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10 Basic Things You Need To Know To Start Thinking About Digital Cinematography

First published on his filmmaker-centric site NoFilmSchool.com in 2010 and updated consistently since then, Ryan Koo’s digital cinematography guide has been downloaded as a PDF over 800,000 times and is available to read with modified content as web pages on the No Film School site.

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Culled from information he gained through online forums for the community fo DSLR users, Koo’s guide is a user-friendly introduction and resource guide to the ins and outs of DSLR filmmaking. 

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As we continue to see DSLR’s become the predominant medium for shooting documentaries as well as an incredibly popular choice for indie narrative filmmakers, we wanted to make sure Indiewire’s growing Filmmaker Toolkit pointed our readers to one of the most basic and helpful DSLR filmmaking guides.

We’re reprinting the 10 basic concepts essential to understanding DSLR filmmaking, taken from the PDF version of the guide.  If you’re hooked or want to read the more detailed content, check out the regularly updated web version or download the portable PDF version on the No Film School website here.

BASIC CINEMATOGRAPHY CONCEPTS: What should I know about (digital) cinematography?

From reader emails, I realized that a basic introduction to some of the concepts referenced later in the guide might be helpful. Many of you are already familiar with these terms, so feel free to skip this chapter! However, if your background is in still photography or if you’re new to digital imaging in general, this bonus chapter should help clarify some basic cinematography concepts that we’ll be working with going forward. By no means is this an exhaustive glossary, but it is a good starting point. I’m going to explain things from a practical, crash-course standpoint rather than a scientific, 100% semantically correct perspective, because I think it’s handier to know how something works in practice than it is to know all of the details of why it works — if you’re looking for knowledge of the latter, there are of course thousands of good resources on the internet to bolster your knowledge. In alphabetical order, then, here are ten basic concepts you should be familiar with:

1. Aspect Ratios & Anamorphic Lenses

Aspect ratio used to be a more prominent issue for digital cinematographers than it is today: before the advent of high-definition cameras, the standard 4:3 aspect ratio of standard-definition TV was generally seen as undesirable for anyone looking for a “cinematic” look, because 4:3 (or 1.33:1) content was associated with broadcast TV, while widescreen compositions were what people expected to see in the theater. When we say “4:3,” we mean the image is four units wide and three units high. When we “1.33:1,” we mean… well, you get it — the same thing. Many times the “:1” is removed because it is implied – shooters will simply say “1.85” instead of “1.85:1.”

HDTV today is widescreen by default, with a 16:9 aspect ratio that works out to be 1.78:1 — very similar to the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio of many feature films. Other than these two virtually indistinguishable aspect ratios, the
most common widescreen aspect is the CinemaScope ratio of 2.35:1, which appears most often in the multiplex in big-budget films.

2.35:1 films are typically shot with anamorphic cine lenses. Anamorphic lenses are not spherical in the sense that they squeeze an image to fill the negative or sensor, with an additional step necessary during projection to re-stretch the image to the intended size. The odd-looking image here of a lens with an oval aperture demonstrates the non-spherical nature of an anamorphic lens (the aperture is perfectly round, but the lens is distorting our view of it). While it is possible to attach an anamorphic lens to a DSLR, most of us will simply shoot at the native widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9.

2. Bokeh

Bokeh (pronounced like “bo” from “boat” and “ke” from “Kentucky”) is one of the chief reasons many shooters have switched to DSLRs. Bokeh is a term derived from the Japanese word “boke” which, roughly translated, means “blur quality.” Bokeh refers to the portions of an image that are defocused or blurry. In the filmmaker’s toolkit, bokeh is not only an aesthetically pleasing quality, but it also allows the filmmaker to focus the viewer’s eye on an object or area of interest in the frame. Bokeh is a function of shallow depth-of-field .”

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About Cate Baum - Co-Founder

Cate is the editor and co-founder of FMR and a British ex-pat living in Spain. Formerly the editor of Penthouse Magazine in London, she now makes documentaries. Her first book, The Bull and The Ban is about the Catalan ban on bullfighting in 2012, exploring the moral issues and interviewing matadors, writers, activists and politicians on the subject. She also contributes to www.selfpublishingreview.com, the sister site to FMR and is married to co-founder Henry Baum.