Runcible Blog

cinematographer respect

I bought an issue of American Cinematographer the other night. Since it's produced by the ASC guild itself, much of the magazine has to do with the craft of cinematography as practiced by its members. Some of the technical jargon is unfamiliar to me — for instance, I don't know about the different types of lenses or aspect ratio choices, and I haven't figured out why they refer to apertures as T2.8 instead of f2.8 — but I try to follow on with an outsider's curiosity.

I have much respect for cinematographers because they seem to understand the qualities of light on a much deeper level than still photographers. A lot of the content in the magazine revolves around the techniques that cinematographers use to deal with tricky lighting situations and limitations of the medium (such as film that tops off at 500ISO). The articles talk about the lighting choices each cinematographer makes to create a mood that suits the director's vision, which involves being in tune with color, light direction, contrast, and softness. It's a very detail-oriented job.

I think one possible explanation for the difference in technical competence between cinematographers and still photographers is the relatively limited post-processing potential of 35mm movie film. I don't know too much about the entire start-to-finish process of film production, but my sense is that it's still mostly a chemical process with some digital color balance adjustments that are possible. In other words, it behooves the cinematographer to get the scene looking exactly right when he shoots it rather than relying on post-processing to clean up any nasty light. Plus, it's probably prohibitively expensive to re-shoot a scene if the exposure was off. Because of those constraints, DP's will make extensive tests using different types of film and lenses, under varying lighting conditions. By contrast, photographers usually have more room for error — a properly exposed negative/digital file has a huge potential for variation by a skilled photoshopper. And certainly flash photography removes many of the limitations of having to setup thousands of watts of tungsten lights for a scene. We photographers have it easy!

All of this is to say that I think I could learn a lot from these skilled DP's. Even watching a well-shot film (most recently, Marie Antoinette by Lance Acord) inspires me. It's great to see a movie where you could snip out single frames and have beautiful still photos (Barry Lyndon comes to mind).