I remember when I first started making films how I worked so hard to try and create beautiful cinematic shots. The reality is that there are a lot of moving parts and they all have to be fine tuned to work in harmony. It’s no easy task ensuring every setting and detail is correct before hitting record. While changing a battery, swinging a lens, setting the focus, choosing a frame, checking audio levels, and correcting the exposure — all while under pressure from the crew and contributor — it is in fact entirely possible to forget to hit record altogether! To overcome all of this, I work with a system called ‘The 5 F Framework’ for achieving cinematic shots.

Individual elements laid out in this article may seem simple on their own, but when you add up all the variables, you’ll find a lot of ‘little things’ that can go wrong. This is why the ‘5 F’ framework is so helpful. It’s a 5-step checklist that you can stick to the back of your camera, write on your hand, or save to memory.

It’s been 15 years since I learned this technique, and it stills helps me to this day. If something doesn’t feel quite right about a shot, I run the checklist through my head before hitting record to see if any of the 5 points can be improved upon. Try it for yourself and let me know how you get on.

Step 1: Focal Length

The focal length refers to the ‘size’ of the lens. Broadly speaking:

0-18mm Fish Eye
18-35mm Wide Shot
35-70mm Mid Shot
70mm+ Telephoto

​The focal length you choose will depend on your distance to the subject and how much of the frame you want it to fill. From a fixed distance, a 24mm lens might be used for an establishing shot. However, by moving your camera further away and selecting a longer lens (e.g. 50mm), you can achieve the same ‘frame size’ with a very different result. For more on choosing and buying lenses, see this article.

​A telephoto lens will make objects in frame feel closer together, whereas a wide angle lens will seem to move them further apart. In this example, different focal lengths are used but the framing is maintained. Notice how as the lenses get longer, the subject and background appear closer together.

Comparing focal depths with the same framing

50mm is roughly the same as what the human eye sees. Try not to fall into the trap of shooting everything on a mid shot. Instead, experiment with as many focal lengths as possible. By adding more variation in shot sizes to your sequence, your edit will become easier and the results will be more visually interesting.​

Focal length also affects the depth of field. As you move closer to your subject, the area that’s in focus gets smaller. So if you maintain a constant aperture and frame size, you’ll notice that a wide lens has a shallower depth of field than a telephoto.

In this example, notice how the extremely wide focal length distorts the perspective and helps create a shallow depth of field. When filming people, the lens you pick can narrow or widen the face, so consider what works best for your subject before you choose.

How lens choice affects face shape

Step 2: Framing

As well as making your shots aesthetically pleasing, framing (or composition) is a key storytelling device that can be used to control your audiences’ focus within an image. By carefully considering elements like angle, depth, blocking, and focal points, you can use frames to enhance your story.

The ‘rule of thirds’ is a simple and fundamental technique to create images that are easy on the eye by using ‘sweet spots’ in the frame. Place two imaginary vertical lines, evenly spaced across your image, and two evenly spaced horizontal lines. Where the lines cross (at 4 points in the image), you will find the ‘sweet spots’ for framing. These are the points in the image where the viewers’ eyes are naturally drawn. ​​Try placing your most important elements in the frame on an intersection. With faces, this is usually an eye (as shown in the example).​

Rule of thirds example

Closed and open frames play a part in most compositions involving people. The presence of open or negative space to the side of your subject can be used thematically. It can also tell your audience more about your characters. The approach you choose will depend on how you want your audience to feel.

​In this extreme example from “Mr. Robot”, having the character look directly into the edge of the frame has an uncomfortable and disorientating effect. Combining this with the empty space and pillar down the middle creates a sense of isolation and loneliness that’s synonymous with both the protagonist and the show’s unique style.

Example of negative space framing

Step 3: F-stop

F-stop is the number used to determine the aperture value of a lens. This affects your exposure and depth of field.

A low f-stop number, like f/2.8, lets more light reach the sensor by opening up a hole in the lens (increasing exposure). A higher f-stop number, like f/8.0, lets less light in by closing down the hole (decreasing exposure).

On a film or video camera, you should be controlling your exposure primarily through the use of a Neutral Density filter (explained later on), so the primary purpose of changing your f-stop is to control your depth of field. Once you’ve set your focal point, this is the distance that remains visibly sharp in front of and behind your subject.

There are four factors that affect your depth of field: aperture, distance to subject, focal length, and sensor size. This table shows the priority order, with aperture often being the easiest to adjust and sensor size being the hardest (or least convenient).

Shallower DoF Greater DoF
Aperture A lower aperture (e.g. f/1.4) A higher aperture (e.g. f/11)
Distance to subject Closer to subject Further from subject
Focal length A longer focal length (e.g. 100mm) A wider focal length (e.g. 24mm)
Sensor size If all the above remain the same, a larger sensor If all the above remain the same, a smaller sensor

Aperture hole size diagramA low f-stop, like f/2, produces a shallower depth of field than a high f-stop, like f/8.0. You are more likely to use a low f-stop in a portrait or interview situation where it’s desirable to have the subject sharp and the background soft. In contrast, for a landscape shot it’s often preferable to have a greater depth of field so that the whole image is in focus.

Comparing high and low apertures

​Step 4: Focus

Setting your focus means adjusting your lens to select the point in your image that you want to be sharp. Unlike photographers, videographers can’t rely on autofocus.

Although a low f-stop produces a nice and soft background, the resulting shallow depth of field requires precision. On large scale productions, there are dedicated focus pullers whose job it is to make sure that everything is ‘sharp’. Even with the expensive gear, this requires years of experience to get right! Most low budget productions will have neither the luxury of a dedicated focus puller nor the high-end lenses that are smooth and precise.

Canon L series stills lenses are the ‘go to’ lenses for budget filmmakers. These lenses are reasonably priced and produce good images (see more on lenses here). The difference is that they’re intended more for automatic focus systems than manual operation.

With this in mind, we need to make certain compromises to ensure that we get a sharp image. An unintentional soft image is not possible to fix in post, and it’s infinitely frustrating to have to throw out shots that you need in the edit.

One of the first things you can do to make your life easier is close down that f-stop! Where f/2.8 might produce the most desirable soft background, closing down to f/4.0 could make all the difference between a usable shot and a useless one. This is key with doing handheld work or tracking a moving subject. As a rule of thumb, f/2.8 can look great for a static subject (like an interview), but be careful with movement. When working with a moving subject, try ‘closing down’ the aperture to f/4.0 or f/5.6 to give yourself more room for error.

Pulling focus on camera

Step 5: Filters

There are hundreds of different ways to manipulate your image with filters. They can come in the form of glass that goes in front of your lens, or, more commonly these days, as a post-production digital effect. Here we’ll take a look at physical filters.

The most useful filter for any video camera is an ND or ‘Neutral Density’ filter. The ND filter gives you control over your exposure by reducing the amount of light entering the camera. Shooting outside on a bright day often calls for an ND filter. Unlike stills photography, in which you can adjust your shutter speed to compensate for excess light, your shutter must remain constant in videos. To control your image and maintain your desired aperture, you’ll need ND to reduce light hitting the sensor.

ND filters can come as fixed numbers (ND2 gives one stop of light reduction, ND4 gives two stops, and so on) or ‘variable ND’ which allows you to rotate a glass element to your desired number of stops. Variable ND filters give you extra flexibility and, when used right, can allow you to adjust your exposure while filming (without disrupting your process). (Watch out for cheap ones below £100, though, as they can negatively affect your image).

Another useful filter is the polariser. These are great when you need to manage bright areas in your image, such as clouds, reflections, or glares. Polarisers work by restricting certain light wavelengths from entering the lens. The angle of the filter relative to the light source will determine the strength of the effect. When shooting a sunrise or sunset, you may find that the intense sunlight hitting your lens makes the sky look washed out. Placing a polarising filter in front of the lens will create more contrast in the clouds and other areas to produce a more pleasing image. A polariser can also be used to remove haze and reflections from glass.

Example of polarizing filter with clouds

There are both round and square filters available. Square filters will require a camera rig and matte box to slide in front of the lens. Once you have this, you’ll only need one of each (since the filters are universal).

Round filters come in a variety of sizes, like 67mm, 77mm, and 82mm, and will only fit the corresponding lens. They are usually cheaper, easier and smaller to carry around, but you must weigh up the cost depending on what lenses you have and whether or not you will be using a matte box.

Filter Effect Utility
Neutral Density (ND) Controls exposure Essential. Allows you more creative control
Polarising Adds contrast and detail in bright situations and can reduce reflections and glare Very useful for sunrises, sunsets, clouds, glass, and water
UV No notable change to the image Great for protecting lenses
Graduated ND Filter Transitions from high ND to low ND (top to bottom) Balancing exposure where the background is much brighter than the foreground, e.g. Sunrise and sunset

Cheat Sheet

This table outlines the 5 F’s to use as a reference.

Value Effect
Focal Length Size of subject within frame, and perceived distance between background and foreground. Longer lenses make subjects appear closer, and wider lenses create greater separation
Framing Story, emotion, subtext, and aesthetic
F-stop Depth of field and exposure
Focus Sharpness of image
Filters Manipulating light to control exposure or add effects

These 5 elements together provide a foundation for every camera setup you’ll ever make. Practice them repeatedly until they’re saved to memory and you will become a more effective shooter.

The Secret Sauce

Once you’re comfortable with all 5, I suggest adding one more ingredient. A question that works likes a secret sauce;

“How can I make this shot more interesting?”

Don’t settle for what you have. Go through the process and rethink each of the 5 elements. Decide if there’s anything that can be improved.

Would a wider lens at a closer distance be more imposing? Would a lower angle give the character more authority? Would this shot benefit from a polarising filter to add more contrast to the sky?

A tweak here and a tweak there. Each refinement makes your shot that little bit better. Your sequences start to look more impressive, your work improves, and you become a better filmmaker.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful. If you did and you’d like to receive occasional updates with my best content, then consider subscribing with the box below.

I’d love to know what you think of this post. Leave your feedback and questions in the comments section. 

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