As some of you might know, I’m a cinematographer by craft (you can see some of my stuff here: http://tomekslesicki.com) but I’m also doing music and sound design, when I’m not shooting. Recently I received so much love from this community, that I feel I should give something back. English is not my first language so please, bare with me!
This is not a gear buying guide or a tutorial. Consider it more like filmmaking basics for musicians, an attempt to cover most common questions about how to set up your gear and what all of these mysterious things like f-stops or focal lengths mean. I’ll try to keep it as non-technical as possible because, honestly, I’ve been always bored by the technical aspect of things.
So, when it comes to filmmaking, we can basically divide the whole thing into four aspects: exposure, light, composition and technical choices.
Exposure is basically the brightness of the image. This is both an artistic choice (you might, for example, want to make the image darker to evoke a more gloomy mood). and a technical one because - similar to what happens in digital audio - once you clip the signal, you start to loose detail. You can control it with four settings on your camera:
A) The aperture
B) Shutter speed
Each of these influences both the overall brightness of the image, as well as some aesthetic aspects. Let’s take a look at these:
- The aperture is measured in f-stops . A lens might have settings like f1.4, f2, f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16. Basically, the lower the f-stop number, the brighter the image. However, the f-stop also influences the depth of field of your image. So, the lower the f-stop is, the more defocused or blurry the background will be (this is called a shallow depth of field, by the way).
This may be a good or a bad thing, depending on what you want to achieve. If you, say, want to focus on one particular piece of kit, blurry background may be a nice way to separate it from the rest of your gear. On the other hand - if you want to have more stuff in focus, choosing a higher f-stop might be a good thing.
A very shallow depth of field - the aperture is open and the background is out of focus. Still from a music video - Daria Zawiałow: Hej, Hej https://vimeo.com/335364850
A rule of thumb to keep in mind is that generally, lenses perform softer when using a lower f-stop value and the image sharpens-up once the aperture is closed. Again - this is an artistic choice, sometimes an image that’s softer might fit the mood you’re trying to evoke more than a perfectly sharp one.
Keeping in mind that the aperture influences so many aspects beyond the brightness of the image, I prefer to use it as an artistic choice rather than a technical one. Whenever possible, I’m using other tools to control the brightness and consider the aperture as depth of field and texture controller.
- Shutter speed is another way of brightness control but honestly, this is the last thing I’d use! Basically, the shutter speed controls how sharp or blurry the motion is. Shutter speed is expressed either in angles (in pro cinema cameras) or a split number like 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/150 and so on. The lower the number after the 1/ is, the more blurry the motion will be.
A good rule of thumb here is to set it to double of what your framerate is (more on framerates later!). Sounds like maths, right? I hate maths, so here’s your cheat sheet - chances are, you’ll either shoot at 24 or 25 frames per second (hold on, I’ll tell you why in just a sec). So, if you shoot at 24, set your shutter at 1/48. If you shoot at 25, set it at 1/50.
If you set the number after 1/ to a higher value, the motion will look unnaturally sharp and you might get into problems with your lights flickering. 1/100, 1/150, 1/200 and such values are great when you shoot something at slow motion because it prevents the image from getting blurry. Slow motion is basically double, triple etc. value of your original framerate so it makes sense to use a sharper shutter setting then.
If not shooting slow motion, however, I’d say sticking to 1/48 or 1/50 is the best idea.
- ISO is like gain in your preamp. The higher you set it, the brighter the image becomes but once you pass a certain threshold, some noise is introduced.
Each camera has something called native ISO . This is the optimum setting for the sensor, usually giving you the cleanest image (noise-wise) with the best dynamic range. How to find it? Google it.
Once you know the native ISO, it’s wise to do some tests. Usually, with modern cameras, you can get a clean image with higher ISO settings as well. Setting it lower than the native ISO shouldn’t introduce any additional noise but might compress your dynamic range a bit.
So, ISO is a nice way of brightness control but it comes with some technical issues that you should be aware of. The way I approach it is that once I know what the native ISO of a camera is, I stick to it and control the brightness with…
- Filters. Honestly, this is something I think everyone should buy along with the camera. In my opinion, filters are the best way to control the exposure (besides setting your lights in a different way but that’s another story!) in-camera because using a filter controls just that - the brightness of the image. If you’re using a high quality glass filter, you shouldn’t loose any significant sharpness.
There are many filter types but the ones that control the exposure are called ND , which is a short from neutral density. They come in two variants - standard ND filters , which are fixed to a certain value (0.3, 0.6, 0.9, 1.2 and so on - each of these increments lowers the exposure by one f-stop) and variable ND , which allow you to smoothly cross-fade between different f-stop settings.
A rule of thumb here? The standards are cheaper and possibly sharper, the variables are more flexible for quick setups but might introduce some sharpness loss or color spill.
So, to sum the exposure thing up - if you asked me, I’d say set the ISO to the native value, your shutter to double of what your framerate is, use aperture for creative choices and control the brightness of the image with filters. Done!
There are three light directions that you should know (and basically every position falls into these descriptions). These are:
A) FILL LIGHT = front light
B) KEY LIGHT = side light
C) BACKLIGHT = well…
These are always used in relation to the subject and the camera. So, if you place the camera so that your kit is in front of it and the window is behind the camera, you’re shooting in fill light. But if you move the camera to the other end of the room and shoot so that the gear is lit by a window that’s now behind it, you’re using backlight.
Why is that important? Light is the most crucial aspect of mood and character of every image. And certain light directions have some associations, rooted in art and culture. Going by the rule of thumb:
- Fill light is the most “realistic” of the three. I’ve put it in quotes because there’s really no such thing as unrealistic backlight for example but this is the most neutral of these three directions. It doesn’t have much character but it allows people to see what’s in front of them. So, no mystery - maximum information. That’s why it’s used in TV interviews so much. The reason it’s called “fill light” is because it fills out the shadows of the subject. Again - to let you see more.
Still from a music video - Neena: Roses https://vimeo.com/121866293
- Key light is the basic cinematic / paintery direction, loved by cinematographers and Caravaggio alike. It allows you to see things but at the same time, retains some shadows on the subject. These shadows are what makes the image more 3D and - in my opinion, anyway - more interesting visually.
Still from a music video - Kroki: Cover Me https://vimeo.com/211722371
- Backlight - the light of the mystery! If you remember any of the Noir movies from the 40s and 50s, they loved backlight. If you can’t see somebody’s face, there must be something interesting, disturbing or at least suspicious there, right? The funny thing is that this very “dark” light was used for the classic “Hollywood look” as well - when combined with the other two directions, a strong backlight was what provided the angelic glow for the traditional beauty shots of the era.
‘Liberation’ - a strong backlight on the actress’ hair.
In narrative work we tend to use more than one of these directions and very their intensity. So, if going for a very natural, but still cinematic look (think - “Tree Of Life”, “Broadchurch”, “Babel”), we’d use the key light as the main (strongest) light but add some fill to brighten up the actors’ faces and eyes, while still keeping the cinematic vibe. On the other hand, if going for a thriller kind of a look (“Se7en”, for example), using a strong backlight with some key light and a minimum amount of fill (or none at all) might be a nice idea.
These are just some general directions. You could do a thriller all in fill and be fine. But, to keep up with the rules of thumb things from the previous paragraphs - the more you move towards backlight, the more stylised your image is. Whether it’s good or bad - it’s a matter of taste so choose what you enjoy the most
When shooting with no artificial lights, you can create beautiful looking images just by using a window or your regular household lights. For example, all of the images that accompany the release of Lekko (https://feltinstruments.com/Lekko) are shot using just an IKEA floor lamp.
There’s an amazing website called Composition Study (http://compositionstudy.com), which I highly recommend you watch, along with this great B&H masterclass: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwk3YFknyNA
The technical thing that affects your composition in the most obvious way is the lens choice. Lenses come in what we call focal lengths , which are expressed in milimeters. So you have lenses like:
WIDE: 16mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm (traditinonally used for landscapes and strange portraits - think ‘Amelie’ or ‘The Revenant’).
STANDARD: 35mm, 50mm (considered to be roughly what we see with our own eyes)
LONG: 85mm, 100mm (traditionally used as portrait lenses)
TELEPHOTO: 135mm, 180mm, 300mm (traditionally used when you needed to photograph something from a long distance, but are nice as portraits, too)
A lot of numbers, but it can be really described in a short way: the lower the mm number, the more you see. So if you stand on a cliff, shooting a landscape, you’ll see more of it by using a 16mm lens than a 24mm. A 24mm will give you a wider perspective than the 50mm while standing on the very same spot, and so on. If you want to shoot a picture of a man walking with his dog at the bottom of the cliff, if you put a 16mm lens on the camera, all you’ll see is the vista. If you put a longer lens on, like a 300mm, the subject will appear way closer, even without moving the camera. I hope this makes sense.
Focal length choice will also influence two other things:
Depth of field (so this is the blurry background, again!) - the longer the lens the more shallow the depth of field will be;
Perspective - the shorter the lens, the more dynamic the perspective is (‘The Revenant’ makes a great use of it!), but some distortion may appear when shooting things up close. The longer the lens, the more flattened the perspective appears.
Using a longer lens (a 135mm in this case) flattens the perspective. Still from a short film ‘First’ - https://vimeo.com/151010790
To keep things practical, I’d say that for doing gear-related videos, lenses like 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm should give you a huge coverage of the possible angles. If you’re on a tight budget, I’d stick to a 35mm or 50mm unless you’re into doing a lot of shots from the top - this is really where a wider lens would come in handy. But for other scenarios, I’d say that a 35mm or 50mm would be a nice compromise when it comes to depth of field control and a workable angle.
I find flickr.com to be a nice reference when it comes to visualising how a certain focal length looks like. Just type in, say, “20mm” into the search box and you should get a few results, giving you a sense of the overall vibe.
If you’re interested, I could create a short guide to buying vintage lenses - there are some gems out there that you can get for a fraction of a cost of a modern lens and they have a beautiful character.
There’s also something called aspect ratio. These are the dimensions of the frame you’re using. You possibly know a few of these already - 16x9 is the most common format used in TV, but also online. So chances are that your video camera shoots in this format. The other is 2x3 or 4x3, which are quite similar actually, and the first one is the format of film-based cameras (old days!) and the second one is the standard digital still format. And chances are you also know 1x1, which the newer generation knows as the Instagram format, but it actually comes from the film days as well and was the standard for medium format film.
Besides these, one that’s also interesting is 2.35x1 or 2.39x1. This is something called scope and it’s that super-wide, cinematic ratio.
In digital, the standard approach is to shoot 16x9 regardless of your final format. If you want to frame for 2.35:1 for example, either use some frame guides built into your camera (if there are any!) or measure it and tape it so that you can only see the final frame. The idea is that by shooting 16x9, you’ll have some room to re-frame the footage during the editing, if the need arises. In most cameras DSLR you can’t really choose the video aspect ratio so even if you’re going for 1x1 format, you need to shoot in 16x9 and crop afterwards.
Each of these formats forces some composition-related choices. This is really a personal choice and all I can suggest here is to take some time to experiment and see which format you enjoy the most or which fits the mood of the scene you’re shooting best.
One thing to bare in mind, too, is that each delivery platform (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube) prefers a different aspect ratio for the content (1x1 for Instagram, vertical for Facebook and 16x9 for YouTube). This doesn’t mean you can’t use, say, 2.39:1 for Instagram. You absolutely can, but your video will be smaller than if you’d shoot for 1x1 or 16x9 and you’ll have to add some sort of a blank space around your content when exporting from your editing app to avoid it being cropped.
04. TECHNICAL STUFF
I always felt this was super boring so I’ll keep it brief:
- Sensor size - there are three common sensor sizes - full frame, APS-C and 4/3 (which is actually a name of the mount, but it’s a whole group of cameras). Full frame is what you might know from the film days. APS-C is a little smaller, but it’s the size of something called Super35 which is actually the standard cinema film size. 4/3 and Micro 4/3 are the same size and smaller than the rest. The smaller the sensor, the more cropped the image is. So, if you’re staying on the cliff I used as an example earlier and put the 16mm lens on a full frame camera, you’re going to see more of the whole image than you would with the other formats. APS-C crop the image by around 1.3 times while the 4/3 formats crop by around 2x. Because of the crop, when using a cropped sensor, you might have to take a step back or two to get the same field of view as you would on a full frame camera.
Ok, but what does that mean? Because you either step back or use a wider lens for the same shot, the depth of field changes accordingly. So, to keep things simple, we can assume that the larger the sensor, the easier it is to get a shallow depth of field. This doesn’t mean you can’t get a shallow depth of field on a 4/3 camera, for example.
There are also devices called focal reducers (Metabones Speed Booster is a nice example) that optically compress the image and the result is that you’re basically getting an image that you’d get by using a larger sensor, but on a smaller sensor. This is not cheap, however.
If I were to pick a camera today, I’d go for APS-C because they’re cheaper than full frame, they allow for a lot of creativity and respond closer to how cinema cameras do, which is something I’m used to. But again - this is my personal preference and you can get a nice image from any system.
Framerate - if you’re in Europe or Asia, set your gear at 25 fps. If you’re in US, set it at 24 fps. These framerates look way more cinematic and less digital-smooth-fake than the 30fps.
Resolution - for now, Instagram is 1080p only (which is HD) and YouTube / Vimeo are introducing 4K but it’s not wide-spread yet. Shooting lower than HD makes no sense for me, but if you’re debating whether to buy a 4K camera or a HD one, consider this:
4K requires way more disk space and a more powerful machine to handle the footage
4K allows you to crop the image - zoom-in digitally to fix framing or apply some stabilization
4K image will look sharper when displayed in HD than plain HD displayed in HD.
At some point in time, 4K will be the standard but for now HD is perfectly fine
If you want to buy a camera you know you’ll be updating soon (new cameras come out every year or so), does it make sense for you to buy the best gear possible if you’ll upgrade it anyway?
Log and RAW - some cameras allow you to shoot either in RAW or a log (very flat) color profile. Both of these things mean that you’ll get more flexibility in grading than when shooting with a standard, non-log or non-RAW camera.
In fact, I have a small grading company, I’ve worked on quite some projects and in my experience (contrary to what people on gear forums seem to imply), you can really get an amazing looking footage even from a compressed, non-RAW and non-log footage. This is a music video I shot for one of the Poland’s top artists: https://vimeo.com/317428842 and it was shot on a Sony A7S. My graduation film called “August” (which won the Best Cinematography award at Palm Springs ShortFest, among others) was shot on a Panasonic GH3 (this was quite some time ago, haha) which had neither RAW, nor log option. It’s possible to get a good look out of everything - you just loose some flexibility.
This was shot on the Panasonic GH3 so no log and no RAW.
So again, a rule of thumb here is - if you’re fluent in grading, shoot in log and you’ll enjoy the flexibility it adds. If you’re just starting out or don’t want to learn new software, shoot in a color profile that you like most and do some basic adjustments during the edit and you’ll be fine. This is the internet, after all, not cinema or TV so the specs are way more flexible and friendly.
- White balance - this is a fancy way of saying “please, tell me which light I’m shooting under”. All you need to know is two numbers - 5500K (or 5600K, it’s used interchangeably and is not much of a difference) and 3200K. If you’re using a camera that’s maybe not entirely pro-level, these may be displayed as icons, 5500 represented by the sun and 3200 by the light bulb.
The idea is that if you’re shooting at daylight or under white LED lights, if you set your camera to 5500, your image will look as you’d expect it to. If you set it to 3200, it will have a strong blue cast. If you’re shooting under tungsten light (so your traditional, old-school non-LED light bulbs), if you set your camera to 5500, the image will have an orange hue. When you set it to 3200, it will look normal.
This blue or orange tint is not a bad thing, sometimes it can create a nice mood. But if you’re after a natural-looking image where white is actually white, set your camera to the correct setting and you’re done.
A nice trick, used by some cinematographers is to set the white balance to 4500K when shooting day scenes. The result is a nice, kind of silvery look that might work for some moods.
That’s about it when it comes to basics of basics. I hope you’ll find it useful. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, I’m all ears