12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

I joined this social media platform last summer, after hearing DP Ed Moore say in an interview that his Instagram feed helps him get work. I can’t say that’s happened for me yet, but an attractive Instagram feed can’t do any creative freelancer any harm. And for photographers and cinematographers, it’s a great way to practice our skills.

The tips below are primarily aimed at people who are using a phone camera to take their pictures, but many of them will apply to all types of photography.

The particular challenge with Instagram images is that they’re usually viewed on a phone screen; they’re small, so they have to be easy for the brain to decipher. That means reducing clutter, keeping things bold and simple.

Here are twelve tips for putting this philosophy into practice. The examples are all taken from my own feed, and were taken with an iPhone 5, almost always using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode to get the best tonal range.

 

1. choose your background carefully

The biggest challenge I find in taking snaps with my phone is the huge depth of field. This makes it critical to have a suitable, non-distracting background, because it can’t be thrown out of focus. In the pub photo below, I chose to shoot against the blank pillar rather than against the racks of drinks behind the bar, so that the beer and lens mug would stand out clearly. For the Lego photo, I moved the model away from a messy table covered in multi-coloured blocks to use a red-only tray as a background instead.

 

2. Find Frames within frames

The Instagram filters all have a frame option which can be activated to give your image a white border, or a fake 35mm negative surround, and so on. An improvement on this is to compose your image so that it has a built-in frame. (I discussed frames within frames in a number of my recent posts on composition.)

 

3. try symmetrical composition

To my eye, the square aspect ratio of Instagram is not wide enough for The Rule of Thirds to be useful in most cases. Instead, I find the most arresting compositions are central, symmetrical ones.

 

4. Consider Shooting flat on

In cinematography, an impression of depth is usually desirable, but in a little Instagram image I find that two-dimensionality can sometimes work better. Such photos take on a graphical quality, like icons, which I find really interesting. The key thing is that 2D pictures are easier for your brain to interpret when they’re small, or when they’re flashing past as you scroll.

 

5. Look for shapes

Finding common shapes in a structure or natural environment can be a good way to make your photo catch the eye. In these examples I spotted an ‘S’ shape in the clouds and footpath, and an ‘A’ shape in the architecture.

 

6. Look for textures

Textures can add interest to your image. Remember the golden rule of avoiding clutter though. Often textures will look best if they’re very bold, like the branches of the tree against the misty sky here, or if they’re very close-up, like this cathedral door.

 

7. Shoot into the light

Most of you will not be lighting your Instagram pics artificially, so you need to be aware of the existing light falling on your subject. Often the strongest look is achieved by shooting towards the light. In certain situations this can create interesting silhouettes, but often there are enough reflective surfaces around to fill in the shadows so you can get the beauty of the backlight and still see the detail in your subject. You definitely need to be in HDR mode for this.

 

8. Look for interesting light

It’s also worth looking out for interesting light which may make a dull subject into something worth capturing. Nature provides interesting light every day at sunrise and sunset, so these are good times to keep an eye out for photo ops.

 

9. Use lens flare for interest

Photographers have been using lens flare to add an extra something to their pictures for decades, and certain science fiction movies have also been known to use (ahem) one or two. To avoid a flare being too overpowering, position your camera so as to hide part of the sun behind a foreground object. To get that anamorphic cinema look, wipe your finger vertically across your camera lens. The natural oils on your skin will cause a flare at 90° to the direction you wiped in. (Best not try this with that rented set of Master Primes though.)

 

10. Control your palette

Nothing gives an image a sense of unity and professionalism as quickly as a controlled colour palette. You can do this in-camera, like I did below by choosing the purple cushion to photograph the book on, or by adjusting the saturation and colour cast in the Photos app, as I did with the Canary Wharf image. For another example, see the Lego shot under point 3.

 

11. Wait for the right moment

Any good photographer knows that patience is a virtue. Waiting for pedestrians or vehicles to reach just the right spot in your composition before tapping the shutter can make the difference between a bold, eye-catching photo and a cluttered mess. In the below examples, I waited until the pedestrians (left) and the rowing boat and swans (right) were best placed against the background for contrast and composition before taking the shot.

 

12. Quality control

One final thing to consider: is the photo you’ve just taken worthy of your Instagram profile, or is it going to drag down the quality of your feed? If it’s not good, maybe you should keep it to yourself.

Check out my Instagram feed to see if you think I’ve broken this rule!

12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

Book Review: “Magic Hour” by Jack Cardiff

If Roger Deakins is the greatest living cinematographer, Jack Cardiff must be the greatest one no longer with us. He is perhaps best known for his triptych of Technicolor collaborations with Powell & Pressburger – A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus (which won Cardiff an Oscar and a Golden Globe) and The Red Shoes. But his career spanned a huge swathe of cinematic history, beginning in the days of the silent film and concluding in the age of action blockbusters like Rambo: First Blood Part II. Along the way he photographed many of the twentieth century’s most iconic movie stars: Humphrey Bogart, Sophia Loren, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier, Audrey Hepburn and Kirk Douglas, to name but a few.

Magic Hour is Cardiff’s autobiography, first published in 1996. (Yes, I’m reviewing this book 21 years late. Sorry.) From the beginning, his life was remarkable. His parents were travelling music hall performers, and he never stayed at the same school for long. But what he might have lacked in conventional education he more than made up for with a voracious appetite for literature and fine art.

One day, gazing at a roomful of paintings, I realized something starkly obvious that I’d never noticed before. Light! Now I gave all my attention to the way painters used light and also began the habit of analysing the light all around me: in rooms, buses, trains – everywhere. How light plays subtle tricks, bouncing off walls, how its various reflections and changed light sources can reveal much insight into the character of a face.

After a few movie appearances as a child actor, Cardiff found work as a camera assistant at Elstree, eventually rising to the rank of camera operator. One day, he and his fellow operators were interviewed to see who would go to America to learn all about the new Technicolor process. Cardiff cut short the technical questions and held forth on the great painters who inspired him. He was selected.

Cardiff (left) and his operator Geoffrey Unsworth with the comically huge Technicolor camera

The Technicolor camera was enormous and required precision maintenance, but Cardiff was to get stunning results from it.

Over the next quarter of a century, until the advent of single-film Eastmancolor, which tolled the death knell of the three-strip camera, I used this superb Rolls-Royce of a beauty all over the world in all kinds of dangerous situations: in steel foundries (inches away from molten ingots), in battleships in wartime seas, on top of erupting volcanoes, in burning deserts and steaming jungles, and diving on to the Colosseum in Rome in an old Italian bomber.

The above passage neatly sums up the kind of adventures Cardiff chronicles in Magic Hour. Anyone who’s ever worked on a film set will have a few ridiculous anecdotes to tell, and this man had a lifetime’s worth. For example, during World War II, Cardiff was tapped to lens a propaganda drama called Western Approaches. One scene required the sinking of a submarine, which was achieved without VFX of any kind, with the vessel doing a controlled dive to end up just short of total submersion. “My Technicolor camera was tied on to the extreme tip of the stern,” wrote Cardiff, “and I was operating it!”

Frame of Cardiff’s Oscar-winning work from “Black Narcissus” (1947, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

After the war he came to the attention of director/producer team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, leading to that famous triptych noted in my introduction, before going on to work with many other renowned filmmakers. His collaboration with Hitchcock, Under Capricorn, featured a memorable scene in which the four-foot-high Technicolor camera was required to track along the length of a dining table. This being impossible, the table was rigged to split apart as the camera advanced.

Now the camera moved forward, seemingly on an inevitable collision course, but at the last moment, each of the guests fell back on to a mattress clutching his section of the table with all the props stuck on it!

Magic Hour is beautifully and sincerely written, making you wish you could share a pint with the great man and hear even more of his beguiling tales of cinematic capers. Throughout the book, he provides unique insights into the off-screen lives of the Hollywood icons he worked alongside: his friendship with the “childlike, frightened Marilyn”; his unconsummated romance with Sophia Loren; his chat with Errol Flynn about the latter’s womanising, and many others.

Cardiff and Monroe on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957)

We are also treated to fascinating glimpses into Cardiff’s creativity as a cinematographer. For example, when faced with an exterior close-up whose grey, cloudy background would not match earlier sunny wide shots, Cardiff shone an ungelled tungsten lamp on the talent and instructed the lab to correct for his skin tone. The lab duly added blue to the print, restoring the talent’s skin tone to normal and tinting the grey sky a perfect blue! Can you imagine performing such a risky experiment and not knowing until the following day whether it had succeeded or not? We digital DPs are truly spoilt.

Another example of Cardiff’s ingenuity was on 1956’s War and Peace, where he had to create a sunrise effect on a glass matte painting.

I placed a small lamp close beside my camera which was brightly reflected in the sheet of glass. [This had] pink and orange filters on it. Although a tiny lamp, its reflection in the glass looked exactly like a dawn sun on the horizon.

In the late fifities, Cardiff moved into directing, and the great critical and commercial success of his 1960 film Sons and Loverforms the denouement of Magic Hour. He later returned to DPing with such mainstream movies as Death on the Nile and Conan the Destroyer, a period of his life which Cardiff gives only a passing mention in the closing chapter. Perhaps he was less proud of the modern box office fodder than his earlier, arguably more artistic, work?

Cardiff in a shot from “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff” (2010, dir. Craig McCall)

Cardiff died in 2009, the year before the release of the documentary feature Cameraman: The Life and Word of Jack Cardiff. Whether you choose to learn about Cardiff’s contributions to cinema from that excellent film or from the equally absorbing Magic Hour, learn you should. The word “legendary” is over-used, but Cardiff is more deserving of the adjective than most.

Book Review: “Magic Hour” by Jack Cardiff

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

We’ve all heard the shocking statistics about the tiny proportion of DPs who are women. So when you watch film and TV, sadly, you might assume that you’re always watching the cinematography of a man. Today’s post encourages you to think again.

To mark International Women’s Day, I’m highlighting the work of seven female DPs who are lensing mainstream productions, and whose cinematography you’ve probably seen. All of these women are great role models for aspiring DPs.

 

Sharon Calahan, ASC


Raised in the USA’s Pacific Northwest, Calahan studied advertising art, illustration, and graphic design. Her first job was at a TV station, where she worked as an art director but also got involved in lighting sets. She joined Pixar just as the company was starting out, becoming the lighting supervisor on Toy Story, before graduating to director of photography for A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. In 2014, Calahan became the first DP working purely in CGI to be admitted into the American Society of Cinematographers. By this time, her extensive experience of studying and mimicking natural light had led her to take up landscape painting, and for Pixar’s next release, The Good Dinosaur, director Peter Sohn used Calahan’s landscapes as the visual template for the entire look.

 

Anna Foerster, ASC

 
 

A German cinematographer and director, Foerster is perhaps best known for her collaborations with her fellow countryman Roland Emmerich. After working as an FX unit DP for him on Independence Day and Godzilla (1998), then second unit DP and director on Tomorrow and 10,000 BC, she graduated to first unit DP on Anonymous and White House Down. Anonymous is an independent historical thriller suggesting Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Lord Oxford, while White House Down is of course an all-out action thriller. On the latter, Foerster came up with a number of clever tricks to hide the lighting units from the wide lenses she favoured. She also worked hard to sell the sound-stages that most of the movie was shot on as real day-lit interior and exterior locations. Foerster’s directing credits include Underworld: Blood Wars, and episodes of Outlander and Criminal Minds.

 

Sue Gibson, BSC

Derbyshire-born Gibson developed an interest in photography at the age of fourteen. She studied at Newport College of Art, then at the National Film and Television School (NFTS), graduating in 1981. After starting out in commercials, she shot her first feature, Hear My Song, in 1989, which won The Evening Standard Award for Technical Achievement. Her other feature credits include Mrs Dalloway and – in a very different genre – second unit on Alien vs. Predator. She worked extensively in British TV, particularly murder mystery, lensing episodes of Poirot, Marple, LewisSpooks and The Forsyte Saga. In 1992 Gibson became the first female member of the British Society of Cinematographers, and later served as its president between 2008-2010. She passed away last summer, and was posthumously awarded The Philips Vari-Lite Award for Drama at The Knight of Illuminations Awards for two of her Death in Paradise episodes, her final work.

 

Ellen Kuras, ASC

Born in New Jersey, Kuras studied photography and 8mm filmmaking after university, with a view to becoming a documentary filmmaker. After lensing the award-winning short doc Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, her career diversified to eventually include such big-budget features as Blow and Analyze That. Kuras has also collaborated twice with French director Michel Gondry. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she used her documentary background to put the realism into Gondry’s magical realism, with handheld cameras and naturalistic lighting. But she brought the magic too; for example, using a camera-mounted spotlight for a tunnel vision effect during the sequence in which Jim Carey and Kate Winslet try to hide within Carey’s memory. Although more classically composed, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind was similarly creative, featuring low-fi VHS recreations of big movies, and a memorable montage captured in a single developing shot. Kuras’ many awards include an unprecedented hat-trick of Best Dramatic Cinematography gongs at Sundance, and an Oscar nomination for The Betrayal – Nerakhoon, a documentary feature she directed.

 

Suzie Lavelle, ISC

Lavelle is an Irish DP who studied at NFTS before entering the TV industry as an AC. Her sumptuous, colourful and contrasty lighting has featured in some of the BBC’s most high-profile TV dramas. “The Abominable Bride”, her Sherlock outing, was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 2016. “Cold War”, her contribution to Doctor Who‘s 2013 season, is one of the best-looking and most atmospheric episodes the venerable series has ever produced.  And, along with James Mather, she swept away the dull photography of Ripper Street‘s first two seasons and established the much moodier style for season three that would continue for the rest of the show’s run. Lavelle’s other TV credits include VikingsThe Living and the Dead, Endeavour and Jekyll & Hyde, and she photographed the award-winning features One Hundred Mornings and The Other Side of Sleep.

 

Urszula Pontikos, BSC

Hailing from Gdynia in Poland, Pontikos has photographed a number of indie features, including Weekend, Second Coming and Lilting. The latter won her the Cinematography Award for World Cinema (Dramatic) at Sundance 2014, but she’s also shot some of the most interesting British TV shows of recent years. Despite a self-confessed nervousness about the scale of the show’s night exteriors, Pontikos delivered confident, slick and atmospheric cinematography for BBC 1’s Cold War spy thriller The Game in 2014. The following year she photographed the first two episodes of Humans, setting the style for this hugely popular C4 sci-fi drama. She employed unusual eye-lights, symmetrical composition and linear camera moves for scenes featuring the robotic “synths”. Her other TV credits include the crime dramas Glue for E4 and Marcella for ITV.

 

Mandy Walker, ACS, ASC

Born and raised in Melbourne, Walker got her first industry contacts from a short film course she took after graduation. Persistently calling these contacts yielded some unpaid work and her first feature at the age of just 25. More Aussie features followed, until a Chanel Nº 5 commercial with Baz Luhrmann and Nicole Kidman propelled Walker into the big-time with an epic drama, entitled – of course – Australia. Since then, Walker has lensed the likes of Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun) and Robert Redford (Truth). Her latest release is Hidden Figures, an inspiring and important drama about African-American women who worked on Nasa’s space programme. Walker used subtle techniques to enhance the themes of racism and sexism, like placing the camera below the heroine’s eye-lines so that they were always looking up at the white men. Hidden Figures is in cinemas across the UK right now, and I highly recommend it.

 

That’s all for now, but some other great DPs to check out are Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train), Uta Briesewitz, ASC (The Wire) and Cynthia Pusheck, ASC (Magnolia).

7 Female DPs You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Watching

Goodbye 2016

2016 has not been the best of years, at least not according to the sinister algorithms that run my Facebook feed. The year has been kinder to me than it has been to seventies and eighties celebrities, however.

Ren: The Girl with the Mark, the short-form fantasy action series I photographed in 2014 and spent parts of 2015 postproduction supervising on, met with great success in 2016. The series was released on YouTube in March, and episode one has to date had over 100,000 views, with overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Alongside the series, I released Lensing Ren, a set of companion videos that broke down the lighting design and other cinematography choices in each episode. I thought it would be interesting to make frame grabs part of the lighting diagrams, so you can really see the effect of each lamp. It’s an idea that I’ve carried through to my Instagram feed, so if you’re the kind of person who often looks at a shot and wonders, “How was that lit?” then be sure to follow me and find out.

We’ve lost track of how many awards nominations Ren: The Girl with the Mark has received at festivals this year, but the tally of wins stands at a dozen, including four Best Series and Grand Jury Awards. And although a trio of nominations for Best Cinematography didn’t yield me a win, Ren has already been selected for several 2017 festivals, so there will be plenty more chances!

2016 did supply me with my first ever Best Cinematography award though, courtesy of  the Festigious International Film Festival and Sophie Black’s short film Night Owls. This was one of three awards which Night Owls collected this year. And two other shorts I photographed have scooped awards during the year: race drama Exile Incessant, and supernatural drama Crossing Paths. Congratulations to everyone who helped make all these projects such a success.

As regards new productions, my 2016 was dominated by two feature films: family fantasy The Little Mermaid, and comedy road movie Above the Clouds. You can already read my daily blogs about the latter film, and I hope to publish plenty of content about the cinematography of the former film when it’s released next year.

The Little Mermaid was the perfect follow-up to last year’s Heretiks, going from my first six-figure-budget film to my first seven-figure-budget film. It also gave me the opportunity to light and shoot Oscar-winner and Hollywood royalty Shirley MacLaine, film in an incredible 1930s circus, go swimming with an Alexa, and gate-crash Baywatch‘s wrap party. There were tremendous challenges and lessons to be learnt along the way, and I came out stronger, far more experienced and eagerly anticipating the release of what should be a really magical family film.

I also got to work on my first eight-figure-budget movie this summer, although I only did two days as pick-ups DP, recreating the lighting and camerawork of the extremely experienced cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, which was very instructional. Again, I hope to post a blog about that when The Etruscan Smile is released.

Meanwhile I have continued, as ever, to both acquire and share knowledge of the craft of cinematography. For example, in September I attended Cinefest, Bristol’s International Festival of Cinematography, while the same month I published a series of posts covering all the main types of lighting unit currently available. I learnt quite a bit while researching those posts, and hopefully readers got a lot out of them too.

And in that vein I’ll be releasing a new YouTube programme in January 2017. Lighting I Like is a 6 x 3 minutes series that aims to raise awareness of the contribution which cinematography makes to a film or TV show, while educating aspiring DPs about the hows and whys of lighting design. Each week I’ll look at a scene I’ve picked from a major movie or series, explaining what makes the lighting so good and how I think it was achieved. Simple as that!

Lighting I Like will be released on Wednesdays starting January 4th, with the first episode discussing a scene from the Netflix series Daredevil. Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss it.

And with that I will sign off for 2016. Enjoy your new year celebrations, and I wish you all the very best in 2017.

Goodbye 2016

24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

img_1220Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Bristol International Festival of Cinematography: five days of masterclasses and panel discussions with a range of DPs from Oscar-winners like Chris Menges, ASC, BSC and Billy Williams, BSC, OBE to emerging cinematographers like Rina Yang. It was fascinating to watch the likes of Williams lighting the purpose-built set and explaining his decisions as he went. I learnt a huge amount, so I decided to share some of the opinions and nuggets of wisdom I collected.

  • Everyone agrees that the role of the DP is being diminished. Films are more collaborative than they used to be, often with lots of input from the VFX team right from the start.

Getting Work

  • You have to create your own luck. (Rina Yang)
  • Going to LA parties and schmoozing helps. (Roberto Schaefer, AIC, ASC)
  • Each clip on your showreel should make the viewer feel something. (Matt Gray, BSC)

Prep

  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Gray, her DP, spent weeks of prep getting on the same page when they worked together – chatting, exchanging photos, films, and so on.
  • Spend as much time as you can with the director in the early stages of prep, because as you get closer to the shoot they will be too busy with other stuff. (Schaefer)
  • Start with ten ideas about how you want to approach the cinematography of the film. If you hang onto five of them throughout the shoot you’re doing well. (Gray)
  • Hire a gaffer who knows more than you do. (Schaefer)

Equipment

  • On Gandhi, co-cinematographer Billy Williams, BSC, OBE was granted only half of the lighting kit he asked for. That was a $22 million movie which won eight Oscars!
  • Schaefer usually carries a 24’x30′ mirror in his kit, in case he needs to get an angle from somewhere where the camera won’t fit.
  • Schaefer doesn’t used OLED monitors to light from, because the blacks are richer than they will ever be seen by an audience on any other device, including in a cinema. He won’t judge the lighting by the EVF either, only a monitor calibrated by the DIT.
  • Focus drop-off is faster on digital than on film. Hence the current popularity of Cooke lenses, which soften the drop-off.
  • Nic Knowland, BSC uses a DSLR as a viewfinder to pick his shots. He also likes to record takes on his Convergent monitor so he can review them quickly for lighting issues.

On Set

  • You have to give the actors freedom, which may mean compromising the cinematography. (Nigel Waters, BSC)
  • Gray would never ask an actor to the find the light. The light needs to find them! As soon as actors are freed from marks, they can truly inhabit the space. [Note: in my experience, some actors absolutely insist on marks. Different strokes for different folks.]
  • On digital, everyone wants to shoot the rehearsal. (Schaefer)
  • Digital encourages more takes, but more takes use up time, drains actors’ energy and creates more work for the editor. Doing fewer takes encourages people to bring their A game to take one. (Williams)
  • Director Philippa Lowthorpe prefers a DP who operates because there is no filter between the ideas you’ve discussed in prep and the operation of the camera.

Lighting

  • Sometimes when you start lighting a set, you don’t where you’re going with it. You build a look, stroke by stroke, and see where it takes you. (Knowland)
  • Williams advocates maintaining the same stop throughout a scene, because your eye gets used to judging that exposure.
  • Knowland relies more on false colours on his monitor than on his light meter.
  • Schaefer often foregoes his traditional light and colour meters for an iPad app called Cine Meter III.
  • Knowland will go to 359º on the shutter if he’s struggling for light.
  • It’s worth checking the grade on a cheap monitor or TV. That’s how most people will watch it. (Schaefer)
24 Things I Learnt from CineFest

10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

My camera and lighting crew for last year's feature
My camera and lighting crew for last year’s feature

I’ve been working in the film business for 16 years now, but until very recently I hadn’t really worked on a ‘proper’ production, one that had a budget above five figures. Here are some differences I noticed stepping up from micro-budget to low budget…

  1. Formal crew structure. There is a proper separation between departments, even between camera and lighting (which is quite strange for the DP, in charge of both). Woe betide anyone who moves set dressing without asking the art department, or who plugs something in without checking with the sparks, or who stores equipment in a room without asking locations.
  2. Proper production and locations departments. The feature I worked on last year had two producers, a line producer, a production manager and a production co-ordinator, plus a locations department. I’m used to productions where one person does all those jobs, and often directs as well. Figuring out which person to approach about any given issue was fun! (Creative Skillset’s website is a good place to check if you’re not sure who does what.)
  3. Advance prep. With a large crew, time cannot be wasted waiting for things that could have been pre-rigged. Heads of department are expected to think ahead and splinter their crew if necessary to be ready for things coming later in the day or week. For a DP this most commonly means pre-rigging distro and/or lighting.
  4. Delegation. Aside from operating the camera, I did little hands-on work on the recent feature shoot. Lens changes, grip rigging and lighting set-ups are all handled by other people on the instructions of me, and of the gaffer and the 1st AC. Sometimes this means the DP can go and have a cup of tea, but often it provides important thinking and planning time – an opportunity to reccie the next set and design the lighting, or to review footage in the edit room, or reccie a possible location with other HoDs, or discuss the afternoon’s shots with the director. It’s impossible to do this sort of forward planning if you’re changing your own lenses and setting your own lamps up.
  5. Hard wrap times. On micro-budget shoots the wrap time is a theoretical concept, with no more relevance to reality than an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. On a bigger production, you wrap at wrap time, because if you don’t then the gaffer might pull the plug. Occasionally the crew will be asked if they are willing to go over by half an hour, say, in order to complete a scene. But everyone must agree, and that half hour must be deducted from the next day.
  6. Lunch break, not just lunch. In micro-budget land, getting lunch at all is not a given. But when you do get it, you’re often expected to eat as quickly as possible and get straight back to work. On a bigger production you get your hour lunch break come hell or high water. And there’s proper catering. With desserts!
  7. Reliance on the crew. If you’re working with a small camera and mains power, you can stay late with the director and steal a few extra shots, if necessary. But when everything’s run off a generator, which only the gaffer is qualified to operate, and your camera package is almost too heavy to lift onto your own shoulder, and you have no idea how half the bits and bobs connected to it work because your ACs always deal with it, you really can’t do anything on your own.
  8. Permissions and qualifications. For insurance reasons you must have qualified people overseeing the electrics and the rigging. You must also check with the locations department before using any space or equipment or filming in any area that was not discussed and signed off in preproduction.
  9. Paperwork. Most HoDs seem to have some kind of daily paperwork to do on a larger production.The DP happily escapes this (the ACs handle the camera reports), though they do have to complete a risk assessment before shooting commences.
  10. People management. Because of the size of the team under you, people management becomes a major part of an HoD’s job. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.
10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

10 Tips for Meetings

Did this t-shirt get me the job?
Did this t-shirt get me the job?

Late last year I secured a great feature film job as DP, on the basis of a personal recommendation followed by a meeting with the director which went really well. Making a good impression at a meeting like this is clearly crucial. But although such meetings are essentially job interviews, they are much less formal and rely much more heavily on the director and DP having similar tastes. Here are a few tips to help you give your next one your best shot.

  1. Be prepared. This means reading the script and any other documents provided, ideally more than once if you have the time and you’re serious about wanting the job. Look up the director’s previous work to get a sense of their tastes.
  2. Dress to impress. What you wear to a meeting can influence its outcome, just as wearing a smart suit to a traditional job interview can. During the shooting of the feature, the director commented that the Highlander t-shirt I wore to the meeting reassured him that my cinematic tastes were broadly in line with his own.
  3. Be willing to travel. If you don’t live in London, you’re going to have to travel there for most meetings. Don’t complain about it, don’t even mention it if you can avoid it. But also don’t do it if you have doubts about the quality of the production and what it’s going to do for your career.
  4. Bring showreel footage. The director will likely have seen your showreel before you meet, but it doesn’t hurt to bring additional clips or stills that are particularly relevant to this project. In my feature meeting, frame grabs from Ren: The Girl with the Mark helped demonstrate what I could do with a period setting.
  5. Bring some creativity to the table. Put some reference images together to show the visual ideas that came to your mind when you read the script, and how you think the cinematography of the project could be approached. I found an image of some monks with a shaft of light coming in the window that perfectly summed up how I saw the feature, and the director really responded to it.
  6. Be flexible. Be prepared to listen to the director’s vision and bounce off their ideas.
  7. Bring people and/or kit to the table. What do you have access to that puts you ahead of other applicants? Often in the micro-budget world this will be your camera, or maybe a drone or a jib, but once you get into the realm of more reasonable budgets, directors and producers appreciate skilled crew more. The feature director really wanted to use a lot of steadicam in the film, so before being offered the job I contacted a talented steadicam op I knew and got an expression of interest from him which I was then able to go back to the director with. I think this was a big part of the reason I got the job.
  8. Be OK with the budget. If it’s late enough in preproduction that the crew fees and the kit hire budget are fixed, don’t grumble about them. All you will achieve is to make the director think you’re going to be difficult to work with. Instead cite examples of how you achieved great results with similarly limited resources in the past.
  9. Don’t be cheap. Offer to pay for the drinks. I’d probably take it as a bad sign if the director allowed me to, but offer nonetheless!
  10. Follow up. We all think of great things we should have said when we’re halfway home. Send an email with those extra thoughts, any links you may have discussed in the meeting, and a thank you for their time taken in meeting you.
10 Tips for Meetings

Review of My Year: 2015

Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes on an Alexa HD
Shooting Ballet Pointe Shoes, my first time working with an Alexa

Where has the year gone? Can you believe that all of the Back to the Future trilogy is now set in the past? It’s been a great year for me, one of moving in the right direction.

At the end of last year I said, “In 2015 the goal is very simple: keep DPing drama, with a bit of gaffering in the gaps.” And that’s exactly what I’ve done. That and postproduction supervising a web series – but more on that in a minute.

Last year I made the huge but entirely correct decision to stop doing corporates, and that did lead to some gaps in my schedule. 2015 started slowly, with a couple of gaffering jobs on Oliver Park’s short Vicious and John Quarrell’s The Gift.

In late January I reached the milestone of my 1,000th blog post, and published an article looking back at my various film blogs over the years.

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 15.53.09
Photo: Laura Radford

Meanwhile, I asked Kate Madison if she needed any help with post on Ren: The Girl With the Mark, the awesome fantasy web series I had DPed for her the previous autumn. By Easter I had cut 30 or 40 behind-the-scenes and production diary videos for the show, become postproduction supervisor for the series and moved into Kate’s spare room! Between the paying jobs this year I’ve overseen the show’s many VFX – even doing several of them myself – created an EPK, organised ADR sessions, appeared on Comic Con panels, and shot hours of interviews for a DVD documentary.

Moving out of Hereford was a much-needed change, although the place treated me well over the years. Cambridge, my new home, is a beautiful city which encourages lots of healthy cycling, and London is much more accessible from here.

Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant
Some of the crew rigging lights on Exile Incessant

Work picked up as the summer approached. Shorts I’ve cinematographed this year include Gisella Pereira’s fairytale Ballet Pointe Shoes, James Reynolds’ race drama Exile Incessant, Stanislava Buevich’s black comedy Self Control, Douglas Morse’s medieval comedy The Second Shepherds’ Play, and Ben Bloore’s mysterious drama Crossing Paths, plus the period comedy web series pilot Owl House by Mark Keegan. And I was delighted to visit Japan for a few days to shoot pick-ups for a sci-fi feature called Synced, directed by Devon Avery. Most of these projects have blog posts about them, so click the links above to check those out.

But 2015 saved the best for last, with my first paid feature film job coming out of the blue in November, courtesy of a glowing recommendation from sound recordist David Bekkevold. I learnt so much from this project, some of which you can read in the daily blogs I posted, and others of which I’ll be blogging about soon. I now feel like I could walk onto almost any set as a DP and acquit myself reasonably well.

heretiks-still-empire-exclusive

As 2016 approaches I have an ambitious 30-minute fantasy short booked in for the end of January, and attachments to three features. A lot of my work is now in the period/fantasy arena, which is exactly what I was hoping for after doing The First Musketeer back in 2013. It’s taken sixteen years, but I finally feel like I’m getting there – wherever there is!

As usual, I’ll leave you with my ten favourite blog posts from this year…

  1. Women on Film: Characters or Glorified Props? – an article about misogyny in the movies
  2. Lighting ‘3 Blind Mice’ – demonstrating how backlight and contrast control can help tell the story
  3. Shooting in Rain – practical advice for keeping the camera rolling in a downpour
  4. 20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road – culled from interviews with the DP
  5. How to Correct Cosmetic Issues with Lighting – handy tips for flattering your cast
  6. Synced: The Japan Shoot – Part 3 – how I lit a nighttime street scene in Himeji with a few small units
  7. The First Musketeer: Lighting the Barracks – lighting breakdown for a key action sequence from the period web series
  8. Distribution and the M&E (Music and Effects) Mix – an explanation of how films are dubbed, what materials a producer needs to deliver to a foreign distributor, and a video showing the various stages in creating Soul Searcher’s Japanese dub
  9. Crossing Paths: Day Exterior – revealing how to manipulate the sun to get the best results
  10. Feature Shoot: Day -1 – testing lighting looks and Soft FX filters with the Alexa and Cooke S4s
Review of My Year: 2015

What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

Adrian Biddle
Adrian Biddle

Being a director of photography is not just about having an eye for composition and understanding light. There are many other skills a DP needs. Today I’ll discuss what some of those are, in my opinion, and in the opinions of some top Hollywood DPs.

“Obviously you have to know what you are doing, have an eye for photography, and know about film and composition. But it’s a team effort.” – Adrian Biddle (Aliens, Event Horizon)

Shane Hurlbut (Need for Speed, Terminator: Salvation) says that 33% of a cinematographer’s job is managing their crew. You need to pick great people to work with, nurture them, share your knowledge with them, and trust them to deliver the goods.

Frankie DeMarco (Mad Men, All is Lost) advises trying to think like an editor: what specific shots do you need to tell the story? Editing is one of the areas it’s most useful to have experience of, as a DP. Knowing whether what you’re shooting will cut together is vitally important. I often find myself suggesting to a director that we run a scene from a little earlier, have someone come into shot at the start, or cut it later so they exit shot, knowing how useful that stuff can be in post.

Understanding the jobs of other departments is very useful. The more you know about production design, costume and make-up, the better you can light it. The more you know about acting, the better you can appreciate the impact your decisions – equipment placement, the strictness of adherence to marks you demand, the lenses and angles you select – have on an actor’s work. This doesn’t mean that you have to do all these jobs at some point, but try reading the occasional book or watching the odd YouTube video about the subject, or better still, forge great relationships with other heads of departments and pick their brains.

Douglas Slocombe
Douglas Slocombe

There are of course many rules to cinematography – the line of action, Golden Thirds, lighting the downside – but how many of them do you need to know?

“To any aspiring cinematographer, I’d say learn the rules before you try and bend or break them. You need a foundation on which to build.” – Douglas Slocombe (Indiana Jones trilogy)

You should take every opportunity to learn; read every blog, every book that you can, go to workshops, to masterclasses; watch behind-the-scenes videos. The more knowledge you have to fall back on in a crisis, the better.

“You always try to create a certain style for each film but there are times when you have to make it up as you go along.” – Jan de Bont (Die Hard, Flatliners)

Flexibility is key. You have to do what’s right for the scene, what’s right for the set and the talent, what the director wants, and what works for the schedule. Sometimes this means changing tack at the last minute. You can’t throw a hissy fit and weep for the lighting set-up you’d imagined; you have to get on with it. Corporate videos, in which you often have to sacrifice your photographic ideals for the mundane needs of the client, are great training for this.

You have to be a storyteller; all heads of department have to be. As DP, your tools for telling the story are lights and lenses. You need to absorb the script, appreciate the narrative beats and come up with creative ways to accent those beats using your tools.

Perhaps the most important thing to have is life experience.

“It’s my personal interpretation of a script that allows me to create the visuals. That interpretation is based on my own life experiences, aesthetics, education, and knowledge, all of which help to shape my understanding of a story.” – Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln)

Thanks to Stephen Murphy and his DOP Documents for the block quotes.

Janusz Kaminski
Janusz Kaminski
What Does it Take to be a Cinematographer?

Ten Productive Ways to Fill a Lean January

Don't just sit around waiting for the giant, forced perspective phone to ring.
Don’t just sit around waiting for the giant, forced perspective phone to ring.

January is often a lean time for film freelancers. The powers that be have not recovered from Christmas sufficiently to commission any new work, the budget for the financial year is almost spent, and the weather and short hours of daylight make shooting difficult and unpleasant.

So when you’ve had enough of eating the Christmas leftovers, and watching TV box-sets, how can you gainfully fill your time? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Do your taxes. Really, you can’t put them off any longer.
  2. Update your showreel. Chase up producers for clips and get editing, so you can show your latest and greatest to the world and line up some sweet work for 2015. Don’t forget to add your latest credits to your CV as well, and update your website.
  3. Go through the job sites – Shooting People, Mandy, Talent Circle etc. – and  write some applications. Even if there’s nothing quite up your street, why not stretch yourself and apply for something a little different? If nothing else, it’s good practice.
  4. Attend events, workshops and talks to broaden your knowledge and network. Did you know, for example, that there’s a free cinematography masterclass on in Birmingham on the 31st?
  5. Learn more about your craft by reading books on the subject. (I recently posted a list of my favourite “making of” movie books.)
  6. Go to galleries and see relevant work – a cinematographer might want to look at the use of light in classic paintings; a costume designer might want to check out an exhibition of period fashions, and so on.
  7. Go to the cinema! There are several great films out at the moment, including The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything and Birdman.
  8. Perform essential maintenance on your equipment. Fix those niggly things that you’ve put up with for the last few months while you’ve been busy, top up your consumables, and order those cheap accessories from Hong Kong now while you can afford to wait weeks for them to arrive.
  9. Do a personal project: make a micro-short, write a script, take some photos. It’ll help keep your skills sharp and could help you get work.
  10. Do something entirely unrelated to filmmaking. Such things exist. Apparently.
Ten Productive Ways to Fill a Lean January