In today’s modern and digital world, learning something is easy if you put in the time and know where to look. Almost all knowledge is just a click away, either in the form of a website, article, or video.
But this cornucopia of knowledge can come with its own pitfalls as we must navigate a fine line between truth and outright lies and something in between.
That’s why curating your own source of educators is important, and for cinematographers, Jay Holben has been a wonderful source for learning how to craft your next project.
His most recent book, American Cinematographer’s Shot Craft: Lessons, Tips & Techniques on the Art and Science of Cinematography, is an amazing collection of all this digital info, all in one book.
But what’s in it, and why should you make this book a part of your library? Let’s dig into a copy and find out.
Who is Jay Holben?
Based out of Los Angeles, Jay Holben is an independent director, producer, and educator who has authored three books on cinematography (and lenses).
He was also the contributing technical editor for American Cinematographer Magazine, an Associate member of the ASC, a faculty instructor for the Global Cinematography Institute, and has multiple film credits under his belt.
He also wrote the Cine Lens Manual with Christopher Probst, ASC, which was one of my favorite non-fiction books of 2022 (I’m a gear nerd).
Suffice it to say that Holben has a wealth of knowledge to share with creatives in the entertainment community and has been one of the few educators I’ve used to curate my education funnel.
His Shot Craft series for American Cinematographer Magazine explored the technical side of cinematography and included topics such as lighting, optics, and practical workflows.
Now, Holben has published a curated selection of the first five years of the Shot Craft series in one book.
Five Years of Shot Craft
While I went to school film school for screenwriting, my entire technical knowledge base was acquired through hands-on training or self-education via No Film School and the myriad of creatives online.
But having a reference book for all the things I’ve learned or for filling my knowledge gaps is equally important as I move forward as a filmmaker.
I’ve been reading the American Cinematographer’s Shot Craft: Lessons, Tips & Techniques on the Art and Science of Cinematography for the past month, and it’s been a boon to my technical toolkit.
Here are a few of my favorite parts that are covered in the book.
Chapter 2: Formats
I won’t lie, I’m a bit obsessed with formats. From film to digital and the different frame sizes that make up the visual medium, it’s been a cornerstone of my creative process. I think of the world in shapes, and having a concrete understanding of my frame, and how to achieve it, is how I begin all my projects.
In Chapter 2, Holben discusses different aspect ratios and how they came to be. It wasn’t that someone decided we should all shoot in 1:33 or 16:9. These formats grew from the technical limitations of technology or from a need to better utilize the small piece of film initially used for cinema.
I never completely knew how the many different formats we use today came to be. And while having this knowledge feels unnecessary, it creates a foundation for now cinema (and video) may continue to develop in the future.
Here’s a small but meaty history lesson from Chapter 2:
“During the 10 years following This Is Cinerama, from 1952 to 1962 , more than 20 different film formats competed for industry dominance. Paramount cropped off the top and bottom of the 1.33:1 frame to create the wider 1.66:1 aspect ratio for titles such as Shane. Todd-AO, a 70mm format with an aspect ratio of 2.20.1, was used on features such as Oklahoma!, Around the World in 80 Day, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70 used anamorphic lenses with 65mm film to create a 2.76:1 aspect ratio for Raintree County, Ben-Hur, and others.”
If you don’t think a history lesson will make you a better filmmaker, I’m going to argue that you’re wrong. With how easy it is today to obtain amazing camera tools, we sometimes forget the why and how of how they were created. Learning the history of our medium helps us develop the language all filmmakers need to utilize when working together.
Chapter 4: Lighting & Electricity
Two of my other favorite things when working on my projects are the lenses and lighting I choose. But just turning on a softbox, as some YouTube creatives tend to do, isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.
How to shape light, understanding your electricity needs (and limitations), and how your lens choice affects your story are absolutely crucial. And while there are many rules to follow, learning and implementing them is only the first step. We must also learn how to break them.
Chapter 4: Lighting & Electricity is the largest part of Holben’s Shot Craft. In it, he covers everything from Photometrics, Color Theory, and diffusion to reflections, the grip truck, and the wonderful (and deceptive) world of LEDs.
Chapter 5: Optics
This chapter alone is worth the entire price of admission and gives cinematographers, gaffers, and electricians a wealth of knowledge to dig into. With the rise of LEDs, newer filmmakers often forget the limitations and obstacles that we battled when using tungsten, so I urge folks to look beyond the marketing jargon and social media creatives to better understand the tools they are working with.
While we’re here, Shot Craft is a good place to start.
Much like The Cine Lens Manual, Chapter 5: Optics covers many things filmmakers need to know about glass. When should you use cine lenses, and when are still lenses applicable? What are the pros and cons of each?
What about neutral density filters, polarizers, or flairs? How should you implement those tools into your workflow?
Sure, you can watch about a dozen videos on YouTube or read a bunch of articles online to understand these tools, but Shot Craft offered me a holistic education on these topics. Nothing in the filmmaking world exists in a vacuum. Every tool we use is dependent on something else.
Those are just three chapters from Shot Craft. On their own, they are an amazing starting point for cinematographers (and other creatives). But from what I’ve read, Shot Craft is also a great resource for veterans.
The other chapters in Holben’s book cover fundamental concepts like using film and script analysis, learning all about exposure, location scouting and traveling, filmmaking techniques, and building relationships.
If you’re a creatives just starting their journey, a copy of American Cinematographer’s Shot Craft: Lessons, Tips & Techniques on the Art and Science of Cinematography can be your best friend. If you’re a veteran, it’ll be like seeing an old friend.
Whatever your needs are, as filmmakers, we should never stop learning. If we do, we risk becoming a relic of a different time.