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It would be very difficult to love movies without appreciating great cinematography. Few things are more thrilling than watching a breathtaking shot on the big screen. Great directors of photography can use images to elicit emotions that the written word could never reach. But how much do you actually know about the craft? “The cinematography was incredible” has to be one of the most common phrases to overhear as you exit a movie theater, but oftentimes the discussion ends there. We might know what an incredible shot looks like, but an understanding of the artistry that goes into it often evades us. Cinematography is an extremely complex subject, but fortunately there are many great books on the art form and the people who practice it. Whether you’re launching a filmmaking career, trying to take your craft to the next level, or simply interested in learning about how movies are made, all of these books are a great place to start.
In many ways, to study cinematography is to study the language of film. Camera angles, cuts, shot composition, lighting, and special effects are the building blocks of motion pictures. While each project might require a different set of skills, great cinematographers need to understand all of them. That makes reading about cinematography a great use of time for anyone who loves movies. These books do more than just teach you how to be a cinematographer. All eight of them demonstrate exactly what makes film unique compared to other art forms.
Some entries are technical, focusing on camera and lighting techniques that can be applied on set. Others take more of a historical perspective, chronicling the lives and stories of great cinematographers from years past. But read any of them and you are likely to walk away with the conclusion that cinematography consists of much more than the things we notice. Beautiful shots can be important, but “ugly” ones that advance the story are every bit as necessary. The ultimate job of a cinematographer is to create a visual world in which the story can naturally take place. Needlessly showing off and drawing attention to your own talent can be every bit as detrimental as an inability to create beautiful images. A cinematographer must be able to think technically and visually, but also possess an excellent understanding of story and a knack for collaboration.
If you’re looking to broaden your knowledge of the technical side of filmmaking, these books are a perfect place to start. And with free shipping from Amazon Prime for $12.99 a month, you can be reading them by this weekend! Plus, you’ll get access to Amazon Prime’s film library, so you can put your newfound knowledge to the test by watching many of the movies discussed in these books. So pick one up today and prepare to see your favorite movies in a new light. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but these books are valuable in their own right.
Legendary film noir cinematographer John Alton first published this manifesto about his art form in 1949, and it has been an essential read ever since. Alton’s meticulous attention to detail is credited for the creation of many Hollywood cinematography tropes we now take for granted. The book is written in layman’s terms, so you don’t need to be a photography expert to enjoy it. It works as both a foundational text in a cinematography education as well as a historical document for lovers of classic movies.
When it comes to film books, anything by Maltin is usually worth reading. In this volume, the legendary critic turns his focus to cinematography, conducting interviews with five directors of photography: Arthur Miller, Hal Mohr, Hal Rosson, Lucien Ballard, and Conrad Hall. The book is heavy on photos and light on technical jargon, making it a great option for someone looking to dip a toe into cinematography.
This classic book is a technical guide for using cameras to create beautiful images, so it might be less interesting to cinephiles simply looking to learn about movies. But if you’re interested in actually doing cinematography, and find yourself starting from square one, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction. Film students have been learning from it since 1973, but it has since been revised twice, so the information is quite current. Malkiewicz focuses more on lighting than shot composition, but the concise information and 200 illustrations make it an endlessly useful resource.
The best cinematographers lead incredibly interesting lives, making indispensable contributions to great films while maintaining the flexibility to collaborate with a variety of directors. Anyone interested in learning more about these often-unknown artists will relish this book by Ellis, which compiles 50 years of his interviews with top cameramen. Featuring the likes of Douglas Slocombe and Gilbert Taylor, it is a delightful read for cinematographers and film historians alike.
“Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors” by Blain Brown
Every book on this list is worth reading, but many of them are heavily focused on either the artistic or technical side of cinematography. However, Brown’s “Cinematography: Theory and Practice,” is very well balanced. Anyone interested in both the creative process that cinematographers go through and the process of executing on set should pick up a copy. And while many of these books have been around for decades and contain timeless knowledge, Brown’s book is much more recent and contains up to date information about today’s equipment.
Holben has been writing essays and articles about his career as a cinematographer for decades, and this collection features 100 of his favorites. In addition to movies, Holben’s essays touch on his experience doing cinematography for television, music videos, commercials, events, and more. This emphasis on practical applications makes this book a favorite of working cinematographers. So no matter what stage of your career you find yourself in, there is something valuable to be learned from Holben’s life and career.
Another great foundational text, this diagram-laden book provides anyone with the fundamentals they need to go out and start making films. Joseph Mascelli does an excellent job of walking newcomers through the language of film, and the way different camera angles and cutting techniques work together to tell a visual story. If you are primarily interested in shot composition, this is the book for you.
Lighting and cinematography are inextricably linked, and it is often hard to distinguish where one craft ends and the other starts. So anyone trying to learn about cinematography would be well served to learn about lighting as well. This book, from “Cinematography” author Malkiewicz, compiles plenty of interesting interviews with cameramen and gaffers that shed light (no pun intended) on the intersection of the two jobs. Cinematographers often receive more credit than lighting designers, so even if you’re just a film fan who wants to learn more about behind the scenes jobs, you’ll enjoy reading this.