The Art of Cinematography

Movies are a form of communication. A good movie that builds an effective communication, encapsulates not only powerful dialogues or an impactful storyline but also the unspoken visuals that enhance the overall experience. This language of unspoken words through the power of lens is Cinematography.

The cinematography in simple words is the art of motion-picture photography. From a technical aspect, the cinematography is the science of recording light either electronically onto an image sensor or chemically onto film; however, it is much more than that. A cinematographer (who is also known as the Director of Photography or DOP)  usually coordinates closely with the director and pertains their vision of storytelling. 

There are a variety of shots and angles that serve various purposes, they are – Close up, medium shot, long shot / wide shot, extreme long shot and extreme close up. Cinematography not only focuses on camera angles or the precision of shots but also the lighting of a particular shot. For example- if the character is frustrated, it will be projected by setting harsh lighting on their face that creates multiple shadows as an enhancement to the character’s emotion. 

The Art of Cinematography: Joker



Moonlight is a 2016 American coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins. It has received critical acclaim and is considered to be one of the best films in the 21st century. The film is divided into three stages in the life of the main character. The tone of the visuals shot are similar as the character is the same but the lighting in every stage is distinctive which indicates the change in his personality with accordance to his age. The wide shots in this movie are used tastefully to establish a relationship between the surroundings and the character. 

The Art of Cinematography: Moonlight

To enhance the dramatic effect, cinematographer James Laxton has experimented with characters occasionally looking directly in the camera lens to make the viewers develop an impersonal relationship with the character. 

The Art of Cinematography: Moonlight

Similarly, there’s a scene where the main character is learning how to swim. The camera in that particular scene is placed just above the water so that the audience can see the waves and have a sense of movement with the character.

The Art of Cinematography: Moonlight

Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Cinematographer James Laxton was nominated for Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Moonlight is a knitted masterpiece due to its raw portrayal of emotion and slow-paced narrative complemented with impeccable visuals and lighting that leave us in awe. 


12 Years a Slave is a 2013 biographical period-drama film and an adaptation of the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. This movie is not exclusively known for its cinematography but according to me, the way this film was shot plays a crucial role in enhancing the storytelling process. Director Steve McQueen and Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt specifically crafted certain scenes to show subtle opposing binaries with the help of wide shots. 

For Example-  the scene where the main character (who is forced into slavery) is hung on a tree as punishment while there are other slaves continuing to do their jobs without even a slight amount of empathy or will to help him out because they could get into trouble. There are also children laughing and playing in the far background. This explains that even the people that belonged to the same community couldn’t lend their hand and stand in solidarity.

The Art of Cinematography: 12 years a slave

The movie was decisively shot in a widescreen aspect ratio because it suited well the theme of a traditional epic. 

The Art of Cinematography: 12 years a slave

12 years a Slave won an Academy Award for Best Picture (2013). It is a deeply emotional film which captures injustice and brutality in its rawest form. 


The Art of Cinematography: Portrait of a lady on fire

Portrait of a lady on fire is a 2019 French historical drama film written and directed by Céline Sciamma. It is a story of the love affair of a painter and her muse. The film is shot in northwestern France and the location itself is so beautiful that every frame in that movie looks like a painting. The movie is set in the late 1700s which is why the colour tones are not so bright except the outdoor scenes. The night scenes have been shot in dim lighting caused by fire (one of the main elements of the film) in various forms such as candles, fireplaces or even bonfires. 

The Art of Cinematography: Portrait of a lady on fire

The landscape shots have a lot of extra and unnecessary space which somehow works perfectly because of the slow-paced storytelling. The visuals in this movie speak way more than the dialogues which complement the subtlety in the narrative. One can say, almost the entire movie is a series of establishing shots that work in perfect harmony. 

The Art of Cinematography: Portrait of a lady on fire

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has not only used the location to its optimal level but has made the film look like poetry in motion. She received multiple allocations for Best Cinematography by Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics and several nominations. 


Blade Runner is a 1982 science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott. It is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (1968). The film is set in a dystopian future Los Angeles of 2019. Taken into account that the film was made in the 1980s, the cinematography of Blade Runner was revolutionary and it is still considered to be one of the best works of cinematography. Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth experimented a lot with backlights, neon lights and smoke/ thick fog in the dark and created his own apocalyptic world. 

The Art of Cinematography: Blade Runner

Shaft lighting was one of the most important tools in this film. Thick fog/ smoke was used as a medium of light which was apt as the future was shown to be polluted and dark, which is why almost the entire movie has been tastefully shot in dim lighting in order to complement the narrative. 

The Art of Cinematography: Blade Runner

Blade runner won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and it is one of the best Sci-fi/Thrillers till date. Its sequel Blade runner: 2049 released in 2017 which also received an Academy Award for Best cinematography. 

The list goes on and on – Life of Pi had exceptionally captivating visuals that made the movie a must-watch. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda won an academy award for Best Cinematography. 

The Art of Cinematography: Life of Pi
a scene from Life of Pi

I remember watching Dunkirk in the movie theatre and holding onto my seat because the aerial sequences were one of the best scenes I had ever come across. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. 

The Art of Cinematography
a scene from Dunkirk

Avatar was 70% computer generated but the photographed shots were a work of art.

The Art of Cinematography: Avatar
a scene from Avatar

Cinematography is the heart of filmmaking. Composition, camera movement, lighting, colour schemes and so much more are planned out to make an experience out of a movie. The cinematography makes movie-making more than its narrative/dialogues. Not only does it give a visual command to the story but also dictates the sequences that end up speaking volumes. 

Cinematography is a writing with images in mouvement and with sounds

Robert Bresson

Liked this piece? Also read: Noir Lives On: The Dark Genre in Age of Color.

Vaishnavi Kalbate
Vaishnavi Kalbate

This article was written by Vaishnavi who is currently an intern via Escribo. You may reach out to her through Instagram.

3 thoughts

  1. this has changed my whole outlook on how to view movies and admire them more. thankyou so much for this article! absolutely loved it!

  2. Haven’t seen 12 years a slave nor Moonlight although they’re both on my watch list which is extensive. But as far as blade runner goes, turning point for cinema I felt. I think Ridley Scott was easily the biggest catalyst of cinema and story telling along with David Lynch and Dune. The whole futuristic conecept in such a time mean’t you had to create something new to get people to embrace Science fiction and the amunt that was possible.

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