they call me the ninja. partially because i’m fast and tend to be everywhere all the time but the nickname really came from being able to grow very quickly as just a shooter to a lead cinematographer. we all start somewhere and like many of us at stillmotion i did not have a formal education in film so i had to find ways to learn quickly. for those of you who are just getting your feet wet or second shooting for someone else, be it in event coverage like a wedding or on set in a commercial production, there are a few things i’ve learned along the way that may help you grow as a shooter and to be better faster.
1 . be proactive
no one can push you harder than yourself so take the initiative to think a step ahead when you arrive on location and assess the scene. what kind of light do you have, what color space will you be working in and what camera support would best fit the scene? sure you can just sit back and wait for your DP to give you a white balance setting and lens selection but always thinking about these things everywhere you go will 1) better prepare you for the shoot and 2) give you a chance to offer suggestions when appropriate. you ultimately take direction from your DP but being proactive gets you in the mode of always taking all these things into consideration so that when you are ready to take on a shoot of your own, or lead your own team, you’ll already have tons of practice with how to achieve the look you’re going for.
2. be mindful
think slow, act fast. shooters just starting out often roll all the time in fear of missing something but by doing so you’re not making a conscious decision about what you’re shooting and therefore actually get less out of the scene. take the time to think about what’s going on and how to capture it, and THEN hit record. you will be more focused and…
…less distracted, getting more relevant imagery out of every scene. even when there’s nothing happening you can always be looking to make the light better or find a better angle.
3. be a storyteller
you are not a camera operator, you are a storyteller. that means you should know your craft and the equipment that goes with it. we will often discuss the look and feel we’re going for but it’s up to each cinematographer to decide what shutter, aperture, iso and lens to use. there are a million things things your DP needs to think about and the last thing they need to do is tell you what your camera settings should be. if they have a specific shutter speed they want it will be communicated to you but as a cinematographer you need to be comfortable with your gear and how to best utilize it to further the story.
4. be curious
know the big picture. the DP will often work with the director (or the lead shooter will know the couple from a wedding) and come up with an approach and as a cinematographer it’s crucial for you to understand that as well. don’t just show up and shoot independently of the team but inquire about the story, look and feel so that you are a more informed shooter. all of that should play a part into how you shoot so if you don’t know, ask. if you see something that doesn’t make sense, get clarification. not knowing is not an excuse.
5. be efficient
it’s important to work hard, but also to work smart. don’t waste your time repeatedly doing something you know well, but rather take the time to tackle your weaknesses. if you struggle with lighting pull out all your lights and give yourself scenes to light, or go outside and shoot in various conditions so you’re more comfortable shooting in any kind of light. if something doesn’t work do something to change now, don’t wait for next week or next month. that way you aren’t making the same mistakes over and over again.
6. be ruthless
this is huge. lose the ego and be ruthless in everything in do. before you roll make sure you are happy with the light, the color, the composition etc – if you don’t like it, fix it – again don’t record just to record. when you roll be cognizant of what’s going on and adjust if necessary. in post, if it doesn’t serve the story cut it. just because you shot it doesn’t mean it’s good enough to use so cut all filler footage, or things that are just mediocre. don’t give yourself a pass because you’re new or because things didn’t happen as planned. if you’re ruthless with your shooting i guarantee you and your work will improvement dramatically the next time you pick up a camera. you can’t settle for good if you want to be great.
7. be aware
be focused, be present. think about what are you doing that you shouldn’t be and what aren’t you doing that you should be. do the centerpieces and shoes even matter at this wedding or should you be following the groom’s dog? what kind of mood does the scene have and should you be getting three shot coverage or just hold the shot to let it breathe? always keep your eyes and ears open and take it all in. you can be a much better storyteller and get so much more just by being aware of your surroundings.
8. be confident
this is probably one of the biggest things you can do for yourself. it’s not about being stubborn or arrogant but about making conscious decisions while shooting and being firm and assertive about it. the process may be difficult for some but learning to be confident in your choices is so important. as a female who is quite small it can be a bit intimidating to shoot menacing football players who are easily three times my size. naturally it would be easier to shoot from far away with a longer lens, but it’s an emotional game and the feeling in the huddle and locker rooms are very raw so i had to get right in there next to them. it changes everything when you carry yourself with confidence – you will be stronger, your crew will feed off it and even the talent will feel more comfortable knowing you’re at the top of your game. you have to believe in yourself and if you trust that, good things will happen.
a lot of this comes from experience but a lot of it also comes from knowing your voice as a storyteller. we each go through this journey and through it we adapt and evolve our approach for each film we do. if you’re interested in pushing your story forward consider joining us at one of our 36 KNOW seminars this fall as we help other filmmakers along their journey to find their voice.