Why Style Matters

What is a DP’s style? It’s easy to recognize but hard to define. Join me for a short investigation into what it is and why it matters.

I’ve been working with a branding consultant to figure out what my “brand” is. A brand defines who I am as a DP: what I promise to do and how I deliver on that promise. A large part of a cinematographer’s brand has to do with what they shoot, not necessarily how they shoot it, and that’s been my biggest problem: it would be very easy for me to market myself if I was the “car guy” or the “comedy guy” or the “slice of life guy,” but I don’t shoot any one thing often enough to say that it’s my mainstay. I get hired because directors like working with me personally and they know they can throw nearly any kind of spot at me and I’ll deliver the right look every time.

Trust me, it’s a lot easier to be the “car guy.”

Creativity is a tremendously hard thing to quantify, and yet producers and directors want to know what they’re getting before they buy it. They want to see that a DP can do one or two things really well, and then they feel confident that a DP they haven’t worked with before can definitely deliver. That’s why tabletop DPs get stuck doing lots of tabletop, or visual effects DPs shoot lots of green screen and background plates: they can show that they do that really well, so that’s what they’ll be hired to do.

Director of photography Owen Roizman, ASC dealt with this early on in his career when he was hired to shoot The French Connection, a down-and-dirty film about cops pushing the limits of the law to capture a heroin kingpin in New York City. At that time he was known for shooting gorgeous and glitzy fashion commercials, and the studio was very nervous that they’d end up with a very pretty film about the east coast narcotics trade. They didn’t.

“I’m a cinematographer,” he said in an interview. “I should be able to create any look.” (I believe this interview is on the Visions of Light DVD.)

Cinematographers definitely have looks. Some are quite subtle, and others are like glowing fluorescent fingerprints on a crime scene. It’s interesting to see when a cinematographer who is known for one specific look knocks it out of the park with another, but it’s also interesting to see where they fail. In particular I’ve noticed that some tabletop and miniatures cinematographers have a hard time lighting and framing shots with people, for example, although quite a few live action DPs would be hard pressed to shoot tabletop or miniatures. Some DPs are ideally suited to one or two forms of cinematography, and if they enjoy the work then they can build a career off of doing those few things really, really well.

Still photographers are the epitome of this. Many craft a look and guard it zealously: it becomes their brand, and as long as that look is hot then they’ll keep working. Everyone knows who does the “desaturated fashion” work or the “unlit spontaneous executive portrait” work. I don’t know if this is still the case but years ago a still photographer showed me a book that’s released every year that’s basically a directory of who’s hot in the stills world. Each photographer gets one page to show off their work. Ad agencies could easily thumb through the book and say, “That’s the look I want! Call this one!”

There’s an old joke about the life cycle of a DP’s career:

  1. Who’s John Smith?
  2. Get me John Smith!>/li>
  3. Get me someone like John Smith!>/li>
  4. Who’s John Smith?

As a rule, cinematographers don’t like to be pigeonholed. We like to do different things. I’m not a “tabletop guy” but I can shoot it fairly well. I’ve shot a lot of VFX plate work for compositing. I love lighting faces for drama and glamor. I’ve shot comedy. I’ve shot cars on a stage. I can do a lot of things well. In a way that’s good for business as potential clients have an excellent chance of seeing something on my reel that relates to their next project. On the other hand I can’t show that I’ve done one thing over and over and over again, and that’s a problem with new clients.

When I sought to define my brand I started to think a lot about style. As a kid I fell in love with composition by watching, of all things, British television on PBS. The British compositional style and blocking were very different to U.S. TV and that really caught my eye. Over time I grew to recognize styles associated with different nationalities: U.S. cinematographers were fantastic at lighting but their compositions tended to be less striking than what the British or Australian DPs tended to do, which was to really go really wide or really tight with not a lot in between. Australian films were similar, although occasionally the compositions were even stronger than what the British were generally doing. French cinematographers did a lot of “big and bright” lighting, even for dark scenes; they’d let the background go dark but they over lit the foreground. They also had a strong compositional base. Canadian films were a bit more American in style. Italian cinematographers loved their zoom lenses.

There were a number of DPs whose styles I could spot easily as a young filmmaker. I used to be able to spot work by Conrad Hall, ASC, Alex Thomson, BSC, Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC, Alan Hume, BSC, John Seale ASC/ACS, Russel Boyd, ACS, David Watkins and Dean Cundey, ASC just by turning on the TV and watching for a few seconds. I could certainly pick out which country the film was shot in.

Here’s an example of what turned me on visually when I first saw this at the age of 12 (in reruns, thank you):

Notice the compositions in depth: there’s a definite foreground and background in each shot, and some have a defined mid ground as well. Objects in the foreground frame people in the background. Most of the lenses used are short and wide, regardless of closeup or wide shot. There’s very little “coverage” here: each shot takes a portion of the story and moves it forward in a very specific way. There’s not a lot of visual ping pong being played, where the editor’s only real option is to cut back and forth between talking heads and a wide shot as was the case in U.S. television at the time.

Here’s another example made 17 years later:

The sequence opens with a lot of movement: dolly shots that range from wide shots to very tight ones, and edits that jump between close and wide. There’s lot of composing in depth where a character walks away from the camera, up to the camera and past the camera. At some point the scene does end up bouncing between closeups but they have a purpose: they start wide, then move to medium, and finish in extreme closeup as the scene becomes more intense.

I absolutely love this way of shooting. It’s become a part of how I think visually. I don’t reproduce it exactly as this particular look is a bit dated, but framing the background through the foreground, showing depth through camera movement or blocking, and pushing perspective beyond normal limits are definitely components of my individual style.

National styles have merged over the last two decades so it’s very difficult now to look at a film and state where it was made based solely on the imagery. (The only exception to this rule is DPs from Nordic countries. They have a very distinct, soft yet contrasty style that really exploits color contrast.) There are fewer DPs whose work I can identify on sight alone. I can still spot Dean Cundey’s work, and Don Burgess, ASC has a very distinctive way of using fill light that I can usually spot, but otherwise… it’s really tough. Every once in a while I’ll find myself watching something and thinking, “I bet so-and-so DP shot this…” and occasionally I’m right. I can definitely tell when a TV show has changed DPs. (I find it much harder to pick out second unit work from first unit work, probably because what they shoot is often so different. Also, second unit DPs take great pride in matching first unit photography, and rightfully so.

Take season 1 of House of Cards, for example. The original series DP lit very softly and naturally, and while there wasn’t often a lot of bright/dark contrast there was often a fair bit of color contrast in each scene. (Remember what I said above about the Nordic style of lighting? He’s Danish.) He lit the show in such a way that it looked as if the practicals alone lit the shots (in some cases they most likely were!) which is a very low contrast but subtly rich look. The DP who took over for episode 12 switched from color contrast to exposure contrast, working less with color and reducing fill a bit to make the shadows darker.

These two DPs also direct the light in different ways: the original DP’s lighting was almost directionless on occasion but the replacement DP really emphasized the direction of the light over color contrast.

It’s interesting to see how the two DPs currently shooting True Blood vary in style. This is not a show that specializes in subtle looks, and then there are subtle differences in styles between episodes. One DP tends to emphasize top light, so while there’s usually a soft light on the floor for faces the fill is generally overhead–and it feels like it. The other DP tends to light from lower in the frame, bouncing lights off tables and floors. The top light is still there in each set but it’s much less noticeable in his episodes. It’s a presence but not a player.

It’s fascinating how we all view the same things so differently. What we prefer and what we dislike is a large part of our personal “brand.” Both audiences and employers tune into this, but not consciously. All they know is there’s something about a DP’s style that intrigues them. They often don’t know what it is… but we need to know.

That’s why potential employers pay so much attention to a DP’s niche. Rather than pay close artistic attention to the details of how they see light they focus instead on the broader strokes of a DP’s style. That’s understandable as not everyone has a well-developed artistic eye for lighting and composition–which is why DPs stay employed!–but it can be frustrating when a DP wants to break away from doing one kind of work over and over. Or, in my case, my brand is simply that I create really interesting looks no matter what the style–and that’s much harder to sell because it’s a finer stroke than most people are able to see. They can feel it, and once I’ve worked with a new client I’m in to stay, but getting that far is hard when you don’t have one thing you can point to and say, “I’m all about THAT!”

When I started out in this industry I was told that if I found a niche and stuck with it I’d work all the time. I’ve broken that rule and I’m quite happy to have done so, but it is interesting to try to find new people to hire me without being able to tell them exactly what it is that they’re buying. They’d prefer that I shot mostly one type of pretty picture as opposed to pretty pictures of… well, everything.

I know a DP in Los Angeles who wants to shoot nothing but stunts so he calls himself “The Action DP.” Producers and directors know exactly what kind of job to hire him for. That’s powerful.

Branding and style are two different things. One shows what you can definitely pull off because you’ve done it a thousand times, and the other has to do with how you see the world as an individual. They are powerfully interconnected. The images I enjoy most are the kind that I try to create, and that’s style. Branding is how other people define you… or, if you want to shoot specific things or with a specific look, how you define yourself.

A good DP should be able to create any look, but underneath that look there will always be evidence of how that DP sees the world. No matter what style we create there’s always some unchanging bit of us behind it that says, “I like this more than that. This is the way the shot looks best to me.” In a world where a lot of the creative focus has shifted from the cameraperson to the camera it’s more important than ever to manifest some sort of style, or brand, that makes directors want to work with you personally–if only to show that it’s not just about the camera after all.

About the Author

Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After spending his teenage years shooting short films on 8mm film he ventured to Los Angeles where he earned a degree in film production and then worked on feature films, TV series, commercials and music videos as a camera assistant, operator, and DP.

Art now lives in his native San Francisco Bay Area where he shoots commercials, visual effects, virals, web banners, mobile, interactive and special venue projects. He is a regular consultant to, and trainer for, DSC Labs, and has periodically consulted for Sony, Arri, Element Labs, PRG, Aastro and Cineo Lighting. His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of SMPTE and the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC.

Art Adams
Director of Photography
Twitter: @artadams


About The Author

Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects.   When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. His clients have included Sony, Arri, Canon, Tiffen, Schneider Optics, PRG, Cineo Lighting, Element Labs, Sound Devices and DSC Labs.   His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE.

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