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Cinematography and Photography as artistic mediums have many similarities. By definition, cinematography is the discipline of making lighting and camera choices when recording a series of photographic images for the cinema. Without photography, there would be no cinema. The only difference between the two is that cinema can show movement: whether it’s an object moving within the scene, or the movement of the camera. Because cinema is comprised of a series of still images, combined to record movement, cinematographers must think like photographers because they must take into account the lens, framing, angles, lighting, and composition (called mise-en-scene in film) when setting up a shot.

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In 1941, a movie called Citizen Kane completely changed the way we make films today. The movie, considered by some to be the greatest movie of all time, is known for it’s incredible cinematography. Writer/Director Orson Welles, along with Cinematographer Gregg Toland, came up with several new filming techniques that literally changed the world of cinematography.

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One of the techniques that the movie is most famous for is “deep focus.” As you can see in the image above, all of the characters—including the child in the window—are in focus. Toland achieved this through the use of a wide-angle lens to create a large depth-of-field. When this wasn’t possible, he would shoot the scene with the foreground fully lit and the background in darkness. Then, he would rewind the film and shoot the scene over again, with the background in focus and fully lit and the foreground in complete darkness. This is called an in-camera matte shot, which can be seen in the image below.

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Deep focus was also achieved by taking two different shots and superimposing them together on an optical printer. In the shot below, the scene was initially filmed with just Kane in focus on the left side of the screen. Then, it was filmed with just the actor on the right, so the two images could be combined with both characters in focus.

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Another thing that made Citizen Kane stand out from other movies of its time was the way it used low-angle shots. The sound stages in Hollywood filmmaking made it impossible to show low-angle shots without revealing the microphones and lights that hung above the actors. To overcome this problem, Welles built whole sets with ceilings made of draped muslin, so the microphones were hidden above the cloth ceiling. Then, he cut holes in the set floor for the camera, so it could get the lowest angle possible.

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Lighting was also an important aspect of Citizen Kane. In this shot, the strong backlighting is used to make the character in front appear as only a silhouette and therefore anonymous to the viewer. The smoke that fills the room helps to show the light beams coming from the projectors as well as the lamp on the table. This use of lighting can also be seen in the image below, in which the high-contrast lighting creates a foreboding atmosphere.

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As with still photography, great cinematography depends upon great composition. The following image uses a now-popular camera technique that shows Kane standing next to a mirror that reflects on his life as an old man. The mirror helps to emphasize his reflection on his life, while also showing a well-composed image. Notice how the camera is skillfully positioned to show the many reflections of Kane without any reflections of the actual camera.

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Citizen Kane is a great example of how a movie can be considered a series of artistic images. It shows that cinematography is like photography in that it involves capturing images that are visually pleasing to look at. They both require skillful execution while trying to find the perfect shot. This movie is especially important because it used new techniques, which are still in use to this day.

Jonathan Brady is currently a film and video major at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His exposure to cinematography goes back more than 15 years, during which time he’s learned film technique from his father on such films as U.S. Marshals and Backdraft. He studied video for three years in high school and worked as an extra on two films: Andersonville and Fight Club.

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Excellent article, found it informative.



Great article. Really exposes and breaks down much of what goes into the actual process of making a scene/shot.

Arya Bandyopadhyay


Can we have more such articles on cinematography where things have been achieved without the help of computers?



Would like to see more on Citzen Kane from this author.
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