Think about some of the most creative shots you’ve ever seen in a movie, television show, or video. What made them stand out to you? The composition? The movement? Chances are it wasn’t a standard locked-down shot of a talking head, right?
The reason these shots stick out is because they’re different. They’re creative. They were designed to invoke a feeling and make you remember it well after the fact. That’s where creative use of the camera comes in. Whether you’re mounting it in an interesting spot, using a specialized lens, or adding a little bit of handheld shakiness, it’s all a good way to get people to remember your work and enhance your storytelling.
Put the ‘Move’ in Movie
Adding movement to your shots is one of the easiest ways to apply some creativity to your cinematography. While some movements require specific rigs, others can be done with little to no investment at all.
The single most important factor you think about is, “Do I need movement in this shot?” A well-executed camera move means nothing if there’s nothing motivating the move. You can convey a tone or emotion, foreshadow, reveal or hide something in the frame, move between locations, or even force the viewer’s eyes to a certain area on the screen, all just by moving the camera in a certain way.
Once you become adept at moving the camera, you’ll see endless creative possibilities with your storytelling.
A Glass Menagerie
The type of lens you attach to your camera is very important to the look and feel of your project. There are certain specialty lenses you can use to spice up your video — lenses like a tilt-shift, lensbaby, macro, or fisheye vary in price, but all add something different to the scene.
Another way to get interesting footage without actually having to buy any new lenses is by trying a few different techniques. Try rubbing vaseline on a UV filter attached to the lens (NOT DIRECTLY ON THE LENS!), pull some stockings or other sheer material over the lens, or try a technique called “lens whacking,” where you hold the lens just in front of the open sensor and distort the image with light leaks and selective focus to get a dreamy feel. (Always use caution when you try this!)
The Right Angle
Much like adding movement to the camera, changing up your camera angles can drastically improve your cinematography. But keep in mind that this also needs to be motivated. Experiment with your camera by varying your angles and utilizing the equipment you have available. Put your tripod at its lowest or highest setting, mount your camera anywhere it will securely fit, or get on top of a building or somewhere with a really high viewpoint.
You can also try shooting “through” objects to give a unique look to your project. Shoot through a window at your subject to make them look vulnerable. Try shooting through the flames of a fire or a candle to give viewers a sense of danger, or through someone’s angled leg to create one of the most iconic scenes in film history. (Wait, it’s already been done?)
A classic example of a creative angle from Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967).
Using interesting angles in your productions ensures that you not only get coverage of your scene, but also provide some variety, while telling your story in new and different ways.
Add a Filter
The most common way that lens filters are used these days is for simply protecting your lens, but there are specific reasons you may want to use a filter to improve your shooting creativity. A simple UV filter will cut down on the “haze,” or dust in the atmosphere, that can degrade your image. A polarizing filter will reduce reflections from water, help increase the visibility of clouds, and even boost the saturation of your images. And an ND filter will drop the brightness of your image a few f-stops, allowing you to keep your aperture open and giving you a more shallow depth of field without completely blowing out a bright scene.
These are the most common filters, but there are also filters that completely change your colors, give you optical effects (more on that next), or even an infrared look. You can have a lot of fun with filters while you’re shooting; be careful with these, however, because you may not be able to “fix” anything in post-production if it doesn’t quite work. It can actually be easier to add these effects and adjust your colors digitally in post, so keep that in mind.
Filters typically screw on to the end of your lens and run anywhere from $15 for a cheaply made, basic UV filter to several hundred dollars or more for high-quality, specialty filters.
Snap Into Focus
Depending on the tone and style you’re going for, you can do some pretty creative things just by changing your focus settings. Obviously you can experiment with basic techniques like “pull” or “rack” focusing, but you can also shoot at the widest aperture setting possible for a more shallow depth of field (DOF), creating a sharp difference between your in-focus subject and the rest of the frame. A shallow DOF puts more emphasis on your subject and will give your composition more layers, creating a cinematic feel. Just keep in mind that a more shallow DOF means more work when you or your subject are constantly moving.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can close your aperture down to its smallest setting and shoot in “deep focus.” This is marked as the infinity symbol on a lot of lenses, and is good (also necessary) for very bright scenes, or landscapes that take up the entire frame.
A very common deep-focus technique in films is called split focus, using a split-focus diopter. This optical effect filter will enlarge one portion of your image, while the other portion stays the same size. However, since you have a deep focus, everything will still be able to be seen clearly. It creates a different feel and look for your frame, but is a wonderful technique if you can master it.
An example of split focus from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992)
It’s Okay to Be Jittery
Along with changing up your focus, you can adjust your shutter speed/angle and create some different looks for your project. Normally, the shutter is set at double your frame rate (or 50 on some DSLR cameras), but depending on what you’re shooting and the look you’re going for, you may want to try increasing or decreasing your shutter speed. Anything that’s high-intensity or fast-moving (sports, action sequences) can benefit from an increased shutter speed, allowing your eyes to see more clear, “jittery” imagery.
Slowing your shutter speed down is quite the opposite. It makes your footage more “dreamy” or blurry, and is good to use in low-light situations, or when you want to portray confusion or disorient the viewer. Think of a scene where someone is drugged, intoxicated, or tranquilized, for example.
To Shake or Not to Shake
When you think of shaky camera movements, you tend to think of found-footage films, horror films, or… found-footage horror films. What makes them stand out though, is the creative ways they shake the camera and still keep it (mostly) coherent and easy to follow.
You can implement a lot of the same creative techniques from these types of movies while going handheld (or on a shoulder rig). Move the camera around and get close to your subject, because it helps the viewer feel more immersed in the story. Explore your space and shoot different angles with the freedom that comes with handheld shooting. However (this is a big however!), going handheld without a proper shoulder mount or rig can be troublesome, especially if you’re inexperienced behind the camera, so be sure to practice. Having shaky footage because you’re bad with a camera is vastly different from having intentionally shaky footage because you’re shooting a fight scene in close quarters.
On the other hand, putting your camera on a tripod is the easiest way to avoid unusably shaky footage. You’re limited with movement, but if you aren’t planning on moving during the scene, it won’t matter. The basic moves are pans and tilts, but you can step it up and try a whip-pan if you’re feeling adventurous. And if you’re feeling even more adventurous and have a fairly steady hand, you can try using the tripod as a dolly: shorten the forward-facing leg and hold the camera so it won’t fall, then simply move forward or backward, adjusting the tilt on the camera to keep it steady. You can do this in any direction, really, as long as the camera is faced the right way.
Using these techniques appropriately and effectively can really put your viewers in the middle of your project, conveying a feeling or tone that will add to the end experience. Once again, the biggest factor with anything you’re doing is making sure that it’s motivated. Would your story benefit from your shot being from a bird’s-eye view? Would it make sense to have a dolly shot at that moment? Only you can answer those questions.