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.

lil’j

Joyce Tsang

About Joyce Tsang

35 Comments

  • Perspectives Photo + Cinema says:

    “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.” … this is gold, and something I’m slowly learning!  – Jared.

    • Lil'J says:

      that takes a little while to get used to but it’s such a huge part of storytelling. not only does it provide content, but also a way for you to connect with the people so that you are better informed about how you can more effectively tell their story. 

  • Colordrum Media says:

    Awesome! Thanks for this post!

  • Eamonnjmcmanus says:

    Great stuff, gonna write these up on the office wall to remind me!

  • Thank you so much for sharing! This insight will help tremendously in all aspects

  • Georgia says:

    What a well-written piece! Everything you said here applies to photography, too! Thanks for the great reminder. No matter how new or how experienced you are, you always have something to learn and always have something to offer 🙂

  • Lil'J says:

    we’d love to hear your experiences too so if you have more tips on how to grow as a cinematographer we invite you to share them here with everyone

  • Matt Rozier says:

    Great post! Don’t look for the shot, look for the story. You don’t necessarily need to tell the whole thing in a single take, but whatever your horse is, it’s needs to be pulling the wagon in the right direction. Oh, and get to know really well what everyone else in the pipeline does, try it yourself, if you know what an editor/colorist/producer/actor/director needs it’ll make you a much better cinematographer. Thanks Joyce, loving your work and thoughts!!!!

    • Lil'J says:

      yep that’s a great point. while you may not be on set or involved with all aspects of production, it’s still a good idea to understand the roles and how it all fits together. not everyone is interested in being a cinematographer and not everyone is the right fit to be a director, but understanding the roles and how it all fits in with the bigger team certainly makes a huge difference in both communication and collaboration.

      those of you who work in smaller teams or shoot solo can still benefit from this by understand how all the pieces tie together. often times we get overwhelmed by everything we need to do and sometimes miss great opportunities along the way but if you take a moment to think about how each piece affects the bigger picture you’ll be able to stay informed throughout the process and make the most of your efforts. 

    • Alana says:

      I feel like this is especially true in live production. The few times I’ve shot live basketball games, the director has absolutely RIPPED ME APART for not getting the type of shots he wanted. I felt horrible and pretty much wanted to quit. After the game, he said “You have to think like a director.” Well, it was about then I realized I had never seen what he sees at the switcher, and therefore I have no idea of the shots or pacing he may want to use. I might sit in and watch before the next game.

      (He still could have been a little less rude!)

  • That was great, a really good read and a lot of great tips which will help me become a better cinematographer. Thanks for sharing them!

  • Sarah says:

    Awesome article! Thanks so much for taking the time to write about your experience and development!

  • Lil'J says:

    along those lines i think the more we educate, the more we share, the more we’ll realize there is so much more room to grow and learn.

  • Great article, I particularly liked number #6. It was kind of something I felt in my gut but was afraid to push for. Thanks for the encouragement to be ruthless  🙂

    • Lil'J says:

      you’re welcome 🙂

      one of the things i love most about working in a team is just that. we are a group of storytellers who are always pushing each other to be better and sometimes, all it takes it a little encouragement. 

  • Corey Cheney says:

    Great post! Thanks!

  • Wade says:

    Fantastic advice. Since I don’t always work as part of a team, it’s great to have a set of tips that I can use as a reference to constantly be improving.

  • Chris Luong says:

    After experience the KNOW workshop, I understand why they call you the ninja. When I saw how fast you moved from one place to the other, it blew my mind! Great post and always invaluable information (:

  • Stan da Man says:

    Thanks Justin! Great word!

  • David Vine says:

    Hello everybody. I just enrolled in the one-day program in Raleigh, NC on Oct. 23. I’m hoping to learn a lot but I’m most looking forward to the storytelling aspects of video production. My interests are in the documentary genre because I started my career in the late 1960s working as a newspaper photojournalist. Many twists and turns in my life have brought me to a new chapter in life: producing professional documentaries about issues in which I have a personal interest.

  • Jess says:

    I’m most interested in whether or how you think #3 might apply to making instructional videos. I want them to be more than just simple step-by-step how-to’s and with the limited equipment and budget I have, they seemed to have fallen into a documentary style. I guess I like the idea of being able to give an atmosphere/feeling to a video that may otherwise be too informational. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4nHjArypSQ&feature=plcp. Thank you so much for this! You guys have so much to offer.

    • I shot in the first person (Instructed to do so by an Learning Designer) for a brochure I did a How to Make Your Own SunShade for your camera. I reached around the camera and shot the pictures. I haven’t tried this for video, but it might be something you want to try.

      Best regards,
      Brian

  • Alana says:

    Thanks for the post, especially the last point! I’m also a woman who shoots college football and basketball, and — although I’m a former athlete myself — I can sometimes be intimidated or feel like I’m too in the way. But, as you said, the more confident I’ve been, the less my subjects have wondered what the hell I was trying to do!

  • Vadim says:

    Thanks for this post!
    .. it`s wery helpful!

  • Erika with KHodge Films says:

    The part of confidence is so true. I’m a pretty tiny (and humble) girl, so I really gotta put my Confidence Hat on when I shoot. But I do it!

  • Aidil says:

    I am always blown away by the framing and composition in all your shots and was wondering how and why you frame and compose the shots the way that you do.

    In this video, the wide/establishing shots are framed unconventionally as what you and I have been taught in film school.

    Can you recommend me visual reference books or sites that I can learn and improve my craft?

    – Aidil, Singapore

    • Patrick says:

      A conventional approach will lead to an expected result 🙂

      We like to play and work with everything in our frame to make compositions that really leverage the characters, stories, and environments we are in. Our KNOW Field Guide is an excellent resource.

      P.

  • k.b.cijohn says:

    am from chennai…….am completed b.sc vis com …….. my aim is to became a cinematographer… i have my owm cannon d60……. i will do my best .

  • milan says:

    myself milan from odisha. i want to became a cinematogrphy. i have passed bcom. i wnt to know how i became a cinematography. Any bcom student can do it? i dont knw abt this subject. but i m very very much intrested to do this job…pls kindly request pls help meeee……

  • aterrencealexander says:

    Shoot as much as you can as soon as you can. Watch movies, study lighting, and follow talented cinematographers and take film, photography, and cinematography classes, but keep in mind that experience exposing images and having a solid reel are more valuable than a diploma. Your tips is really helpful.

    [email protected]

  • Joseph says:

    These are great tips! Especially about focusing, and courage. I am shooting a web series. I didn’t go to film school, and am learning a lot the more I shoot. The part about the football players hits home. Eben as a 6’4″ guy, it is a little scary having to make decisions on the spot knowing everyone expects something brilliant, as do I… Great stuff thanks!!!