What Is Cinematography?

I'd prefer to be called a cinematographer.

"But what's that?"

I get this question a lot, and there are a ton of different answers across the web.

Some people say this, some people say that, and some people don't really address it.

This is going to be my take on cinematography – from a freelancing business standpoint. There will be variations of my definition amongst other professionals, but this is my take based on my experiences.

And to do that, let's first touch on a more common question and shift our eyes to cinematography's brother: videography.



Videography, in essence, is the art or process of making films with a video camera. The term typically sparks images of a video camera (whether it records on tape or digital memory cards) on top of a tripod, with some guy panning left and right or tilting up and down. To me, and I would assume to most, a working / freelancing videographer is very much the camera operator of some event. Things like news documentation, event coverage, shooting your little sister's piano recital, or a staged play. Picture a dad pressing record on a set of sticks at the back of his son's graduation ceremony. That's videography. Documenting what's already happening.

I guess the photography equivalent would be street photography.

And this art or process can truly be a lucrative means of income. Do you know how many times I get asked "hey, can I get a full documentation of my wedding ceremony?", "hey, how much would it cost for you to record this play?", or "hey, my son's dance recital is coming up and I hate the way the current DVD barely get him on camera. Can you videotape him?". Based on inquiries, videography definitely solves a problem by packaging video-documented events.



Cinematography, on the other hand, is the art or technique of motion-picture photography. Creating a package that is very… cinematic/Hollywood/filmic (there isn't really a definition for these terms either, but you'll know the difference when you watch something in the cinemas and when you watch your parents' old home videos; it just looks more like a watchable movie).

This is often seen with 24fps recording (recording at 24 frames per second) and projecting (showing the film in 24 frames per second), the classic anamorphic aspect ratio (resulting in the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen), and shallow depth of field (popularly produced through DSLR and mirrorless cameras).

A cinematographer, also known as a Director of Photography (yes… the duties of a Director of Photography is to aid in film production, not to create static photographs that get uploaded onto your Facebook albums), is the bridge between the director and what the audience sees on screen. I'm not going to make this sound more metaphorical that it has to be, so here is the one-sentence duty of a cinematographer:

The guy who takes the vision / story / direction of a plot, and translates it to the audience through the best visuals possible.

Does that make sense?

In general, a cinematographer has more control over the visuals.

A director deals more with the actors and how things play out on set or the physical world (you don't really get this part in videography jobs), whereas the cinematographer plans the way a plot unfolds onscreen. When the audience is exposed to cinematographic work, they are witnessing purposeful meanings, subtexts and ideas epitomized into visual form.

Ex - Every time someone eats an orange, this is an onscreen visualization for the characters internally plotting the murder of another character (which later happens in the plot).

What movie is that?

Cinematography comes from the Greek roots 'writing with motion', and rightfully so – because the 'written' story (i.e. - your client's story) can move and unfold onscreen in so many different ways. The example I just gave was a very Hollywood, everything-has-meaning type of example, which doesn't necessarily have to occur in smaller paid gigs. The visualization of a plot/client story/wedding/any other cinematographic work typically includes modifiable techniques and tools from a cinematographer:




Light and Colour

The literature shows a laaaaarge variance in what techniques are important in visual storytelling; some people include Tone, Texture, and Line & Shape as variables in cinematographic choices. I think the four I mentioned are the most useful to talk about when working as a freelance cinematographer. Here are the important points of each:


1. Framing

  • This is the mise-en-scene ('that which is in front of the frame') – essentially the composition. What's in this frame? What moves in this frame? What are we supposed to look at? What is the significance of this object/scenery? Basically composition and what gets seen. The set design during interviews, focusing on specific decor at a wedding, showing applause during a special event. Cinematography calls for focused control of what's in frame. 


2. Movement

  • And how does this frame move? The choices of movement are equally important and, again, provide context and meaning to what the audience sees. Am I supposed to look at the restaurant workers, or am I supposed to keep my eye on Henry Hill as he passes them by? The movement of a camera/frame has important context to the plot (i.e. - "Wow, this one guy knows everyone in the restaurant, therefore he must be important to them and to this story). Does the camera follow your client as she performs her craft (or does it not follow her to put more importance on a different visual of her story)? Is there dynamic motion towards the dance floor to show it's importance during the formal event? Will the frame move between the groom and the best man as the story underlines the toasts? Move where you need to move.


3. Rhythm

  • To me, rhythm is very reliant on editing. Some say rhythm can happen within a frame (i.e. - lineup the bridesmaid, groomsman, bridesmaid, groomsman, bridesmaid, groomsman; table, chair, table, chair, table, chair; saturated object, unsaturated object, saturated object, unsaturated object), but I think that aspect can be grouped with framing. Rhythm is the pacing of frames/shots. How frequent do I see this character? Does the frequency of dynamic shots vs static shots imply high or low energy of a story? Are the 'interonset intervals' of shots high or low – thus providing high/low intensities of cutting/energy? To me, the rhythm of a visual story leads to the implication of how quick objects in from change. When editing, think about the pacing of shots and where you want the audience indulge in a specific subject in one shot, or grab the general environment of multiple shots. (Often intertwined with the music – a whole other subject)


4. Light and Colour

  • This is probably the most defining aspects of a cinematographer / director of photography – controlling how the light and colours react with the objects/subjects onscreen. This can also be done through editing. Should the light/exposure put more emphasis on my client, or what she's doing? Should the groom be lit, or should his best man take the light? Colour grading also has importance, and can provide meaning to different scenes/subjects of your film. Do I mostly see red with this character? I think I'll make this subject very unsaturated because he's also very flat in character traits. Cinematographers will modify lights/colours (when possible) to help emphasize the aspects of the frame (i.e. - using light kits and gels).


These are very quick descriptions of the cinematography variables – there are dedicated chapters/books on each topic. Through my experiences, these are the fundamentals of cinematography as a freelancer.

Based on this, a lot of what I do is considered videography – since I do record what's already happening (i.e. - during weddings and special events). But the cinematography overlap occurs in the defined choices I make. Videography occurs in the events I shoot, but cinematography occurs in the choices I make for the final film (i.e. - through defined lighting with light kits, chosen camera movements, and edited shots/sequences/scenes).

Because of these choices, the biggest defining factor between a videographer and a cinematographer is in how much they control. A cinematographer shows way more control in what his audience sees, and somehow provides additional meaning to the dialogue and creates a meaningful visuals for them to follow. It definitely calls for more artistry and personal choice. 

If you can master your personal and artistic choices as a visual storyteller, you'll be better able at finding those (paid) stories to tell.