Achieving a beautiful, cinematic image when shooting on your DSLR requires you to not only have the right skills, but just as importantly to know what not to do. Many up and coming filmmakers and DPs will work tirelessly to train themselves and do all the right things, yet their work improves much more slowly than it needs to… Or in some cases it doesn’t improve at all, which is most often a result of not paying attention to poor habits that may be holding them back. Throughout this article I’m going to outline a few of the most common (and easily avoidable) habits that can plague you when developing your career as a DP or filmmaker.
The 7 Habits That You May Need To Break
I truly believe that anyone that genuinely has a passion for cinematography has it in them to create beautiful images. That said though, there are more struggling cinematographers out there than ever before, which is truly a shame considering the staggering amount of opportunities that are available for cinematography work today. Never in history has there been as much content created as there is today, and inevitably that content is going to keep growing which will continue to drive the need for high quality directors of photography. If you feel like you’ve done all the right things and have the right gear, but aren’t moving your career ahead as quickly as you’d like, then this list is for you. There may be one habit, or possibly all 7 habits that are currently holding your career back, and if so the first step is recognizing what your problem area is. Once you’ve done that you are already many steps ahead of where you were yesterday, and then it’s just a matter of time before your work and career starts to change as a result of the simple fact that you are paying attention to the right things. So without further ado, here we go:
Thinking Everything You Do Is Good
The most experienced DPs that I have ever worked with (including many that have shot major Hollywood films) are extremely critical of their own work. In fact many of them can’t even watch certain scenes or shots that might look beautiful to everyone else, just because there is something small that wasn’t quite up to their standards. On the other hand, the most amateur DPs that I’ve ever worked with seem to think that everything that they do is incredible. They will parade around their work (even if it has lots of problems with it) and simply want as many people to see it and give them praise on it as possible. This is one of the biggest mistakes that you can make as a DP, or as any creative artist for that matter.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of your own work – in fact you need to give yourself a pat on the back sometimes, but remember that only looking at what is working (and not what needs improvement) will never help you to get better. You should be looking at every project as a learning experience and understanding what you did wrong and what you can improve for next time. You should also be comparing your work to films that are of the highest quality. Don’t think that just because your film looks better than your friends down the street that you are doing all that you can. Rather compare it to the work of Hollywood level DPs and see how it stacks up. I’m not saying this to be discouraging, but rather push you in the right direction of focusing on improving to the level that you want to be at, rather than staying where you are by only comparing your work to filmmakers at your own level.
Making Excuses For Your Work
One of my biggest pet peeves is when filmmakers/DPs make excuses for themselves, their work, and why they aren’t successful. I commonly hear things like ‘I can’t make this look good because I don’t have the right gear’, or ‘this other production looks better because they had more money’. My background in psychology would lead me to describe these sentiments as defence mechanisms. Is there truth to the fact that your no budget film won’t look as high quality as a $100 million blockbuster? Of course. But you don’t need to use that as a crutch, and your no budget film certainly doesn’t need to look like it was shot on no budget – especially with regards to cinematography. This type of negative thinking will never make your work better, and if anything it will just make you a burden to anyone that you work with.
Filmmaking at it’s core is a giant problem solving exercise. If you need a dolly shot and you can’t afford a dolly – then make one! Or if you can’t afford the right lighting to shoot a scene with, use practical lights or natural light and learn how to shoot in that environment. Some of the best work that I’ve ever shot was done for little to no money, even though I have shot many budgeted projects at this point in my career. So the next time you find yourself making excuses for why you can’t do something, try to turn things around and figure out why you can do it. This will not only help you with your own work but it will also help your relationships with producers, because if you can make their lives easier they will be forever grateful.
Not Shooting Enough
A lot of cinematographers that are new to the game make the mistake of not shooting nearly enough material. Often times they are too picky about what they work on and will only shoot films or projects that pay them their full rate, or at least close to it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get paid for your hard work, but when you’re just starting out you really need to take whatever you can get. There are three main benefits that you get from doing this. Firstly, your work will start to improve greatly as every time you are on set and behind the camera you are learning something even if you don’t realize that you are. Secondly, you are capturing great material that could later be used for your reel and help you to book a bigger job. And finally, you are meeting great people that may very well want to send you work later on.
Some of the lowest paying jobs that I’ve ever had actually helped to land me some of the best work that I’ve ever had. There was a shoot that I did quite a few years ago that I did for free as a favor for a colleague of mine, and truthfully the shoot itself didn’t go very well. The actors weren’t professional, the set didn’t look good, and in the end the film was never even finished. However, I still shot it with the same level of care that I would have on a much more substantial film and as a result I would up with some pretty good footage for my reel. Skip to a few months later and I got hired for a well paid cinematography job because the producer of the project liked one of the shots on my reel that came from that shoot. You never know where things will take you, and it’s always better to be shooting than not – so don’t be too picky! The best DPs I have ever worked with started out with this mentality and now they make a living off of what they love to do.
No Willingness to Learn
The craft of cinematography (or almost any other filmmaking discipline for that matter) is a lifelong journey. It can literally take decades of hard work and dedication before a DP can truly be working at the top of the industry and even then, the best of them will continue to learn. Technology changes every day, new cameras are released every year, and the job of a cinematographer evolves constantly – It will always be that way. This is why the most experienced working DPs pride themselves on learning new skills or understanding basic fundamentals from a new perspective – it helps keep them fresh and relevant. The same idea applies to you when you are starting out your journey as a DP.
It’s quite common for an amateur DP to be fairly insecure about their own work, and as a result refuse to learn from others. They want to feel like they can do it all themselves and they make the mistake of not realizing that even the most skilled DPs had mentors, or went to film school, or fell flat on their faces many times. It’s okay to need to learn about the craft of cinematography. No one picks up a camera for the first time and shoots Oscar caliber footage, so why should you be any different? There is no singular way that I will suggest learning the craft, it’s different for everyone. Some like film school, some don’t. Some learn well online, others lean better by shadowing someone on set. Whatever your preference may be, just make sure that you place a premium on educating yourself. There is always something else to know and learn, and when you know more than the other DP that is up for the same job as you, guess who is going to get hired?
Limited Understanding The Post-Process
Post-production and cinematography are becoming more and more intertwined every single day. Cameras like the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (with it’s wonderful DaVinci Resolve integration) make it pretty apparent that there is a convergence underway between cameras and post-software. Color science used to involve chemicals in a lab, and now it involves keystrokes on a computer, and LUTs built into cinema cameras. The point being that it is more crucial than ever to have a deep understanding of the post process in order to make your work better, and also make you an asset to the productions that you are a part of.
The two biggest things you want to understand with regards to post-production are workflows and color grading. This doesn’t mean you need to be a DIT or a colorist, but it does mean that you need to understand the fundamentals behind these two major pillars of the post-pipeline. If you’re shooting with a RED DRAGON on a project that has an extremely fast turnaround, and you recommend to the producer or post-supervisor that you should also record proxy files to an external recorder, they are going to be thrilled with you when the rough cut actually gets delivered on time. Or let’s say you’re shoot on a DSLR and know which camera profiles to use in order to make the life of the colorist easier (and allow them to achieve better results), they too will be happy and ultimately will be able to make your work look even better.
Believing Gear Will Get You Work
You wouldn’t believe how many amateur DPs I’ve met that refuse to even put themselves up from projects because they don’t think they have the right gear. First of all, you don’t necessarily need any gear in the first place to get hired as a DP (many productions will provide the gear, or you can always rent/borrow when you need to). But more importantly, your gear really doesn’t matter to the producer or director as much as you might think it does. On the average small scale independent film, commercial, or music video, the producers are going to look to you for your expertise on this. If you have a killer reel that was all comprised of footage shot on a 7D, then that’s great. You don’t need an Arri alexa to land the job. Just be confident in your own work and know that it is you that makes the nice image, not the camera.
On projects that are larger scale and do require a most costly cinema camera, you will rarely (if ever) be asked to provide the gear. If you do happen to own the gear it can be a bonus for you as you can also build in a rental fee, but don’t feel like you need to buy an expensive cinema camera just to get hired for a decent job. It’s your reel and portfolio that will get your work – not your gear. And trust me, you can make an incredible reel with equipment that costs next to nothing, and you can make a crappy reel with the best digital cinema cameras out there. Just remember to focus on presenting your work in a way that showcases your talent and you will be well on your way to booking the jobs that you want.
Poor Social Skills
If you’re doing all the right things, have a great reel, understand the craft inside and out, but are still not getting work – it’s probably because of your social skills. I know this may seem harsh, but I can personally say that a couple of the most talented creative people I have worked with have never been invited back to one of my sets because of their demeanour on set. It’s not that you need to be everyones best friend on set, but you generally do want to stay positive and just be friendly. You wouldn’t believe how far a good attitude will take you in this industry. Some of the most successful people I know in this business got to where they are by being approachable, honest, and kind when working with others… And the vast majority of unsuccessful people that I know lack all of these traits.
Always remember that the way people perceive you and your work is a direct reflection of how you present yourself. You could deliver fantastic results on set one day, but never get hired back because you made a snarky comment to the director. Or on the other hand you could screw up on set and work with that same director over and over again because you show a willingness to problem solve and rectify the situation. I really can’t stress this point enough because it is one of the biggest challenges that nearly all creative types face, not just cinematographers.
Becoming a successful and sought after cinematographer may not be easy, but there are certainly a lot of things that you can do to make the process easier and to greatly improve your chances of success. By staying humble, focusing on continually improving your craft (both in terms of production and post-knowledge), and being critical of your own work, you will inevitably set your self up for success. Many DPs fail because they are not skilled technically, even if they are great with people, while other DPs that are exceptionally skilled technically fail because they don’t handle working relationships properly. You need to cover yourself on both sides of the equation in order to succeed, and one you can do that you will immediately start to see your career change for the better.
To learn more about the craft of cinematography, and specifically how to capture a more filmic image, be sure to check out my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR.