motivation of the light is natural (in most cases)
- The spill/softness of the light is natural (in most cases)
- The setup time is minimal (since you only set the light, not a reflector)
- The footprint of the gear is smaller
- The throw you can achieve is huge
- You can transform hard light sources instantly into soft ones without softboxes
If you’re as amateur of a cinematographer as I was when I first discovered this technique, you’re in for a treat. Watching others master this technique as a camera assistant (and experimenting with it on my own) is the single greatest lesson I’ve ever learned.
Like any lighting technique, the ceiling/wall bounce isn’t meant to be used in every instance, but it can be a great trick to have up your sleeve as an alternative to reflectors, when in tight spaces, or to adhere to lesson 1: shooting with less lights.
4. A Great, Talented Gaffer is Invaluable
Behind every talented cinematographer there is usually an equally skilled gaffer.
Gaffers — the department head of the electricians — have a wide range of responsibilities that differ depending on the project and their relationship with the director of photography. But many times, they play just as much a role in lighting a scene as the cinematographer.
Though the DP is most definitely the creative head of lighting, they are often heavily influenced by the talents of their gaffer.
It’s not uncommon for a DP to describe the type of mood or lighting they want in generic terms and the gaffer to deliver on it. For instance, I watched a DP once request “a little bit of a hair light” on a character in a wide shot. It was the gaffer who then chose the light, dimmed it to the correct brightness, and set it in the scene.
Once he got the nod of approval from the DP, it was finalized.
How many DP’s does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Just one, if he’s got a good crew to do it.
That may seem like “cheating” if you’re used to making all those decisions yourself, but it’s not — it’s simply leveraging an important work relationship between your crew and yourself. If you trust the skills of your gaffer, you can spend much more time focusing on the overarching “look” of a shot and not get caught up in the tediousness of “how many stands are left?” or “do we have the right scrims?”
Without the trust of your gaffer, you’ll be wasting that relationship. Anybody can set a light stand, but not everyone can interpret your creative direction and execute on it the first time you ask them to.
Great gaffers — just like any talented below-the-line crew — are indispensable in helping you execute your vision as cinematographer.
So once you find one you like, hang on to them and cultivate that relationship.
5. Perfection is a Commodity
If you offer a DP to spend all day lighting one shot, they might just take you up on it. There’s always a kicker to add, a shine to remove, or something in the frame not quite right. They could spend hours trying different silks, cutting with flags, and shaping shadows to perfection.
But perfection — at least, true perfection — is a commodity on a film set.
That’s because perfection clashes quite loudly with reality.
And the reality of filmmaking is that you’re on a budget with a tight schedule and rarely have the time, crew, or resources (or all three) to get the image in a state where you are completely happy with it.
(Even if you do manage to make an image you’re completely happy with, your tastes can change years later after your skills improve.)
All too often I’ve sat next to the camera for unbearable amounts of time while the contents of the frame were touched up and detailed. DP’s, directors, producers, and anyone else with creative input are all equally guilty for succumbing to this vacuum of perfection.
It’s good to ambitiously strive for perfection, but it’s hubris if you are unable to see the damage you do when you fail to give it up after awhile — lost time, lost takes, and a rushed production.
So take it from the guy who’s almost always ready by the time a scene is lit: perfection is rare. So, if you’re allowed to chase it, don’t spend the rest of the day doing so because you won’t find it.
Bonus Tip: There is No “Right” Way
By no means do I consider myself a cinematographer.
But I do consider myself a pretty good camera assistant who has worked with talented cinematographers. I have sat next to the camera and soaked in their knowledge, watched their practices, and witnessed them indulge their habits — both good and bad.
The five tips I’ve provided above are what I have taken away from my career as an AC and they are lessons you can apply right now if you’re striving to be a cinematographer.
It’s hard for DP’s to see each other work without dipping their toes below-the-line, but if you’re OK with doing so, I highly suggest you take the opportunity to work on another DP’s crew. Watching others work is one great way to improve your skills.
My last piece of advice is what any (smart) person giving advice ends with: Nothing is gospel. Do what you want. Ignore the rules if you need to. Forget my tips if they don’t serve your vision.
Because the most important cinematography lesson I’ve learned from watching various cinematographers is there is no “right” way.