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Advice for learning digital cinematography


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#1 Elias Luna

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Posted 12 May 2011 - 08:59 AM

What's up people, I have a shoot coming up (short music video) and sort of feel underprepared. I have a Canon 60d and know how to shoot with it and all the basics and intermediate stuff, however in looking for tips and techniques on various websites including this one, digital cinematography seems to be even more technical than shooting film (I'm probably wrong but that's my impression). In having watched Cinematography Style over and over one thing that always stuck with me was Larry Bridges when he said, "I think cinematography hasn't changed but it might require a new cinematographer, one who's versed in digital technology and fearless and able to assert the view, the vision as the cinematographer has traditionally done on set," It seems to me that's very much true. I really want to know the ins and outs of shooting with my own camera and digital in general. Are there any books or websites anyone could recommend that would really help me out and go in depth when it comes to shooting digital? Thanks in advance.
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#2 Adam Ouellette

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Posted 12 May 2011 - 10:52 PM

Digital cinematography is by no means more difficult than shooting on film.

Both have their own unique difficulties. People could go on for hours debating which is better but that is not your question, so I won't comment on that.

Really the best way to learn digital cinematography is to learn the tools, know they are tools, but don't hide behind them. It seems like a lot of people (students in particular) tend to hide behind their DSLRs and just believe that it will shoot a good film for them because its a DSLR, which is just wrong.

Film will get you understanding the process of what happens shooting a film and in my experience film sets are just more professional and serious than digital sets. (since every time the camera rolls money goes down the drain) If you ignore the processes of shooting on film more than likely you will have less understanding of what is going on with digital. That just my opinion.

If you're into DSLR be sure to read Phillip bloom and Shane Hurlbut's blogs.
http://philipbloom.net/
http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/
If anything you will at least learn a lot from reading what these two guys have to say.

But in the end the best way to really learn about shooting on any format for that matter is just to get out there and shoot. You won't understand some things at first, but getting into it and really getting down to business with it will teach you a lot.

I've always felt like you can't learn composition and what "looks right" from a book. I learned everything I knew about composition etc. out shooting not from reading pages and setting things up how a book told me to do so. When you've shot long enough you can look at what you're shooting and judge for yourself what the right shot is and whats terrible, you can just feel it(its a sense some say). Books are probably best for lighting setup theories and explaining what NOT to do. But you can't apply your skills practically if you've just read about them, you have to be able to use them in the field.

I'm just a rookie in the big scope of things and these are my personal experiences. Take it for what you will.

Edited by Adam Ouellette, 12 May 2011 - 10:53 PM.

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#3 M Joel W

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Posted 13 May 2011 - 09:58 PM

Honestly, I think shooting film is harder, but I am very inexperienced at it. I talked with Phil Abraham (DP of the Sopranos) and he strongly felt the opposite; he found he could get away with more aggressive contrast ratios on film and he could basically light by eye since he knew the stocks he used so well, but he struggled to replicate the look on digital. Whatever you grow up with is easier, I guess, so if you're used to film I imagine a dSLR will present some challenges. dSLRs also have bad dynamic range and poor recording codecs so there's less flexibility in post and the look is a bit harsher. I still find them WAY easier to use than film, but that's due to a lack of experience on my part. And honestly, my results with dSLRs are middling at best. But after a few months' practice I think they're easy to shoot with, so don't sweat it if they seem weird at first.

In terms of interface, dSLRs are a bit of a pain and a lot of people with more experience in film find them overwhelmingly complicated because whereas with a film camera it's like set your f-stop, point, and shoot, with a dSLR there are a thousand menu options and the viewfinder is nowhere near as useful as a good optical finder. The real technical challenge is finding the proper recording settings and mentally correlating the LCD's image with what you want to get on your computer. When I started shooting with my t2i I often overexposed by about half a stop and I used ultraflat until I realized that this makes it much harder to expose correctly since the image on the LCD is so muddy and then the poor tonality hurts skin tones, too. I've since switched to the neutral setting (with highlight tone priority, using contrast filters and fill light instead of picture looks to deal with harsh contrast), and I get much better results. If you're not experienced with the camera or are getting bad exposures run some tests to get see what ISO setting on your meter gives the best results and then keep metering all your shots until you're comfortable going by the LCD. I found I was overexposing a bit when I just plugged in whatever I metered, so I rated 2/3 stop faster and got okay exposures and detail to about two and a half or three stops above 18% gray, which is decent for digital, imo.

In terms of lighting, you've got maybe two stops above and two stops below, way less than with color negative film. So either dress your talent in more neutral tones or you'll have to be more conservative with your ratios. But dSLRs are much easier to light for than older video cameras, imo, which had like a stop above 18% gray before blowing out.

In terms of camera moves, skew is a killer. Use IS lenses and short focal lengths and whatever methods of stabilization you have available. Aliasing isn't that big an issue if you avoid fine patterns and throw the camera just slightly out of focus when you can't avoid them (finding how much out of focus you need to go takes practice). Past that, good digital cinematography and good film cinematography have a lot in common. dSLRs are nowhere near as elegant as film and the image isn't as good, but you can get amazing results for the money; they're really unprecedented and democratizing in that regard.

It's all a matter of practice! Sometimes that means forgetting old habits, but still 95% of what makes a good image is common between film and digital. The rest is just practice. Shoot a ton under different lighting conditions with different camera settings and see what works for you and what doesn't. I'm not saying my advice above is the best way to go, it's just what worked for me.

Edited by M Joel Wauhkonen, 13 May 2011 - 10:01 PM.

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