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The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details

By Abijeet Achar

Being a cinematographer is no easy task, and it’s certainly NOT something you can proclaim out loud and expect it to be true. It takes years of practice, a few bad movies, and a few damn good ones. But by following a cinematographer checklist, you’ll find there are a few tested and true steps to help you take on the task of being a DP.

During my MFA studies at Emerson College, I was given a piece of paper by my cinematography Professor titled “the DP’s checklist.” He told me to keep it in my wallet and take a look at it every time I take on a new project. In this blog post, I’m going to outline those key steps that I still follow today.

Let me preface by saying that this is NOT an all-encompassing list of things to consider as a DP. Go get on a movie set or at least read a book for that. This is a list of the most important questions I ask myself when taking on a project. Take it with a grain of salt, and understand that the list goes far beyond this blog.

1. What is the look you and the Director have decided on for the whole film?

This is the big question. After reading the script and having a discussion with the director, it’s important to get into their mind.

Grab a beer, take a shot of tequila, become best friends.

Ask for comparables and inspiration. These can be movies, music, photographs, paintings, books, and television shows. Absorb all the media you can to understand what the director wants their movie to look and feel like. Once you’ve both come to a conclusion, figure out the tools you need to achieve this look.

Here are three distinctive looks from three very different films.

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

My Indian Rhapsody. Directed by Abijeet Achar, cinematography by Logan J. Freeman, Nicholas Corsano, Abhishek Achar

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

2. What is the ISO of the film/sensor we are using?

In today’s digital realm, it’s easy to ignore the native ISO of a digital sensor. But I implore you to find out what the native ISO is, and USE IT. A camera’s sensor is designed to gather the best possible images at its native ISO. And knowing that, it can change your entire lighting (and grip) loadout.

For example, if you’re shooting on an Alexa Mini or C300 MKII, the native ISO is 800. You will need a strong lighting loadout that can expose to 800. This may include HMI’s, and 2-5k lighting depending on your needs. These cost more to rent and have a much higher power draw.

However, with its dual native ISO, the Panasonic Varicam allows you to shoot at an ISO of 5000. Which means your entire lighting load out could only be LED’s, which have a lower wattage equivalent, are cheaper to rent, and draw much less power than typical fresnels.

The first image below was shot with an ISO of 800, so we needed strong fresnels to achieve this shot. The second shot had an ISO of 3200, so our lighting loadout consisted primarily of LEDs.

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

Malum. Directed by Connor Christensen, cinematography by Abijeet Acha

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

3. How does the schedule of this scene work in the overall flow of the workday?

Let’s be 100% honest, what you imagine in a shot will probably not happen. Unless you’re working with a huge budget. With that being said, we as DP’s are fighting time and money. So be realistic with your shot. Work with the AD in scheduling. Sorry, you might not be able to pull off your zolly-crane-drone shot. So what’s the best way to compromise, and still achieve the mood you want for the scene?

4. Be a location scout.

Do it! When you’re physically on set, it’s much easier to imagine your lighting and framing possibilities. It’s also important to find out electric/rigging options. Is it interior or exterior? If interior, are there large windows? Should we embrace the windows with ND gel or black it out with duvatene?

During a location scout, you can identify all the potential natural sources of light (window, lamp, fireplace, overhead lighting) and ask yourself how you can use these to motivate your lighting concept for the scene.

PRO TIP: use this as an opportunity to storyboard. Bring a DSLR and take photos of potential camera angles you want. Do we see the ceiling or the floor in the shot? This is important to know for hiding lights on the ceiling or running cable on the floor.

5. Shot list! Where does the camera go?

Please, for the love of god, shot list. It’s easy to think, “I want to free myself from the constraints of a list, and shoot what I feel when I arrive on set.” First off, shut up.

Second off, you don’t have time to meander around the set with your $12.99 directors viewfinder app on your spec “RED” smartphone. All you’re doing is granting the AD an aneurism.

Take the time in pre-production to shot list with your director. You’ll be happy you did. And the AD won’t hate you.

6. How many people are in the scene? How much coverage will you need?

What’s the best way to complicate a scene? Add more characters.

Lighting and shot-listing for 1-2 people are simple. There is usually one zone of action, and your line may not change. But when there are multiple characters and actions in the scene, you have to think about eye lines, changing screen direction, and lighting more subjects/zones of action. All of which can influence your camera and lighting needs.

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

Fated to Repeat. Directed by Logan J. Freeman, cinematography by Abijeet Achar

7. What is the dramatic intention of the scene? What is the scene about?

When you figure out what a scene means in the context of the entire narrative, you can make decisions about camera and lighting.

Do we need high angles or low angles to imply power or lack thereof? Do we want to use a long take Steadicam shot to get the audience involved and heighten the sense of realism? Does the lighting need to be contrasty to evoke tension? Or does the lighting need to be soft for a romantic moment?

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

My Indian Rhapsody. Directed by Abijeet Achar, cinematography by Logan J. Freeman, Nicholas Corsano, Abhishek Achar

8. What time of day is the scene supposed to take place during?

If it’s during the day, and you’re shooting during the day, then you need to figure out the best way to fight the sun. If it’s an interior day scene shot at night, you’ll need the right tools to create the illusion of daytime. If it’s a night scene, do you have practicals in your loadout to create motivated lighting sources?

The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details By Abijeet Achar from Zacuto

Aster and Sidney. Directed by Sean Temple, cinematography by Mia Cioffi Henry

9. How do I want to use color?

In our digital age of production and post production, it’s easy to shoot everything neutrally, and then make color decisions in post. But I implore all DP’s and directors to make those decisions prior. It can save time and money in post production.

Color contrast in a shot also adds depth and makes things interesting. Having a daylight interior contrasted with a few hints of amber from practical lamps are interesting. Add some plus green gels to add a seedy element to your night time interior scene of a shady liquor store, contrasted by strong blues from the refrigerator lights.

10. Where does the action (blocking) of the scene take place (props, set design).

Remember this order on set; BLOCK, LIGHT, SHOOT.

Routine and systems are in place for a reason. Block, light, shoot, is an important one. I was once on a student set where production didn’t follow this routine (which I take responsibility for). Chaos ensued, and our schedule was delayed by hours.

Make sure you block the scene so you and your lighting team can see the key zones of actions. Once you see a blocking rehearsal, you can set your lights exactly as you need it, and only make minor tweaks that don’t eat up tons of precious time.

11. Is there lighting continuity that we have to establish in this scene that will match a later scene?

Please make sure you speak with production if there are any future shoots that take place in the same scene. If so, ask your gaffer and the script supervisor to take notes and pictures of lighting placement. The last thing you want to do is review dailies the day of and waste time thinking about how you previously lit the scene.


That is part 1 of my cinematographer checklist. In today’s underpaid and independent realm of filmmaking, it’s easy to take on a project with half of your enthusiasm.

I implore all aspiring DP’s to absorb your entire creative soul into every project.

Even if you’re not making your full rate, treat it as if you are. Even if it’s a corporate gig, treat it like your damn opus. Because every project you take on is something you will wear on your sleeve, and it will be a part of the canon that is your creative work.

Follow these steps and ask the right questions. Then create your own steps and ask new questions. Understand the project, nourish it, love it. In doing so, you will also love your career in the long, treacherous, and beautiful road of being a cinematographer.

Read The Cinematographer Checklist #2: Painting with Light

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One Response to “The Cinematographer Checklist #1: The Devil’s in the Details”

  1. PJ Gaynard on March 29th, 2018 10:33 am

    This article is awesome. This is what I teach my students in my classes. Just reading this makes me know I am not crazy! We don’t know each other but we both speak the same filmmaking language!

About the Author


Born and raised in Durban South Africa, Abijeet Achar is a cinematographer and director of Indian and Mauritian descent. In 2016, Abijeet completed his M.F.A. in Visual and Media Art with a focus in Cinematography at Emerson College in Boston, MA. His thesis film, “My Indian Rhapsody,” had its world premiere at the 2017 Atlanta Film Festival and was a semifinalist in the 44th Student Academy Awards. In addition to co-managing Pineapple Cut Pictures, Abijeet is a national touring cinematographer for singer/songwriter, Corey Smith, and is a certified Steadicam Operator.

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