The Film Look -

"If the audience doesn't notice,

you've done your job."


-Roger Deakins


(Camera Settings, Tips & Techniques)

On this page, we will cover:


Frame Rate

Shutter Speed/Shutter Angle




Dynamic Range

Recording Formats & Compression


Depth of Field


The Value of Great Locations & Dressing the Set

Post Production Enhancement

Hollywood films of the past had a unique look because they were shot on 35mm motion picture film.  Many Cinematographers today shoot with digital cameras.  Digital cameras have one huge advantage over film cameras and that is affordability.  Unfortunately, film has many advantages over digital.  The biggest advantage is its overall look (and it is not easy to replicate).  Luckily, digital cameras keep improving and there are camera settings, tips and techniques a cinematographer can use to make their footage look more Cinematic.

1.  23.976 Frame Rate

35mm films were shot at 24 frames per second.  Fortunately, most digital cameras can shoot 23.976 (or 23.98) frames per second.  Make sure that your camera is set to this frame rate.  Shooting at higher frame rates like 29.97, often have a news or soap opera look that is not very cinematic.  NOTE:  It is important that a cinematographer understands that shooting at 23.976 frames per second, generally requires slower camera movement to prevent a staccato look.  One trick to doing a quick move, is to have the camera follow a moving object at the desired speed that you want to move at.  The audience will be less likely to notice that staccato look because they will be focused on the moving object.

2.  1/48th Shutter Speed

Film has a certain amount of motion blur.  In digital, you can achieve this motion blur by shooting at 1/48th shutter speed (or 1/50th if that is not available).  Some digital cameras also have a shutter angle mode.  For a film-look, you would choose the 180 degree shutter angle option.  If you plan on shooting slow motion, the general rule is to take the frame rate that you are shooting and double it to get to the desired shutter speed.  For example, shooting 60 frames per second slow motion, would require a shutter speed of 1/120th.


3.  Highest Resolution

Most digital cameras can record a resolution of at least 1920x1080 (also known as Full HD).  The aspect ratio of 1080p is 16x9 or 1.78:1.  Now, 4K (Ultra-High Definition) is becoming popular.  It has a resolution of 3840 x 2160 and is also 16x9 or 1.78:1.  The other flavor of 4K is Cinema 4K.  It has a resolution of 4096 x 2160 and an aspect ratio of 1.9:1 (which is wider than 16x9).  Some cameras, like the RED DRAGON, shoot 6K.  So what do all of these numbers mean to a Cinematographer?  In general, it is best to shoot the highest resolution you can afford/handle.  This not only helps produce a better image (regardless of the resolution it is distributed at), but it protects your work for the future.  Most movies projected in theaters use 4K video projectors.  Therefore, if you are aiming for a theatrical release, shooting in Cinema 4K mode is the right choice.  If you are aiming for television distribution, 4K UHD is a good choice (as it will fill the full frame of a HD or UHD television).  If 4K is not an option, 1080p (Full HD) is acceptable, but it will show its limitations the bigger it is projected (like on a movie screen).

4.  Cleanest Camera ISO/Gain Settings

Just like film cameras that use different film stocks for different lighting conditions (from low light to super bright light), digital cameras have various settings used for shooting in different lighting conditions.  In general, the lower the light you have to work with (like shooting at night), the higher ISO or GAIN setting you will have to use to get a properly exposed image.  Unfortunately, when shooting with film, grain typically looks pleasing to the eye, while video noise does not.  The solution is to shoot with the lowest iso or gain setting as possible to get a clean image.  If grain is desired, it can be added in post.  A clean base ISO setting may be around 800 or lower.  A clean Gain setting would be 0db.  Use lighting gear to bring up your light levels to avoid noise in your video in low light conditions.

5.  Proper Exposure

One dead giveaway that an image is not very cinematic is improper exposure.  An overexposed shot has clipped highlights (like clouds with no detail).  An underexposed shot is too dark and the details in the shadows are gone or black.  In post production, a drastically underexposed shot can be boosted to a more acceptable level, but the image will be noisy.  Details in the highlights can also not be recovered if the shot is drastically overexposed.


In-camera, proper Exposure is the balance of ISO, Shutter Speed and Lens Aperture (measured in f-stops).  Often, Shutter Speed is not manipulated and stays consistent (it stays at 1/48th or 180 degrees as mentioned above).  Externally, exposure is based on the amount of natural available light and the pro lights added to the scene.  Neutral Density Filters help reduce the amount of light entering the camera (helpful when shooting in bright conditions -- like harsh sunlight).  Sometimes, the scene is too contrasty and the cinematographer is forced  to underexpose bright highlights or underexpose dark shadows.  As a rule, expose for your subject and if a scene is too contrasty, try to reduce the contrast with lights, reflectors, diffusers and/or light blockers.


In-camera tools like Zebra Patterns are helpful when trying to expose properly.  Usually, a camera has 2 zebra pattern settings that you can switch between.  Most cinematographers set the first zebra pattern to 70 IRE and the second zebra pattern to 100 IRE.


NOTE:  IREs are a unit of measurement of video levels that can be recorded.  7.5 IRE represents Black and 100 IRE represents White.  Anything in your shot between 7.5 and 100 IRE will have detail.  Shadows below 7.5 will be black and highlights above 100 IRE will be white or clipped and have no detail.


When shooting a scene with an actor, you do not want their skin tone to go any higher than 70 IRE (70 IRE is the median range for natural skin tones).  Therefore, adjust your aperture/f-stop (on your lens) until you just start seeing the 70 IRE pattern show up on your actor’s face.  Then close the aperture slightly until the zebra pattern disappears.


When shooting a scene with no actors in it, use your 100 IRE Zebra Pattern setting.  Do not let any of your highlights or white objects in the shot go over 100 IRE.  100 IRE represents white, so going over 100 IRE will cause those highlights to clip.  Therefore, open your f-stop on your lens.  Once you start seeing the 100 IRE zebra pattern show up on your highlights, back it off slightly and close the f-stop down until the zebra stripes disappear.


Histograms, Waveform Monitors and False Color Mode are other very popular tools for helping you to expose properly.  Some of these tools are found in-camera or in an external monitor.


6.  Capturing the most Dynamic Range (shooting in log or RAW)

35mm film can capture a wide dynamic range.  Dynamic range is the difference between the lightest and darkest parts of the image.  If a camera does not have enough dynamic range to capture a high contrast scene, the highlights will clip to white and/or the shadows will disappear to black.  Fortunately, dynamic range in modern digital cameras is improving (for example, The Blackmagic Ursa Mini Camera can record 15 stops of dynamic range — amazing detail in both the dark shadows and bright highlight areas of the image).  Typically, for your camera to capture the most dynamic range, you will need to shoot in RAW or log.


A Film-like Gamma setting can also be used, but it is the least gradeable in post.  It gives you footage with a film-like image baked into it (but usually doesn't capture the most dynamic range your camera is capable of recording).


NOTE:  Color grading is the process of altering and enhancing a video image digitally.  Modern color correction, whether for theatrical film or video distribution is generally done in the Post Production phase of filmmaking.


Log footage has more flexibility in post and more dynamic range than footage shot with a baked in film-like gamma, but it requires more grading.  A typical log image will lack color and contrast before it is graded.  This flatness is used to protect highlight and shadow information in the image.


Finally, RAW footage has the most flexibility in post, but the files are huge and require even more grading.  You can manipulate exposure, color balance and other things in post production with RAW.  This makes RAW a wise choice if your workflow can handle the large file sizes and extra time required after principal photography has been completed.

7.  Recording Format & Compression

Digital Cameras can record several different file formats that are usually compressed or sometimes uncompressed.  Some of these formats include:  MP4, CinemaDNG Raw, Apple ProRes and XAVC.  Cameras typically record these files to memory cards.  In general, shoot at the best quality you can handle.  A cinematographer should make sure that the editor of the film can handle the format of the footage that they shoot.  Do test recordings before the shoot if possible and share them with your editor.  Uncompressed RAW formats give the most flexibility in grading/color correction (as mentioned above), but are large in file size and require a longer post workflow.  If your camera does not internally record a high enough quality image (sometimes internal recording is highly compressed), an external video recorder may be used to capture better quality footage (like the Atomos Shogun 4K Recorder).

8.  Reduce Sharpening in-camera or use Filters for a more pleasing image

Film tends to have a softer, more pleasing look than video.  This is because digital cameras often use artificial sharpening.  If your camera seems to produce harsh looking images that are just too sharp, try lowering the detail or sharpening setting.  Companies like Tiffen, also create glass filters that slightly soften the image or reduce the contrast of a shot.  Some popular filters include:  Black Mist Pro, Warm Black Diffusion F/X, Black Diffusion F/X, Soft F/X and Digital Diffusion F/X.  These filters come in different strengths.  It’s important not to over do it.  Matte Boxes hold the glass filters in front of the lens.  Sharpening can also be reduced in post.

9.  Shallow Depth of Field

It is not uncommon to see many shallow depth of field shots in a 35mm film.  This look can best be described as:  a very sharply focused subject with a very soft or blurry background.  It’s a great tool for filmmakers because it focuses your audience’s attention on the important part of the shot (like an actor).  Older video cameras could not easily achieve this look.  However, it is now possible with large sensors and fast lenses.  To achieve this look with a digital camera, you need to open up the aperture of the lens to its lowest f-stop number  (like f2.0).


NOTE:  Aperture is a hole within the lens through which light travels into the camera.  Aperture is expressed in f-stop numbers.  The lower the f-Stop number, the bigger the aperture hole is.  The higher the f-Stop number, the smaller the aperture hole is.  Typical lens aperture f-stops go in the following order:  1.4, 2.0, 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0, 11, 16 and 22.


A low f-Stop number produces very shallow depth of field.  The lowest f-stop on the lens is how you determine how fast the lens is.  Typically, fast lenses are more expensive.  Manufacturers like Metabones, make speed boosters that increase a lenses maximum aperture by 1 stop.  Having a fast lens with a small f-stop number on it, not only enables shallow depth of field, it also allows the camera to use less light (decreasing the amount of lighting needed on a set).


To create shallow depth of field in bright sunlight, you will need neutral density filters that cut down the light entering the camera.  This allows you to not over expose your shot.


A follow focus system helps the cinematographer keep subjects (like actors) in focus as they move around in the frame (very important when using shallow depth of field).  You can mark focus points on the follow focus ring and rotate it as the actors hit their marks (predetermined starting and stopping positions on set).  When actors are in a scene, focus on their eyes (the eyes are the window to the soul).  FOCUS is measured in feet or meters.


Sometimes, you will want deep depth of field (the subject and the background in focus).  This is achieved by setting your lens to a high f-stop number, like f22.  NOTE:  closing down a lens to such a high f-stop requires lots of light to properly expose an image.


Another factor that effects depth of field is the focal length of a lens.  Lenses come in all different focal lengths (some are wide, normal and telephoto and some are zooms that cover multiple focal lengths).  For example, a 24mm prime lens is considered to be a wide angle lens and by its nature, produces shots that have a deeper depth of field.  A 135mm lens is considered to be a telephoto lens and by its nature, will produce shallower depth of field.


The final factor that effects depth of field is focal distance.  The closer a subject is to a lens, the more the background will fall out of focus.  The further away a subject is to a lens, the more in focus the background will appear.

10.  Dont be afraid to change Lenses

As just discussed, faster lenses require less light to shoot and are capable of very shallow depth of field, but lenses have other benefits than just their lowest f-stop number.


First, different prime lenses (lenses that are not zooms) have different focal lengths.  The graphic to the right, shows how a subject would be framed if the camera stayed in place and the operator just changed lenses.  The 16mm lens is able to capture a very wide shot, while the 85mm lens captures a much tighter shot.


Other than just affecting the framing of a shot, different focal lengths also have other characteristics.  A telephoto lens compresses or flattens an image.  This can be a flattering way to shoot an actor with a long nose.  With a telephoto lens, their facial features become less exaggerated.


If you shoot an actor with a wide angle lens (and put that actor close to the camera), his or her facial features will be more exaggerated and less attractive.  Therefore, you may want to shoot a villain's close up with a wide angle lens if you want to make them look less pleasing to the eye.  A 50mm lens is more neutral (it doesnt flatten or exaggerate an image like a telephoto or wide angle lens).


Wide and telephoto lenses also tend to affect the background of a shot.  A telephoto lens makes the background elements of an image seem bigger or closer than they are.  A wide angle lens makes background elements seem smaller and farther away.  Therefore, if you want a subject to feel like they have a long way to go to get somewhere, use a wide angle lens.  If you want them to feel like they are closer to their background, use a telephoto lens.  Sometimes telephoto lenses are used in stunt shots, where you want your actor to feel more in danger or closer to something like a car speeding toward them or a burning building.


Other Types of Lenses:


Fisheye lenses - A Fisheye lens is  an ultra-wide angle lens that can create a panoramic or hemispherical image.  These lenses distort the edge of the frame.


Macro Lenses - A Macro Lens has the ability to shoot unusually close to a subject.  This makes objects that appear small to us, look extremely large on screen.



11.  Shoot at Great Locations and Dress the Set

Big Hollywood films pay close attention to the locations they shoot at.  If you want your film to look more cinematic, shoot at the best locations you can find.  Make sure everything in your frame works for the story.  Remove distracting things from the shot.  Add objects or props to enhance a shot.  When shooting indoors, try to avoid empty white walls.  Start examining scenes in movies and ask yourself what did they do to make the location more interesting.


Time of day is also important.  Do you want dramatic outdoor lighting?  Achieve this by shooting at sunrise or sunset.


12.  Enhance your look in Post

In the editing, grading and/or color correction process, there are a number of things that can be done to give your digital footage a film-look.  This includes adding grain if desired.  Grading and/or color correction is also where color and contrast can be manipulated to match the tone of your film.  Comedies tend to be warmer, more saturated and less contrasty.  Dramas tend to be cooler, less saturated and more contrasty.  Film Emulation software is also worth taking a look at (like RED GIANT).  Editing software, like Adobe premiere, is not difficult to use and many plugins are available that help you achieve a cinematic look with digital footage.


Other factors that will help give your footage a more cinematic look include:


1.  Natural and Motivated Lighting

2.  Proper White Balance

3.  Professional Camera Movement

4.  Proper Composition/Framing


These topics are covered on other pages of this site and should not be overlooked.  As we discussed, the film-look is a combination of settings, techniques and tips.

Frame Rate -

1.  FRAME RATE:  This Digital Cine Camera is set to 23.98 (or 23.976) for a cinematic look.

Shutter Speed -
Shutter Angle -

2.  SHUTTER SPEED:  use a shutter speed of 1/48th (1/50th) or a shutter angle of 180 degrees.

3.  RESOLUTION:  This graphic shows common resolutions from 1080p to 6K.

A Cinematographer should shoot the highest resolution their workflow can handle.


4.  ISO/GAIN:  A filmmaker should shoot at the lowest ISO or GAIN setting possible to

capture a clean image.

Exposure Balance -
Properly Exposed -

5.  PROPER EXPOSURE:  Exposure is the balance of ISO, SHUTTER SPEED and APERTURE.

An image that is properly exposed has a balance of details in the highlights, mid-tones

and shadows.

Over Exposed -
Under Exposed -

This image is overexposed.  There are lots of details in the shadows, but the highlights are clipped.

This image is underexposed.  There are details in the highlights, but the shadows are crushed.

Zebra at 100 IRE -

ZEBRA PATTERNS help you achieve proper exposure.  This zebra pattern is set to 100 IRE.  A second setting of 70 IRE is often used to help

expose skin tones.

The zebra pattern on this white card is at 100 IRE.  To protect highlights, the cinematographer would close down the aperture until no zebra stripes appear on the LCD screen.

Highlights at 100 IRE -
Waveform Monitor -

This image shows that the highlights on the helmet are hitting 100 IRE (you can see the ZEBRA pattern on the brightest spots).

A Waveform Monitor helps with exposure by showing the levels of a video signal.  Anything in the image above 100 IRE will most likely turn white (and have no detail).  Anything below 7.5 IRE will turn black and have no shadow detail.

Dynamic Range -

6.  DYNAMIC RANGE:  dynamic range is measured in f-stops.  A camera with a wide dynamic range (like the 16.5 stops recorded by the Red Dragon), has a better chance of capturing details in the highlights and shadows in a high contrast scene versus a camera that records less dynamic range (which will blow out highlights and crush shadows quicker).

7.  RECORDING FORMAT & COMPRESSION:  Cinematographers should record the highest quality and least compressed footage that their camera can acquire.  If your camera records an image that is too compressed for your needs, an external recorder offers higher quality acquisition at a reasonably low cost.

Detail Level -

8.  REDUCE SHARPENING/DETAIL:  Often, Digital Cameras produce overly sharp or detailed images.  To create a more film-like image, try reducing detail or lowering sharpening settings.

Shallow Depth of Field -
Deep Depth of Field -

9.  SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD - Shallow depth of field is when the subject is in focus, but the background is

very soft and blurry.

DEEP DEPTH OF FIELD - is when the entire image looks in focus (including the foreground and the background).

Lens Aperture -
F-Stops -

APERTURE:  Aperture is a hole within the lens that opens and closes, through which light travels into the camera.  Aperture is expressed in f-stop numbers.

F-STOPS:  Aperture is controlled by adjusting the f-stop wheel on a lens.

This lens is set to F2.

Depth of Field Chart -

A FOLLOW FOCUS - helps maintain changing focus.

As F-Stop numbers get higher (like F22), the aperture (hole in the lens) gets smaller and this creates Deeper Depth of Field.  As the F-STOP number gets lower (like F2), the aperture opens gets bigger.  This creates Shallower Depth of Field.

Focus at Infinity -

FOCUS is measured in feet or meters.  This lens is focused on infinity.  Infinity is the point at which no more adjustments need to be made for objects that are further away to be in focus.  Subjects focused at infinity are usually very far away from the camera.

This 50mm lens is focused at 5 feet.  Lenses have a minimum focus distance, which means they can not focus on an object any closer than their minimum focus distance.

Focal Lengths -

10.  DON'T BE AFRAID TO CHANGE LENSES - This graphic shows the different framing a camera can capture by staying in place using different lenses.

A 16mm lens captures a very wide shot.  An 85mm lens captures a

much tighter shot.

Telephoto Lens -

This telephoto lens flattens the image and makes the firefighter look closer to the fire

than he really is.

This wide angle lens distorts the features of the actress and makes the background look like it goes on forever.

This Macro Lens makes the strawberry look huge.

Shoot at Sunset -

11.  SHOOT AT GREAT LOCATIONS:  Find interesting locations for your film.  Consider shooting at sunrise or sunset.