The WHY, not the HOW, of Cinematic Composition. Random thoughts.

The generally accepted foundations of filmmaking are lighting, camera movement, and composition. While there are many things to consider in the art and craft of filmmaking, these three practices are foremost. As filmmakers and directors we control what the viewer sees in the frame, how they see it, and when they see it.

Most beginning filmmakers and photographers making the transition to video are overwhelmed with what seems like an extremely steep learning curve and a vast amount of new topics, techniques, equipment, and terms. There is certainly a lot to learn, but there’s no need (and it’s not even possible!) to tackle everything at once.

Something we tend to forget is that we rarely make movies alone. We work with other people, who, while possessing a variety of skill sets and backgrounds, lend their creative and technical minds in a collaborative effort with a common goal. We can get lost within the amount of technical information at our disposal. And we can read inspirational books for years without actually shooting a single frame. The proper balance of both approaches is the key to success, and working with others broadens the knowledge base, enlivens the process, and makes finishing tasks at hand easier.

Gear is a typical entry point: Which camera should I get? Are Micro Four Thirds systems on par with APS-C and Full Frame systems? What’s the best lens? Are LED lights the best go-to solution? Can I increase the production value by simply adding a slider?


These conversations are great to have, and that’s something that we frequently discuss on this site. But equipment alone can only get you so far. Understanding WHY you would use a certain lens, or light, or movement is just as important, if not more so, than HOW you would manage these responsibilities. We don’t watch movies and wish they had used a wider aperture or a lighter tripod. We care about how we are, or are not, moved by the STORY. Were we “pulled into” the screen for the duration of the piece, or did it wash over us like an advertisement?

Filmmaking is tremendously multifaceted, and composition is perhaps the least understood aspect of the process. Composing shots to tell stories with moving images is similar to arranging a composition for a still photo or a painting, but given its diverse and sometimes unique frame sizes, cinema has created its own visual principles. From the same location, and using the same camera and lens combination, we can create contrasting visual elements within the frame to manipulate the viewer’s attention to a specific element and to create compelling compositions.


Using contrasting visual elements to guide the viewer’s attention is usually achieved through lighting, but understanding and applying the most common compositional techniques will put more powerful cinematography tools at your disposal.


How to Color Correct for Skin Tones.

I have found that careful attention to basic color correction principles can help re-calibrate our subjective evaluation of an image to a point where effective adjustment choices can be made. I also find it extremely helpful to get as much practice as possible working on other people’s images, as this helps us become more objective about our own work! I have the good personal fortune of benefiting from the work of my fiancé, the amazing Bobbi Lane, who happens to be a really extraordinary portrait photographer! I will examine my decision making process in a recent color correction of one of her images in this post.


The original image is on the left with the final corrected version on the right. The original isn’t horrible, but it suffers from what I call “pumpkin skin” – just a bit too saturated an orange color. I always use the info panel numbers in Photoshop to help me decide how to approach color correction. The key to evaluating a skin tone is to look at the CMYK numbers at the upper right of the info panel. A good skin tone is all about the ratios of CMY in the secondary color readout. Ideally, yellow and magenta should be closer to each other than either is to cyan – cyan should be between 1/3 and 1/4 of the average value between yellow and magenta, and yellow should be a little higher than magenta – for a fair skinned blond, about 10% higher!


The screenshot above shows a reading from the skin color at the chin – there are two columns of numbers here because I had already added a Curves layer when I did the screenshot, normally there is only one for RGB and CMYK. The two columns are identical at the moment because no adjustment is being made, this allows you to compare adjusted with non-adjusted numbers. As I said, the cyan should not be much lower than 1/4 of the average between magenta and yellow. In the numbers above, that average would be 53 – cyan at 10 is just a little low, not horribly low, but that combined with the slightly elevated yellow (relative to the magenta) confirms my suspicion that the skin is just too colorful. In fact, this skin color is very reminiscent of an artificial tan, spray-on type of color that is sometimes used by body builders in competitions!

In order to correct the skin I want to affect the RGB numbers to get the ratios in CMY to change. If we look straight across from the top row of numbers we can see that R lines up with C – if I want the cyan value to go up, I need to do the opposite to red, the red value has to go down! In this image the red channel is very pale (a higher number in the info panel) if I want the red value to go down, I need the red channel to be darker in the area of the skin)a lower number). I could potentially use a Curves adjustment, targeting a point on the skin, but this point is very high up on the Curve so it will be harder to lower it without adversely affecting other tones.

The trick is to blend in the darker skin tone from the green channel using a Channel Mixer adjustment…


Here 30% of the green channel is blended into the red, replacing part of the red channel to darken, or lower the red value. This sets up the image for the final adjustment, a Curve adjustment raising a point in the blue channel to lower the yellow value just a little bit, resulting in a pinker look to the skin, and a better CMY ration in the color. To see a more detailed step-by-step tutorial on this process go to my original blog post on the subject.

I am teaching all about color correcting for skin tones as part of my Portrait Retouching Intensive at Santa Fe Photo Workshops June 21 & 22nd – sign up here!


The 20 Best Books on Filmmaking.

Over the years I have been steadily collecting the best books on filmmaking. Most of these titles have been thoughtfully recommended by friends and students. A few have been fortuitous purchases inspired by intriguing reviews found on Amazon. And, of course, there are some that have come to find a home on my bookshelf in other mysterious ways.

Best Filmmaking Books_001-2

Moviemaker’s Master Class with my geeky notes.

1. The Oxford History of World Cinema by Edward O’Neill
“This is NOT a Summer reading book. Over 800 pages and (4 pounds), this one is perfect for rainy afternoons while sipping coffee and dreaming away.”

2. In the Blink of an Eye Revised 2nd Edition by Walter Murch
“One of my favorite and most inspiring books. Anyone interested in video editing, sound design, directing or screenwriting should buy this book immediately.”

3. MasterShots 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie by Christopher Kenworthy
“Effective camera techniques to increase the production value of your productions.”

4. The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition by Gustavo Mercado
“Understanding the rules of cinematography and how to successfully break them.”

5. Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics by Michael Rabiger
“An interesting approach (from a director’s persepctive) to script analysis and development.”

6. The Color Correction Handbook: Professional Techniques for Video and Cinema by Alexis Van Hurkman
“Grading is such an important aspect of post-production that understanding the possibilities, and limitations, is key.”

7. The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory, and Practice by Ken Dancyger
“A “precise look at the artistic and aesthetic principles and practices of editing for both picture and sound.””

8. Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player by Robert Rodriguez
“A true inspiration to “stop dreaming and start doing.””

9. Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit by Karen Pearlman
“There are so many ways to cut and present a story. Understanding the right “rhythm” of each story is an essential skill.”

10. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje
“Would you pay $20 to hang out with the editor behind “American Graffiti” “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Godfather,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and “The English Patient?”
Then buy this book.”

Best Filmmaking Books

11. The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V. Mascelli
“First published in 1965 this classic is now more relevant than ever. My go-to textbook on all my Filmmaking Workshops.”

12. Moviemakers’ Master Class: Private Lessons from the World’s Foremost Directors by Laurent Tirard
“Witness the thought process behind Almodovar, Bertolucci, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, John Woo and Woody Allen. Their processes are all very different and all very effective.”

13. Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions by Guillermo del Toro
“Guillermo del Toro’s notebook, the genius behind Hellboy, The Orphanage, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Foreword by James Cameron, afterword by Tom Cruise, and contributions from Neil Gaiman and John Landis, among others.”

14. Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors by Blain Brown
“Getting this book and Amazon’s Instant Video is like getting an MFA in Cinematography.”

15. The Big Picture: Filmmaking Lessons from a Life on the Set by Tom Reilly
“The book covers 50 short, to the point, extremely useful tips that have helped us save an incredibly amount of time and money on pre-production and production. This book is a fantastic resource.”

16. The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers by Mark T. Conard
“A book about the Coen Brothers. Enough said.”

17. Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television by Judith Weston
“Understanding the technical aspects of filmmaking is as important as learning how to communicate with the people you work with, especially when they are NOT professional actors.”

18. Hitchcock (Revised Edition) by Francois Truffaut
“Simply put, this is a book-length conversation between two of the best film directors in history.”

19. The Complete Film Production Handbook by Eve Light Honthaner
“Everything you need to know to set up and run a production. An essential resource if/when you need to work and communicate with much more experienced producers.”

20.Filmmaking Essentials for Photographers: The Fundamental Principles of Transitioning from Stills to Motion by Eduardo Angel (yes, that would be me!)
UPDATE: The PDF version is now available here.

To remain relevant and in demand in today’s visually driven world, image makers must learn to craft both still photographs and motion in order to attract clients. While there are many similarities between photography and cinematography, there are key aspects of shooting motion—such as sound and camera movement, to name just two—that are uncharted territory for most photographers.



These are books that I own, have read multiple times, truly enjoy, and highly recommend. My hope is that they help you sharpen your skills, improve your craft, and give you many hours of joy and wonder.
Here’s the complete list on my top 20 favorite books on filmmaking.

Some of these books are available in audio, which I believe is a FANTASTIC way to learn while commuting. Clicking HERE gets you TWO audiobooks for FREE from Audible.