Your Camera Doesn’t Make Your Film — Your Eye Does

Cameras don’t take pictures, you do.

There’s a story in your head. You can make that story fit into a linear, re-playable rectangle with just some imagination, hard work and the right tools. It doesn’t mean your story has to be linear, but it does mean you have to translate that story through your tools onto that digital rectangle. Remember, just because you have a nice expensive camera with bells and whistles doesn’t mean you’ll have an automatic piece of art. You can point a knitting needle at a pile of yarn skeins, or you can hold out a palette of colors toward a canvas, and that doesn’t mean you’ve crafted something. The same is true with a camera. It is a tool. It is used (properly — or at least intentionally) to create the vision in your head, or something close to it.

The right tools for the right job go a long way in whatever you do in life. A little philosophy doesn’t hurt either: “Why do you want to take this photo? Are you capturing still life or creating a visual representation of a story?” asks Erica. “Cameras are meant to be an extension of you. In order to take a great picture, you need to have the patience to discover it.” And during that discovery process, you need to determine the things that matter. When shooting with a camera, and putting it in context of your content, one needs to give consideration to the time of day, the place, the weather and, of course, emotion, she says. That will help determine which tools you use and how you will use them.

But remember, it is still about the storytelling much more than it is the tool. Let’s say you’re going to Grandma’s house and she lives three states away. You could drive there in a new, fancy Bugatti Chiron or you could get there in a 1960s’ Volkswagen bus. The point is that you’re going to Grandma’s house. The movie “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” was never really about any of those things.

“There’s a big emphasis on the new, biggest, best cameras available,” Jeston says. “I’m not opposed to having these tools on set. I love the image that an Arri produces just as much as the next guy, but does that mean I’m gonna go spend north of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars? Maybe. I think it depends on intention.” 

“After you have started the journey is when you can decide on the perfect lens to use,” Erica says. “I enjoy the process of taking the photo more than anything. I love the exploration and creation. I have several cameras, and I love taking the same photo with more than one during the same session. Each camera has its own personality once the photo is complete, because each camera has a different result.”

“I think people go out and make these big purchases because they think it will make their storytelling better,” Jeston said. “What they don’t really realize is that the camera is just a tool, and the hands (or eyes) that use this tool are more important than the tool itself. Steven Soderbergh filmed a feature on an iPhone!! Shoot on whatever you can get your hands on and tell a story that matters. Worry about the tools later.”

Obviously, the word “composition” will come to mind in a discussion like this. Those folks who have a natural sense of composition, or framing, don’t really understand the people who don’t see what they’re shooting or how the shot composition is weighted and balanced. How can someone miss a telephone pole coming out of the top of someone’s head? The Rule of Thirds, The Golden Mean or Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci spiral, whatever you want to call it, it’s extraordinarily necessary to understand if you’re not one of those naturals.

You can always break the rules. However — you need to know and understand the rules before you can break them. The Rule of Thirds is an important one. Another important one is the 180 Degree Rule. DON’T CROSS THE AXIS.

You also need to study other framing aspects, such as Headroom and Looking Room. In addition, you want to pay great attention to the depth of your shots.

  • Your background is just as important as your subject. (Lighting, distractions, things growing out of heads)
  • Avoid a plain background; but also avoid a patterned background; walls feel confining. A spacious setting provides depth, a valuable composition element that is easy to work with, whether adding other camera angles or using b-roll.
  • Please, please, do not stand someone against the wall; it looks like they’re waiting for the firing squad.
  • Choose a background to reflect your interview/video subject
  • Use objects, but use them wisely. Too much clutter is bad. Things growing out of a person’s head is bad, too. (Plants are a common culprit. Or a lampshade that looks like a goofy hat.)

Assuming one can already handle the Rule of Thirds aspect of composition, there is another kind of composition. There is shot progression composition and editing composition and beats, almost like your video is a song. You have to concern yourself with a moving timeline of images: establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups and cutaways, all while considering mood, lighting, angles, movement, choreography, your background and so on. (Did you know that the film montage had to be “invented” and then accepted? >Read up on director Sergei Eisenstein, a proponent and early master of montage.)

“Composition is an understanding of emotional attachment to a character,” Jeston said. “I think the biggest mistakes are not letting the story dictate the composition. Composition sets the tone of your message. What is the emotional state of the scene? Do I need a super close-up to see the sweat drip down the cheek of my subject as they make the hardest decision in their life? Do I need a telephoto shot to make the audience feel like they’re spying on the characters? Yes, your message is the main thing, but it falls flat when you don’t consider how you’re looking at the scene.”

Once you know and understand the rules and how to use them, then and only then can you break those rules, because you will know WHY you are breaking them and to what purpose. (And DO NOT make that choice lightly, or just to be “edgy,” whatever that means. Every shot and every framing — and every rule break, too — must have meaning and substance. The norm here is When In Doubt, Leave It Out.

But, wait. You just watched another season of Mr. Robot. Sure, sometimes the Rule of Thirds was in evidence, but at other times, the rule was deliberately avoided, giving an odd weight to the visual composition of the shots. The headroom was just plain wrong, to the point of being kind of eerie or weirdly intense. Wait. Did we just define a specific effect to a specific rule break?

“Of course, you can break the rules, but breaking the rules of composition isn’t the reason Mr. Robot works. That goes back to the notion of intention,” Jeston said. “There isn’t a shot in Mr. Robot that doesn’t convey the mood of the scene. The dissociation from the norm is on purpose, portraying the mindset of Elliot and the other characters.”

Make the rules your default. Learn composition norms. Study editing techniques. Know your tools. Once you can live and breathe that experience and knowledge, then you can paint with a knife or use a carrot as an ocarina. The guitar was around a long time before Jimi Hendrix put his hands on one. …And it wasn’t his guitar that played the songs. His guitar was just the camera. He was the storyteller.

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