Book Review: “Cinematography – Theory & Practice” by Blain Brown

Browsing in Waterstones not long ago, I came across the third edition of this hefty tome. Although it is clearly aimed primarily at the student market, a flick through convinced me that amongst the egg-sucking tutorials there was enough detail to make it a worthwhile reference book for grandma’s shelf.

The front cover proclaims the book to be “for cinematographer & directors”. The first five chapters are certainly applicable to directors, covering the visual language of cinematography, the metaphors of lighting and composition that help tell the story, the classifications of the various shot types, shooting to edit, and such core concepts as the line of action. Any director willing to read the remaining thirteen chapters, however, should really learn to delegate the techie stuff and go read something like An Actor Prepares instead.

These thirteen chapters cover in detail the topics of colour, exposure, digital sensors, dynamic range, colour space, image control, lighting, lenses, camera movement, on-set procedures and data management. As a devotee of the art of lighting, I was disappointed that this huge part of the DP’s role gets only two chapters. Perhaps this is because Brown has written a separate book devoted to illumination, though he has also written a book on digital imaging and that doesn’t stop him devoting multiple chapters in Cinematography: Theory & Practice to this subject.

Some of you may wonder why, in this age when you can google any topic of which your knowledge is lacking, you would buy a book. Firstly, finding something in the index of a book which you know you can trust can still be quicker and more effective than wading through search engine results. (I’ve already grabbed my copy off the shelf once to check the sensor size comparison chart.) Secondly, if you read the book cover to cover, amongst all the things you expected to learn, there will be unexpected nuggets of knowledge which a google search might never have led you to.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for me was the one called “Cameras & Sensors”. It taught me loads about how digital sensors capture images, and how they are processed by the camera. And the chapter on “Linear, Gamma, Log” transformed my previously-hazy understanding of log-C into something much more concrete. The chapter on “Measurement” laid out some interesting pros and cons of waveform monitors, histograms, false colours and light meters, explaining how each has its place in choosing exposure.

Cinematography: Theory & Practice is generally well-written and laid out, but sometimes topics creep up in places that don’t quite make sense. It seems illogical, for example, that the chapter on lenses should come much later on than the one on cameras and sensors. Following the light path would have made much more sense to me. Also the proof-reader seems to have fallen asleep for a while, because there are a couple of chapters in the middle sprinkled with typos and minor errors.

If there is a fourth edition, I would like to see the lighting sections expanded, and some more nitty-gritty about how lenses work (Filmmaker IQ’s video on this topic is hard to beat).

These niggles aside, Brown has produced a very solid reference work. While reading it, I’ve been continually impressed by the depth and breadth of the author’s knowledge  – or perhaps the quality of his research. There is apparently a companion website containing useful videos, but I was unable to get past the splash page (possibly because I’m some kind of bibliophile Luddite).

For any student of cinematography, this book will provide an excellent grounding. As for working DPs, I would challenge any of them to read the book without learning at least something new. Maybe you won’t read it cover to cover, but I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find a few chapters that could helpfully plug some gaps in your knowledge.

Book Review: “Cinematography – Theory & Practice” by Blain Brown