Ten Minute Digital Cinematography Masterclass


Know your camera first, then shoot your filmIn the rush and work pressures surrounding filmmaking, it's all too easy to overlook some essentials, but these are often the factors that can lift a film from the mundane level to the exceptional. James MacGregor's notes reveal some of the secrets of real film craft.....


Storytelling on Screen

  • Your focus is on telling the story, not just on tasty shots.
  • You have spent weeks with this film, your audience sees it once. Make sure they get it.

Pre Production

  • Read the script – thoroughly
  • Talk to the director about his or her 'vision' for the film
  • Talk style with them - tripod or hand held for 'edgy' framing
  • Talk lighting for mood – dark and shadowy, a natural look or intensely lit
  • Recce all locations – look for light direction, power sources and background noise
  • Estimate set-up times with lights and grips and tell the director for his schedule


  • Learn your camera before you start shooting
  • On the job, concentrate on being creative with the camera, not exploring the knobs
  • If the camera is uinfamiliar, shoot a camera test beforehand
  • Do a location test at the time of day you plan to shoot there
  • Make a checklist of EVERYTHING you need
  • Make sure all batteries are fully charged
  • Ensure you have enough tape, bulbs and a cleaning tape

The Shoot

  • Block through the scenes with director and actors
  • With Director and 1st AD plan sequences, coverage and lighting
  • Be very conscious of backgrounds for every shot
  • Use lens sizes to include or exclude background elements
  • Wideangle lens will put a background further away
  • Telephoto lens will bring background closer
  • Be creative - don't shoot everything at eye level
  • Look for interesting shot angles
  • Think ahead, always
  • Watch the light, especially as night approaches
  • Judge the “mood” of shots and be aware of differences
  • Longer lenses make you an onlooker, a voyeur to the action
  • Closer shots give a sense of intimacy with the subject
  • Get the essential shots done first
  • Compromise when you must, but prioritise before ever you compromise

Shooting in Vehicles

  • Shoot with background backlit - gives better interior-subject/background light balance.
  • Learn the most useful in-vehicle shots
  • Point of Views through the widscreen
  • Close ups of drivers face in rear view mirror
  • Shoot from front seat – a wideangle lens will reduce camera shake
  • You can use camera mic for capturing in-vehicle sound
  • BUT close all windows, turn off radio and airconditionng first

Looking Ahead for Sound and Edit

  • A ten second shot with no sync dialogue visible could save an editor
  • Shoot listening shots and/or reaction shots as cut-ins and cutaways for dialogue scenes
  • Be careful not to “cross the line” when shooting dialogue scenes
  • Don't cross the line in dialogue to cut into the master shot
  • Don't cross the line in action shots to cut into a master shot
  • Shoot cut-ins in the same light as the master shot
  • Always leave long ends on your shots
  • Long ends can “bridge” using next scene audio overlaid, before cutting vision
  • Shoot sound using an independent microphone
  • If you MUST use camera mike, shoot wide-end of the zoom close to your actors

Techie Tips

  • Setting Exposure – pan away from any misleading light
  • White Balance – do this always in the predominant light
  • Focus – Zoom in to the subject on auto, when the camera finds focus, lock.
  • Do this especially if the subject is to be closeer to one edge of the frame.
  • Gain – Lock this unless you are shooting in poor light
  • After scene check in playback, carefullyre-cue camera to the END of the last scene you shot
  • Before starting to shoot again DO NOT start in blank time-code!
  • Balance carefully your foreground and background light levels
  • To see background, add light to foregound person or object to match the background
  • To see less background, put more light on the foreground
  • Then, when you expose correctly for it, the background will “drop off”