Cinematography for Independent Films

As a cinematographer, your mission is the capture the most visually pleasing image the location and equipment will allow. 

Location scouting is essential. You need to know where the magic will happen before each and every shot.  Granted, things can change and sometimes an angle just doesn’t work the way you anticipated.  That is okay, but it’s still better to go in knowing where you can and cannot place your camera.

After getting a basic idea of where you want to shoot you need to know how you want to shoot. 

How will you frame your shot? 

How much depth is needed?

Will it be a single shot, two shot, or three-shot?


When setting up a shot you have choices to make as far as what the shot will look like.  Will it be a master shot, a medium shot, a close-up, an extreme close up, or a variation of the like?

Master Shot:  A master shot is the recording of a complete scene, from beginning to end from an angle that keeps the entire scene in view. It can also be called a wide shot and can be used as an establishing shot.

Establishing Shot:  An establishing shot sets up or establishes a scene’s location. It is usually a wide or extremely wide shot at the beginning of a scene, indicating where the scene is taking place.

Medium shot:  A medium shot is a medium width shot from a medium distance.

Close up:  A close up is a shot taken at close range

Extreme Close-up:  An extreme close up is a shot taken at extremely close range

Depth of Field

Depth of field refers to the range of distance between objects that appear sharp or basically the amount of an image that is in focus. It can vary depending on aperture setting, focusing distance, lens used, and camera type.

A shallow depth of field will allow you to focus on your subject while blending the background or foreground away and allowing more light to enter the lens. 

A deep depth of field will allow you to have more of the picture area sharp while also allowing less light into the lens.

Example:  Let’s say you want to shoot a scene with the entire screen in focus.  You want to have a high aperture setting for a deep depth of field. 

In this case, you are lighting a very sunny day. You have children playing in the meadow and you would like to see as many of those children as possible. 

You are using a camera with a 50 mm lens at a distance of 12 ft.  Using a depth of field calculator you discover that at an f-stop or aperture of f/11 you would have a 15-foot depth of field.

Now, the children you are recording are within 15 feet. Therefore, you know that anything with an f-stop of 11 or greater, with greater meaning larger number, will give you the desired result.

Conversely, if you want to focus on a character with a less sharp background or foreground you will set a low aperture setting for a more shallow depth of field.

You are recording a scene with a camera using a 50mm lens at a distance of 5 feet.  Using the same depth of field calculator and an f-stop of f/5.6 you find yourself with a 12-inch area of acceptable sharpness.  This allows you to focus on the actor while blurring the restaurant behind him.

Now, both of these examples are just that; examples, but they should give you a more clear view of how the image can be manipulated using aperture settings.

Single Shot, Two Shot, or Three shot

Single shots refer to shots involving one actor.  Two shots are shots involving two actors.  Three shots are shots involving three actors. 

When you are blocking the scenes it is very important that you recognized who is in the scene and what type of shot you will use to convey the emotion or action warranted.

The Shoot

1- Check everything before you begin recording.

Before you shoot anything you need to be sure everything is set up correctly and running. 

• The camera should be set up in the proper location.

•  The external sound recorder should be in position

•  The lights should be set up correctly

Begin recording with both your external sound recorder and your camera. 

Sound recording: Make sure you are getting sound with the proper levels

Camera recording:  Make sure you are getting perfectly framed clear images

Stop both machines. Pull the cards, and check what you have.

Is the image framed correctly?

Is the image in focus?

Is the scene lit correctly?

How is the audio? 

Are we getting good sound?

Are there any unwanted external noises?

If any of those things are not exactly the way you want them you need to fix the problem and repeat the checklist.  Once you have your preferred setup it is then time to begin the actual shoot.

Okay, director, it’s time.  Your set is in order.  Your equipment is in place.  We are forgetting something: Actors.  Oh yeah, what in the world do we do with actors?