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Creating a film is both an art and a science—referred to as cinematography. Since the first motion picture was created in 1888, cinematography has greatly evolved. What was once silent and black and white is now digital, full color, and enhanced with sophisticated visual effects and scores of music. 

For a look into cinematography background and evolution, we’ve rounded up a brief history of cinematography. We explore the most important eras in film creation as well as the movement from black and white to color production. If you’re interested in film, this is the perfect place to start. 

cinematography history

What is Cinematography?

Cinematography refers to the art of capturing images on film or, more commonly today, as digital files. A cinematographer—whose title has shifted to director of photography (or “DP” for short) in the modern era—handles lighting, camera and lens selection, and the exposure and framing of shots, all while overseeing the work of many supporting crewmembers. The DP is ultimately responsible for the unique look and feel of a film.

DPs don’t work in a vacuum, however. All of their creative choices must also fulfill a larger aesthetic vision that is established by the film’s director. That’s why the working relationship between director and DP is crucial to the creative success of a film.  

The History of Cinematography

To expand your cinematography background, you have to understand where cinematography started—and how it evolved into what it is now. 

The Early Years

The history of cinematography began in the late 1880s, when people began combining multiple consecutive photos to create the illusion of a motion picture. The earliest surviving motion picture is the “Roundhay Garden Scene,” which was created in 1888 and is just 2.11 seconds long. 

However, the invention of cinematography is often credited to Louis and Auguste Lumière, who created the first motion-picture apparatus—a camera and projector—which was first used publicly in 1895. 

From there, film evolved rapidly in the early 20th century. The early years of narrative film were characterized by experimentation and exploration as filmmakers strived to develop a visual language for storytelling despite technical limitations, like the absence of sound before 1929. Early innovators like Edwin S. Porter (The Great Train Robbery, 1902) and George Méliès (A Trip to the Moon, 1903) were among the first to realize film’s potential but tended to handle most aspects of filmmaking on their own without the benefit of full creative collaborators.

George Méliès’  A Trip to the Moon  in 1902 was one of the first films to realize the medium’s creative potential.
George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902 was one of the first films to realize the medium’s creative potential.

Film’s first great leap forward arrived with the creative partnership between director D. W. Griffith and cinematographer Billy Bitzer. The duo worked together from 1908 to 1924 and made nearly 500 films. They are credited with originating essential film techniques including the close-up, fade-out, soft focus, and backlighting.

Working together on films like Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation (which rightly inspired a century’s worth of public outrage for its heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan), Griffith and Bitzer transformed the medium into an expressive art form. So symbiotic and complete was their partnership that historians have a hard time separating their individual contributions to the craft, but there’s no arguing that they played a key role in the early evolution of film.

The Studio Era

Cinematography entered the studio era (often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood) after the addition of sound. Five major studios dominated U.S. film production: Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, MGM, and 20th Century Fox. Each had its own aesthetic for which it was known and loved. For example, Warner Bros. specialized in gangster movies and introduced tough guys like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, while RKO served up elegant musicals starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Directors and DPs working within the studio system were expected to adhere to each studio’s established visual style or risk losing their jobs. Their work had to be of the highest quality without calling attention to itself or distracting audiences from the story. For all its limitations, this approach resulted in countless studio-era masterpieces such as Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz.

 And those restraints eventually led to earthshaking innovation in the form of director Orson Welles’ and DP Gregg Toland’s Citizen Kane. Toland’s experiments with lighting and lenses resulted in the development of deep focus, which created a depth of field that allowed all elements of a complex shot to be seen simultaneously. This singular breakthrough in Citizen Kane allowed Welles to push storytelling on film into the modern era. 

The 1941 release of  Citizen Kane  caused an instant sensation.
The 1941 release of Citizen Kane caused an instant sensation.

The Modern Age

The 1950s and 1960s brought an era of big-screen spectacle as Hollywood attempted to distinguish itself from the new medium of television. Widespread use of color and new ultra-widescreen formats, including CinemaScope and Cinerama, inspired the creation of historical epics like The Ten Commandments and Lawrence of Arabia. Hollywood’s leading DPs adapted to changing times by mastering new technologies in pursuit of epic grandeur.

One of the greatest shifts in the history of cinematography arrived as part of the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A wave of young DPs entered the profession as the old guard retired and union rules were relaxed to allow new memberships. Their timing was perfect, as a wave of visionary young directors had also entered the fray to make mind-blowing, era-defining films.

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Peter O’ Toole in  Lawrence of Arabia,  a grand, historic epic that used new technology to push cinematography to new heights.
Peter O’ Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a grand, historic epic that used new technology to push cinematography to new heights.

Together, teams like Martin Scorsese and Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver), Robert Altman and Paul Lohmann (Nashville), Francis Ford Coppola and Gordon Willis (The Godfather), Mike Nichols and Robert Surtees (The Graduate), and Steven Spielberg and Bill Butler (Jaws) bucked long-held Hollywood restrictions on methodology and film content, defied industry conventions, and found new ways to artistically contribute to the language of film. The extraordinary work of all these artists (and many others of the time) helped create a new era of independent film that continues to this day.

Evolution of Cinematography 

The history of cinematography was driven largely by advances in technology, photography, and production equipment. As new tools and technologies emerged, cinematographers were able to push the limits and create breakthrough films. Here’s a look at some of the most notable advances through the years. 

Black and White

From the very first motion picture in the 1880s, films were mostly monochrome—meaning they were shot in a single color or tone. Most times, that meant that the film was produced in black and white, since colored film bases were more expensive. 

Prior to the late 1980s, most films were in black and white, until color processes took off in the 2000s.
Prior to the late 1980s, most films were in black and white, until color processes took off in the 2000s.

Color

The first movies in color weren’t actually shot in color. Rather, they were shot monochrome and then colored by hand or machine. Many people think the Wizard of Oz was the first movie with this type of coloring, but in fact, there were quite a few others that came before it, including Annabelle Serpentine Dance in 1985. 

The first natural color processes were introduced in the early 1900s. Those motion picture processes—starting with kinemacolor and evolving to Technicolor, Kodachrome, and Eastmancolor—allowed cinematographers to shoot films in color without using post-filming colorization techniques. 

Digital 

Prior to the 2000s, movies were shot entirely on film. However, as the entertainment industry began transitioning to digital media and storage, the film industry began to follow suit. While some forms of digital film production were introduced as early as the 1980s, digital cinematography didn’t really take off until the early 2000s. Around 2010, digital became the primary medium for filmmaking, and in 2013, Paramount became the first major movie studio to distribute movies to theaters in a digital format—eliminating film completely. 

Digital has become the primary medium for filmmaking, replacing film.
Digital has become the primary medium for filmmaking, replacing film.

As with so many creative fields, new technologies have greatly expanded cinematographers’ toolkits—and blown open the possibilities of what they can create. (And that doesn’t even brush the surface of powerful post-production, which can enable DPs to conjure just about any look, feel, or visual element that a director can imagine.) 

 As the industry continues to develop, taking a look back at cinematography background and history can remind us of how far the art has come—and inspire us to keep building toward even more advanced possibilities. 

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