How much technology does a modern cinematographer need to know?

Odyssey-Price-Promo-Banner-01-21-2016 How much technology does a modern cinematographer need to know?

This post might be a little controversial, I am often told “you don’t need to know the technical stuff to be a cinematographer” or “I don’t need to know about log and gamma, I just want to shoot”.

I would argue that unless you are working closely with a good DIT a modern DP/Cinematographer really does need to understand many of the technical aspects of the equipment being used, in particular the settings that alter the way the camera captures the images. Not just things like “set it to gamma x for bright scenes” but why you would want to do that.

Now I’m not saying that you have to be a full blown electronics engineer, but if you really want to capture the best possible images it really is very important that you truly understand what the camera is doing. It’s also a huge help to understand how your footage will behave in post production. Any craftsman should understand the correct way to use his tools and not only know how to use them but how they work.

Part of the understanding of how your chosen camera behaves comes from testing and experimentation. Shooting test clips across a range of exposures, trying different gamma or log curves and then taking the footage into post production and seeing how it behaves.

Film cinematographers will shoot tests with different film stocks before a large production under the kinds of lighting conditions that will be encountered during the film. Then the film would be processed in different ways to find the best match to the look the cinematographer is trying to achieve. Digital cinematographers should be doing the same and importantly understanding what the end results are telling them.

Most of the great painters didn’t just pick up a paint brush and slap paint on a canvas. Many artists from  Da Vinci to Turner studied chemistry so they could develop new paints and painting techniques. DaVinci was a pioneer of oil painting, Turner used to make his own paints from base pigments and chemicals and patented some of the unique colors he created.

This doesn’t take anything away from the traditional skills of lighting and composition etc, those are just as important as ever and always will be. But modern electronic cameras are sophisticated devices that need to be used correctly to get the best out of them.  I believe that you need to understand the way your camera responds to light. Understands it’s limitations, understand it’s strengths and learn how to use those strengths and avoid the weaknesses.

And that’s a really important consideration. Today the majority of the cameras on the market are capable of making great images…… Provided you know how to get the best from them. One may be stronger in low light, one may be better in bright light. It may be that one camera will suit one job or one scene better than another. You need to learn about these differences and understanding the underlying technologies will help you figure out which cameras may be candidates for your next project.

It’s not just the camera tech that’s important to understand but also how to manage the footage all the way from the camera to delivery. While you don’t need to be an expert colorist, it certainly helps if you know the process, just as film cameramen know about color timing and film processing. A trend that is growing in the US is high end cinematographers that also grade.

This has come about because in the days of film the cinematographer could determine the look of the finished production through a combination of lighting, the choice of film stock and how it was to be processed. Today a cinematographer may have much less control  over the final image as it passes through the post production and grading process. Often the final look is determined by the colorist as much as the cinematographer. By also becoming colorists and staying with their material all the way through post production, cinematographers can retain control of the final look of the production.

As HDR (High Dynamic Range) delivery becomes more important along with the need to deliver SDR content at the same time, a good understanding of the differences between and limitations of both systems will be needed as you may need to alter the way you expose to suit one or the other.

So, there is lots that you need to know about the technology used in todays world of digital cinematography. Where there is a big enough budget DIT’s (Digital Imaging Technicians) can help cinematographers with guidance on camera setups, gamma, color science, LUT’s and workflows. But at the low budget end of the market, as a cinematographer you need at the very least a firm grasp of how a modern camera works, how to correctly mange the dat it produces (you would be amazed how many people get this wrong). Finally how the material handles in post production, if you really want to get the best from it.

It isn’t simple, it isn’t always easy, it takes time and effort. But it’s incredibly rewarding when it all comes together and results in beautiful images.

If you disagree or have your own take on this please post a comment. I’d love to hear other views.

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