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Seeing What the Camera Sees

By Scott Shaw  |  06-Nov-2006

At the heart of any cinematic creation is the visual image. It does not matter how spectacular the locations are where you are filming, nor how great the performances of your actors -- if you do not correctly capture these images on your camera, then your film is lost.

The D.P.
The primary individual who is responsible for a feature being correctly filmed is the Director of Photography (D.P.) or Cinematographer. Yet, many filmmakers, when they go about preparing their project focus intensely upon the words of their script, the rehearsing of their actors, and the finding of the perfect locations in which to depict the landscape of their cinematic vision. But, when it comes to putting their crew together, they concentrate far less on who is going to operate the camera. And, this is one of the primary reasons why so many films are never completed.

The individual you choose as your cinematographer is undoubtedly one of the most essential elements of the filmmaking process. Though this may seem like an obvious statement, many filmmakers are oblivious to this fact and they hire whom ever they can get to operate their camera. But, it is essential to realize that choosing a bad cameraman can be the sole factor that leads to the collapse of a film.

Choosing the D.P.
Here in Hollywood it is very common when you are putting a crew together for a film to receive "Reels" from D.P.s. These reels are tapes that supposedly show the best of what a particular cinematographer has to offer. The problem is, what they present to you may be something that they did not personally film. What may be on the tape is simply a great scene that they borrowed from some obscure film and then they pass it off as their own work.

A funny thing happened to me a few years back when I was bringing up a film. I received a reel from a D.P. When I looked at it, I saw that he had used a scene I had shot for one of my films several years before. The main lesson that can be learned from this is to never hire a D.P. based solely upon their reel.

Another situation I encountered was that I had hired a D.P. that was actually a graduate of a very respected film school here in L.A. What he did on the day of production was to back-load the film into my Arri 16mm camera – meaning he put film emulsion facing the wrong direction. Though he apologized for this after the film had been processed, this did not compensate for the fact that the entire shoot was ruined -- all of the time, energy, and money went out the window. What we can all learn from this that even though a D.P. has a degree from a respected school, it does not make him a competent cinematographer.

A Member of Your Team
Ultimately, the main problem with cinematographers is that in many cases they are not a true member of your team -- they really do not care about your project. They are simply looking for a job and a new credit on their resume. For this reason, the first step in creating a great film is that you MUST find someone who actually cares about your film and actually knows how to use the camera you will be working with. Don’t take this statement lightly because it is essential that you work with a competent D.P.

Stop Looking Outside of the Lens!
Once you have found someone you feel you can trust to operate the camera, you must then come to understand that filmmaking is much more than simply seeing with your eyes. You must learn to understand what the camera is seeing.

One of the primary problems that many cinematographers encounter when they are staging a shot is that they are looking at the entire scene. They are setting up their lights and they are positioning their actors. They are doing this while looking at the whole scene – visualized through the human eye. What they are not doing, however, is witnessing what the lens of the camera is seeing.

It is essential to understand when staging your shots that what the camera will capture has very little to do with what your human eye sees. In fact, in most cases, it is very different.

The best cinematographers understand this. For this reason, they do not ever set up a scene based on what they are seeing with their eyes. They stage everything through the eyepiece of their camera.

The Digital Age
The capturing of imperfect images has been exaggerated with the dawn of the digital age. This is because of the fact that many novice camera operators believe that since they can see the image that is being filmed on the screen provided on the side of their camera, they will know whether or not what they are filming is being captured correctly. Big Mistake. What many fail to realize is that the image seen on the screen of a digital camera is far more refined than the one that will be viewed on a television or the “Big Screen” if the film you are creating is ever blown-up and projected. What occurs from basing each shot entirely upon the onboard screen of a digital camera is that many filmmakers are left with scenes that are filmed too dark, too light, or just do not work at all -- this, even though these scenes looked fine on the camera’s on-board screen.

This problem is amplified when cinematographers are using film-based cameras with video-assist. It is essential to know that if you can afford video-assist, you must understand that the video image you are seeing has nothing to do with what the actual film in your camera is capturing. For this reason, on film-based projects, do not solely rely upon video-assist or you may end up very disappointed.

Seeing What You Are Filming
The best way to control your final image is to create all scenes through the lens of your camera. If you are going to use your on-camera screen as a tool, that is fine, but it is essential to make a simple adjustment in order to end-up with the best possible image.

Due to the high resolution of these on-camera screens, one of the easiest and most necessary techniques that will help you create an image that will be most closely aligned with the common television set, is to lower the brightness on the screen by a couple of steps. By doing this, you bring your image to the level of lighting that will be seen on a television.

It is also important to note to never increase the light ratio of your on-camera screen. Yes, this is very easy to do and it will make your scene look better on your camera while you are filming it. But, your final product will be far to dark and you will have to use whatever computer plug-ins you may have in order to enhance the actual light ratio of your captured image.

The problem with using computer plug-ins to enhance the light of an image that has been filmed, however, is that this process causes a lot of video noise. So, it is never an ideal solution.

Another thing that you can do that will help you catch a problem before it has come to define your entire project is to film a scene and then play it back through an alternative source, such as an on-set television. Though this is a little bit time consuming, by doing this, you are allowing yourself to study the scene, as the audience will view it. With this, you can make any necessary, lighting, sound, or lens aperture adjustment before you end up with less than desired results.

Another problem many novice cinematographers create is that they use the autofocus on their camera throughout a film. What occurs from this is that not only will a lot of the film be out of focus, but also the audience will be left witnessing many scenes where the camera is searching to find something to focus upon. Though autofocus can be a helpful tool, it can never be trusted to provide you with a guaranteed in-focus shot.

The ideal use of autofocus is as a method to rapidly gain focus on a central image and then lock it off. For example, you can zoom in on your central subject, get focus, and then lock it off by turning autofocus off. This is an effective usage of autofocus because autofocus has the ability to grab focus much more rapidly than the human eye. It is also acceptable to use autofocus when a single actor is the central image on the screen and they are not moving.

The problem with autofocus is that if you have set up a two-shoot (two actors) and you are using autofocus, what will occur is that the wall behind your actors will be in focus, but your actors will be completely out of focus. This is because of the fact that autofocus continually searches for a central image. If you are not tightly locked onto a single actor, then your focus will be continually shifting or it will be locked onto whatever large fixed object is behind your actors; be it a wall, a house, a tree, or the sky. For these reasons, if your cinematographer tells you that he uses autofocus because it works just fine, fire him immediately -- because autofocus NEVER works all the time.

Getting It Done Right
The main thing that you should do to get your movie filmed as accurately as possible is to have your D.P. operate a camera that he is very familiar with. Do not get on the set and hand your cinematographer a camera he has never worked with before, because this will only cause problems. If your D.P. tells you he knows how to load your film camera, make him demonstrate it to you. If he tells you he has operated the specific digital camera you are planning to use, give him a few test shots to film with the camera to observe his abilities.

Ultimately, it is a good idea when looking for a D.P. to hire someone who brings his own camera to the production. With this, you will have a cinematographer who is very experienced with the camera and knows how to use it. This will alleviate a lot of potential problems.

Presenting Your Image to the World
Filmmaking is an art form designed to presenting the interaction of people and places to the audience in a refined manner that you, the filmmaker, has defined as the best visual method to convey whatever story it is that you wish to be told. At the heart of this process is transforming the image in your mind to a medium that can be viewed by an audience. That is where the camera comes into play.

To refine this mind-to-camera-to-audience process, and make it as foolproof as possible, what you need to do is to begin to develop the ability to see what the camera sees. From the ideas presented in this article, you will hopefully develop some of the skills you will need to take much of the guesswork out of the cinematic process of filmmaking and you will end up with a product that ideally illustrates your vision. Remember: "See what the camera sees."

Scott Shaw is a filmmaker and author based in Los Angeles, California. He developed the concept of Zen Filmmaking with Donald G. Jackson in 1991. Since that time, he has gone on to make over twenty feature films using this process. For more information visit

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