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A sample lesson from our Cinematography Course...


The visual image involves the interplay of several photographic variables, detailed below. While these variables can provide wonderful aesthetic value, their primary function is to support or convey the underlying emotion of the scene.

In other words, they are used to help tell the story. This is the primary goal of cinematic lighting and image processing. The variables will be discussed at length in the technical lessons:


Photographic images can vary in overall brightness, which is used to support the underlying emotion of the scene. High-key lighting means an overall brighter picture, while low-key lighting means an overall darker picture. Mid-key lighting falls in the middle, yielding average brightness. 

The dramatic content of the scene dictates its brightness. Generally, you will find that high-key lighting is favored for upbeat scenes, and low-key lighting is the choice for slow or taut dramatic action.

Although high-key and low-key refer to a picture's overall brightness, parts of the frame can be illuminated differently to affect attention or composition. For example, parts of a low-key image can be brightened to facilitate perception, while parts of a high-key image can be darkened to create a more interesting composition.


Contrast is the range of tones between pure white and pure black. Low contrast images have a wide range and appear soft to the eye, while high contrast images have a small range and appear stark. An entire lesson is devoted to this topic in the technical section. 

Use of High Contrast to Heighten Drama

Quality of Light

The quality of light is its perceived hardness or softness. A hard quality has dark shadows with sharp edges, while a soft quality has lighter, diffused shadows. 

Soft vs. Hard Light


Focus is the overall sharpness of the image. It can range from very soft to very sharp. The following photos show two different levels of focus:

Soft vs. Sharp Focus

Depth of field is the amount of acceptable focus behind and in front of the subject. Short focal lenses tend to produce a wide depth of field, where everything on the set appears in focus ("deep focus"). Long focal lenses produce a shallow depth of field, where only the subject area is in focus.

Shallow Depth of Field


Perspective is the breadth and depth of the image, which can be manipulated with the choice of lens. The foreground and background can appear closer together (compressed) or further apart (decompressed). The shots below were taken with different lenses, resulting variations in depth perspective:

Variation in Depth Perspective
 (note size of people in background)

Depth perspective can affect the perceived speed of movement. Specifically, movement can appear sluggish when depth is compressed and faster when depth is decompressed. This depends on several technical factors, which are discussed in the lesson on Lenses


Color, also called hue, is manipulated through lighting, art direction, and laboratory procedure. Shooting in color adds a new set of aesthetic variables:

Overall Hue - A scene can be tinted a certain color to convey scene variables like emotion, location, and time.

Emotionally, cool colors are associated with aloofness and strife, while warm colors are associate with romance. Time of day is characterized by different hues: yellow for sunrise, red for sunset, and blue for night. Distant time periods can also be conveyed through the use of hues. For example, an amber tint can be used to mimic the look of an old photograph.

Use of Cool and Warm Hues

Changing overall hue from sequence to sequence can help the audience perceive broader changes in scene variables. It also helps create a sense of variety. The Searchers and Sophie's Choice rely heavily on the use of overall hue. 

Saturation - Color saturation is how rich colors appear on screen. Highly saturated colors are vibrant, while desaturated colors are muted. Saturation can be used to convey the emotion or time frame of a scene. For example, a flashback can be indicated using desaturated colors.

Two Levels of Color Saturation

Emphasis - Certain colors have a tendency to draw the eye to them, depending on how they are arranged in the composition. A carefully chosen color, therefore, can be used to emphasize an element or area within the frame.

Contrast - Contrasting colors within the frame can be used to convey character or compositional tension. An unusual use of this technique is found in Coppola's One from the Heart, where a character is tinted a single hue and the background is in full color, and vice versa.


Grain is the tiny particles of dye crystals that make up a photographic image. It is usually invisible, however, under certain exposure or processing conditions it can be very noticeable. This results in gritty look that is often used for aesthetic purpose. 

Large vs. Fine Grain


Look is the visual feel of the movie.  It is often equated with its surface texture (i.e., grain, focus), but the meaning is much broader. Different looks are achieved by systematically manipulating any photographic element, including grain, focus, contrast, lighting, color, lens focal length, and depth of field.  This can be obvious or very subtle. 

Look supports the underlying dynamics of the movie.  For example,  The French Connection makes use of grain and stark lighting to give the film a sense of gritty realism, almost like newsreel footage, while Rear Window uses high contrast and saturated colors to convey a sense of romance and intrigue.

Stark, Gritty Look of The French Connection

The look of the movie can be constant throughout or changed in relation to certain story variables. For example, it may be desirable to alternate between different looks to reflect shifting story variables like location or time period.  Another approach would be to progressively change the look to convey character growth and development.

One of 300 lessons found in Film School Online!

Cinematography Course Topics

If you are interested in learning more about the movies used  in this
 lesson, click on the title or picture (courtesy 20th Century Fox,
MCA/Universal, Paramount, TCM, and Warner Brothers).

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