For every production, there are existing sets, and then there are additional set layers whose creation depends upon harnessing those sets’ light sources.

Frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski understands this, and wields his lenses, filters and light sources accordingly. In the video essay below by wolfcrow, “Understanding the Cinematography of Janusz Kaminski,” the “primary characteristic of his style—[that] he doesn’t use light to represent reality, but to create an atmosphere,” is broken down into terms that navigate the staples of the cinematographer’s iconic shooting scheme.

Some key takeaways:

  • Kaminski “uses light in blobs or layers, not very defined, but always with character.”
  • To keep up with the quick-on-his-feet Spielberg, who often works with 20 to 30 set-ups per day, Kaminski “lights in such a way as to give Spielberg an almost unlimited freedom in blocking.”
  • Kaminski’s “primary weapon” is his well-known use of the backlight “as a second key light, and uses smoke or haze to spread the light. Haze becomes its own light source and further lowers contrast due to flare.”
  • With exteriors, Kaminski “chooses to backlight his subjects against the sun. This method has one side effect that is another Janusz signature: the super-hot rim, or hair light. Very rarely do you get the opportunity to overpower the sun, so he lets his rim light blow out. This carries on into his interior work as well, which gives his interiors and exteriors a sort of continuity.”
  • Kaminski uses “every kind of diffusion filter there is, and nets on his lenses, to force the light to bloom and further lower contrast.”
  • To find the right color, Kaminski “also uses CTO and CTS gels a lot. When he uses orange, it’s always a strong orange. Whatever contrast he loses, he brings back with ENR in the lab.”
  • Unlike Kaminski’s backlight, “his key light is always focused on the character. Not only is he adamant the audience should know where the key is coming from, but he must also ensure the subject is the brightest part of the frame.”

There’s plenty more invaluable insights and information on cinematographic technique throughout the video, which is well worth any DP spending six minutes of their day to mine from. Check it out and let us know what you think in the comments below. MM