Cinematography, or the art of motion picture photography, is essential to cinema as it directly captures the vision of the director. It’s imperative to form a unique look and feel to the film, and enhance its narrative. While it comprises multiple elements like lighting, set composition, camerawork and aesthetic formality, the work of the cinematographer is to essentially conjure a specific way of seeing for the audience. It can often involve making rigid stylistic choices to create a specific look or ambience for the film, and working closely with the crew and the director to define a common visual language for the work.
Truly, it would be impossible to share a common admiration for good cinema without acknowledging the debt it owes to cinematography. Whether you are a budding cinephile, a film student or an aspiring filmmaker, you’ll find indispensable lessons in our carefully curated list of some of the best cinematography books. These are all essential reading to sharpen and polish your skill for the craft, one frame at a time.
1. Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors 3rd Edition
A remarkable introduction to the finer details of cinematography, Blain Brown’s Cinematography: Theory and Practice does a wonderful job of breaking down the technical jargon of creating a visual experience in film. The book deals with both the workmanship as well as the artistic techniques of cinematography, as Brown devotes a lot of attention to beginning from basics. It’s an excellent companion to anyone seeking to learn the building blocks of cinematography, as well as for further honing your craft. Complex topics such as exposure techniques, color grading and digital images are broken down into fundamental concepts, with different sections handling various aspects of the same. It begins with an informative introduction of how to use cinematography and its functions to create engaging visual content, and delves into the basics from there.
A great feature of the book is that it is not simply a user manual of what techniques and instruments to use to create a certain storytelling experience; rather, it also focuses on how cinematography techniques have changed over the years. Brown discusses the shift from film to digital, and covers the developments in film technology such as green screen and digital enhancement.
The book also discusses the professional practices of the cinematography industry. It’s a great primer for industry newcomers or for those looking to work with a larger crew. Besides, there’s additional material that guides the reader on various topics such as lighting and color grading, creating an immersive medium of instruction. Seasoned filmmakers and aspiring learners alike will find it an immense help.
2. The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition 1st Edition
The art of framing disparate elements in a shot so as to create total unity of effect is an integral part of a cinematographer’s craft. As the name suggests, The Filmmaker’s Eye explores the composition, framing, and technicalities of how a particular shot should be framed. It combines theoretical instruction with practical deconstruction of hundreds of images to inform viewers why and how a particular frame is shot the way it is. The book is concisely planned, which is easy and effective for readers.
Fundamental information is divided into various sections like How It Works, Why It Works, Technical Considerations and Breaking the Rules. The idea of such subsections is to smoothly transition from the basics of the craft to the know-how of aesthetic composition. The last section is particularly effective, as it delineates the examples of when filmmakers depart from the “rules” of cinematography to subvert norms. The book takes care to not dump technical information all at once, and uses visual material to illustrate concepts and methods.
Author Gustavo Mercado, who is also an award-winning independent filmmaker discusses the various types of shots, composition and angles in great depth, without it becoming too dense. The book does a great job of simplifying information for students, but it may feel a tad repetitive to those who are already familiar with the jargon. Regardless, it’s a truly informative read, and a smart investment for cinema lovers and film students alike.
3. The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Technique Simplified
Joseph V. Mascelli’s The Five C’s of Cinematography is something of a cult-classic when it comes to foundational texts in the field of cinematography, particularly shot composition. The book is an in-depth treatise which seeks to train the eye of the reader to envision cinematic excellence and translate it on screen. Focusing on five central areas, or the titular C’s — composition, continuity, camera angles, close-ups and cutting, Mascelli compactly discusses the various aspects of formal composition such as screen direction, point-of-view and camera height by including various references and diagrams.
Readers accustomed to a visual style of learning will find this book a delight. It utilizes diagrams, graphs, charts and images to inculcate a style of imagination in the readers that will hopefully help them develop a cinematic gaze of their own.
As far as instructional texts are concerned, books dealing with the basics of any craft can be a little intimidating and rather tedious, especially if one is not previously aware of the technical terms used. But Mascelli’s text does a commendable job at breaking down even the most convoluted of concepts to their bare bones. While it may seem a little behind on more recent techniques, it keeps up with modern shooting methods and imparts them good old practicality with classic techniques, while instructing the readers.
4. The Filmmaker’s Eye: The Language of the Lens: The Power of Lenses and the Expressive Cinematic Image 1st Edition
Renowned art critic John Berger held the view that “every image embodies a way of seeing.” The power of the camera to acutely relate to and direct the audience towards the filmmaker’s vision is at the center of Gustavo Mercado’s book. The Language of the Lens focuses on the artistic freedom and technical capacity of different types of lenses to produce moving pieces of cinema that function in aesthetic unity. The idea of the lens as a driving force towards producing and presenting a narrative is at the center of the text. It begins with a technical exploration of the use and function of lenses.
Technical newbies needn’t fear – plenty of pages are devoted to exploring elements like aperture, focus, depth of flare, distortion, etc. Mercado also draws from hundreds of examples from media and film to illustrate how mere knowledge of the mechanics of the lens is not enough. One must combine this knowledge with elements like set design and composition to create a fully realized piece of work.
Mercado does a steady job of balancing out the nitty-gritties of shooting and lenses by informing readers about the artistic values of choosing particular types of lenses and specifications. In fact, the book finds a perfect balance between the applied effects of lenses, and their function in service of the artistic vision of the story a filmmaker seeks to tell. It will appeal to not only filmmakers, but to anyone with a penchant for visual storytelling.
5. Lighting for Cinematography: A Practical Guide to the Art and Craft of Lighting for the Moving Image (The CineTech Guides to the Film Crafts)
It goes without saying that one cannot shoot moving images and sequences without proper lighting. This book by David Landau is all about the practical and aesthetic necessity of good lighting. It’s divided into parts that correspond with a 14-semester structure, and deals with various production skills as well as lighting techniques such as night lighting, movement and light, non-fiction lighting, etc.
Landau is well aware of the fact that mere text cannot fully assist the reader in learning lighting skills and techniques. The book is full of informative stills from film and televisions, along with diagrams and lighting exercises to help readers practice and picture their craft. It not only provides a basic, completely instructive text for lighting techniques, but also educates newcomers into the industry about the experience of working with a large studio crew.
With frequent advice and tips from professionals and a focus on using lighting to create the atmosphere of a film, the book is completely equipped to answer all your questions. A balance of academic and informative, Lighting for Cinematography is a holy grail of tips and tricks. The book is inclined towards aspiring professionals who have just started out, and its commitment to a thorough curation of concepts and techniques will help readers update their knowledge.
6. Painting With Light
Academy Award winning cinematographer John Alton is a legend in his own right. His work has populated the frames of iconic films like An American in Paris (1928), and has shaped the visual language of film noir immensely. His book, Painting with Light was one of the first books on the subject to have been written by a working studio cinematographer. He draws from his experiences of having worked on over a hundred films to delineate the various ways in which lighting can be used to create a particular ambience of a film.
Because the book was written in 1949, and one of the first works on the subject, the technical information that Alton details might be rendered rather dated. However, the book is a great roadmap for comparing and learning about conventional and unconventional lighting. He details standard lighting practices in the 50s, and recommends a few that had been considered controversial at the time. Regardless of whether you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran, the book is a wonderful study of visual language in films. Alton also recounts anecdotes from various films that he has worked on to shed light and many such techniques and procedures. As much an archival document as it is an instructive one, it’s one of the best cinematography books for beginners interested in honing their craft.
7. Introduction to Cinematography: Learning Through Practice 1st Edition
Tania Hoser’s Introduction to Cinematography provides a step-by-step instruction manual for the technical and creative processes involved in cinematography. Different specifications such as photographic principles, camerawork, light exposure, motion blur et al, are broken down in separate units. Key points and tips are also highlighted which is extremely useful for readers looking for a quick update on various technical and artistic directions. A general introduction is followed by a section in which Hoser discusses the role and function of the cinematographer and their crew in the filmmaking process, before moving on to discussing the fundamentals of the discipline.
Hoser presents simple exercises throughout the book for the readers to check their progress, and divides the subject matter so that novice readers can follow the structure efficiently. It also devotes sufficient time on how to pursue a career in cinematography. Hoser also includes practical advice from individuals who have been working in the industry for a long time. The book is not only a great investment for students of cinema and filmmakers, but instructors as well.
While the book may come off as too dense or text-oriented, it’s written keeping aspiring filmmakers and new learners in mind. It is exceedingly simple to follow, and a definitive manual that covers all the bases.
8. Capturing the Shot: Fundamentals, Tools, Techniques, and Workflows for Digital Cinematography
The shift from shooting on film to shooting digitally has been monumental. Technology has now become more important to the art of filmmaking than ever before. Directors can now shoot films in higher definition and work on the film well into post-production. Capturing the Shot by David Stump focuses on the future of film via digital technology. It introduces readers to the artistry and the technological acumen required to be a successful cinematographer. The book primarily provides information regarding the tools available at hand to the new age filmmaker. It is divided into sections, with a focus on describing the different types of camera available, lenses and their function, tools like recorders, exposure, etc.
The idea is to familiarise the readers with the innovations occurring in digital filmmaking technology and enable them to make an informed choice about their craft. Technological data and information is systematically covered, with extensive discussion on how to choose the right set of tools and processes so as to define a particular style and look for your film. Stump also provides a look at trends and tricks prevalent in the industry, so as to keep the readers abreast of every single development.
The book’s technical prowess and knowledge of modern filmmaking methodology is extremely handy for newcomers and professionals alike.
There we are! These are some of the best cinematography books aimed towards helping creators pursue their craft in a well-informed manner. Often, it can feel daunting to approach a subject as tactile and dense as filmmaking. Film school is, understandably, not for everyone and more and more people are taking the self-learning approach. Whether you’re a student of cinema, or are planning to make your next film, these books will guide you through the filmmaking process. These are only a handful but all essential readings on cinematography to master the craft.
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.