When I started exploring the seemingly endless world of film in my twenties, I initially followed only directors. In addition, due to my interest in sound and music, I watched many movies solely for their music scores and sound design. Very quickly though, I realized that cinematographers are a very interesting breed worth following even more than directors. In my opinion, of course.
I found myself enjoying movies that could lack in direction and story as long as they were visually captivating. Not that it belongs in that grouping, but the one film that best defines my cinematic taste is “Koyaanisqatsi”. It’s a perfect union of dynamic Philip Glass’ music and the most striking and at the time innovative cinematography by Ron Fricke.
Years later, when I continued binge-watching loads of VHS tapes from Blockbuster or five-at-a-time DVDs that would arrive in the mail from Netflix, I discovered many other cinematographers. Some were active at the time and there were many more to be found in the rich history of film.
I learned that Dziga Vertov had the first Qatsi ideas way back in the 1920s! Then I fell in love with Bergman’s DP Nykvist, Kurosawa’s Nakai, Wells’ Toland and Metty, and the amazing works by Vittorio Storaro who’s still active at the time of this writing.
Soon came Doyle and Khondji, and these days you have outstanding masters such as Lubezki and Deakins. And whatever name you bring up, there are ten others that have absolutely earned being mentioned. So there’s little point in trying to make an ordered list of any kind.
I guess what I’m doing here is establishing what we’re talking about. When I say cinematography, this is what I have in mind. We are not talking about shooting videos of your kids and weddings – I have another review about that – no matter how cinematic you want it to look. What we could be talking about is you making your own indie short or a music video.
Of course, there are so many crossovers between these topics – directing, filmmaking, cinematography, even some videography…
What I will attempt to do here is point out the best cinematography courses online. As you can imagine, the choices are relatively limited as this is a hands-on skill. But luckily, there are many aspects of it that can be learned online. And don’t underestimate how much you can learn during your downtime by watching the works of the great masters, both old and new.
Best Online Cinematography Courses
I like to provide choices for as many different budgets and needs and with that in mind, let’s start with SkillShare. While their courses may not be as comprehensive and some on other platforms, you will always get tons of value from their membership payment model.
If you are anything like me, you may actually prefer to get different views from different instructors who also talk about somewhat various topics. This gives you a much better overview and introduces you to all kinds of paths you may decide to follow.
On SkillShare, the best metric you can use for evaluating what students think about the course is the percentage of those who rated it as “expectations met” and “expectations exceeded”. I didn’t use that to select the courses but only to roughly order them for you.
Here are five beginner courses that stand out:
- Short Films 101: Plan, Capture, and Edit Cinematic Shorts (1h:29m)
- Shooting a Character Documentary (43m)
- Cinematography Basics: Understanding Filmmaking Style (29m)
- Low Budget Filmmaking — Tips and Tricks for an Indie Look (29m)
- Cinematography Techniques for One-Man Band Filmmakers (1h:15m)
These five courses don’t overlap too much and provide you with 4.5 hours of hugely important technical and creative techniques and tricks that any cinematographer should have up their sleeve.
Some of what they cover does get into the domain of directors and editors, but they talk about topics like equipment, lighting, shot lists, and colors, which are all DP specific. I am a big believer in knowing what others around you are doing because that information can make both your and their life much easier or harder.
I managed to find two more courses that could be classified as being more on an intermediate level. Not that you couldn’t watch them as a beginner, but I’d recommend watching the other five first.
The two intermediate cinematography courses are:
- DIY Cinematography: Make Your Video Look Like a Movie
- Creating a Modern, Cinematic Documentary with Soul
As you can tell by their titles, both of these courses have very specific topics though they also cover a similar wider range of information as do the beginner ones. Again, from my own experience, I find it very helpful to see what other creative folks are doing in their respective related niches. This can teach you just as much since most of this is still evergreen technical information.
In addition to that, it can provide you with ideas that you can implement in your own process. Applying approaches from one area of expertise to another can often yield interesting and original results.
All in all, the value of the total of seven hours of training that you’d get on SkillShare for the cost of two iced coffees at your favorite coffee chain is immense!
One of my favorite learning platforms always has something to offer and it’s no different if you want to learn cinematography online. It bears repeating that you can only learn so much theory for a skill such as cinematography. You have to get out there and shoot. Nevertheless, you do have lots to learn so let’s keep digging.
As you may remember from both my best photography and videography course reviews, Phil Ebiner is a great instructor well versed in all these related disciplines. His 3-hour course on Udemy called Cinematography Course: Shoot Better Video with Any Camera offers everything a budding cinematographer needs and much more.
This course could have easily been listed in my videography review as it doesn’t discriminate on the types of projects this information can be used on. But it is slightly skewed towards a more professional camera operator or at least the one with such aspirations. He covers:
- Technical camera essentials
- Exposure and manual settings
- Camera movement
- Working with the crew
- How to find paid work
Apart from the last two, all the other topics can be applied to shooting even with your phone camera. Both newbies and intermediate users find this course to be very valuable.
It’s important to note that since Phil is very focused on his online teaching business, his courses are all regularly updated. That’s why he always pays close attention to any student comments and suggestions that can make his courses better. This is one of the reasons I have great respect for him. I know I can always rest assured that I’ll be having the best possible learning experience.
There just aren’t too many general cinematography courses online to choose from. The only other I will mention on Udemy is called Film Cinematographer Fundamentals. This course is by The Academy of Film, Fashion & Design. While the company itself doesn’t work with only film and video, they have been in the online education business for over 20 years and they do hire knowledgeable people to create and present their courses.
This fundamentals course is held by Matt Whiteman a professional, knowledgeable, and skillful cinematographer who focuses mainly on the technical aspects of the kraft. Actually, not even so much on the kraft but the equipment.
Unlike some of the previously mentioned courses, it doesn’t look at the final product and how to make it better for the viewer in one way or another. It simply focuses on the camera operator’s side of the lens.
The main topics that he goes over are:
- Camera Types
- Resolution and Color Space
The format of this course is mostly Matt showing the gear and explaining what it is and what it does – it is jam-packed with information. Useful information but lots of it. Still a beginner’s course but pretty technical.
Between these two great Udemy selections, you get this course’s five hours of technical information and the previous one’s three hours. That’s a full day of education that you can revisit many times and more importantly, that you can use for many years to come. And all this for probably much less than you spend on buying yourself breakfast in one week! You better eat some cereal at home for a week and invest in your future instead LOL
One of my new favorite platforms is CreativeLive. If you can find the courses for the topic that you’re looking for, they tend to stand head and shoulders above the rest. Luckily, that is also the case with cinematography.
It is almost impossible to find courses taught by the professionals that are truly top-level in their field. That’s where MasterClass has found their niche. And those are few and far between. In our case, we have not one but two cinematography courses by a DP who has the ASC behind his name. That stands for American Society of Cinematographers. It is an invitation-only organization honoring those with distinguished credits in the industry.
Jim Denault, ASC has shot numerous films and television series and you are bound to have seen some of his work. To just mention a few: Boys Don’t Cry, Six Feet Under, Suits, In Plain Sight, Silicon Valley, and many others.
The first of his two courses is called Cinematographer’s Preparation. It teaches you how to strategize to achieve the most creative and productive shoot possible. You will have an opportunity to develop new cinematography skills to convey the artistic essence of the material.
In this course you will learn how to:
- Technically and esthetically analyze a script
- Evaluate practical needs of a scene
- Achieve a subjective effect within your strategy
- Set up effective artistic and technical shooting approaches
Jim’s second course is titled Shooting The Scene and it is essentially about translating your cinematic vision into a practical shooting plan – how to shoot artistically yet be efficient and economical.
This practical course will teach you how to:
- Decide on the technical and esthetic approaches for each shot
- Determine how many shots you’ll need for any scene
- Shoot what’s best for the scene while balancing practical limitations
These two courses are priced very low and combined, they run for almost 10 hours! That would be a great deal from any solid instructor. But coming from such a high caliber cinematographer makes it an incredible and rare value that you should take advantage of.
Only one more course on CreativeLive worth mentioning is The Art of Filmmaking and Editing by Jeff Medford and Ross Hockrow. Both seasoned professionals in their fields, together they deliver a whopping 15 hours (!) of complete training for any budding filmmaker, and not only cinematographers.
This course almost fit in my videographer review, but not exactly. It is geared towards filmmakers with a story and a plan, and not mom and pop productions shooting whatever is in front of the camera. While some of the technical requirements may be the same, these are two very different worlds.
As you can tell by its title, this course is really a filmmaking course. It covers all three major areas of pre-production and storytelling, production gear and techniques, and complete post-production so it includes the whole workflow of editing, audio, and color-correction.
Most of all, this truly is a comprehensive course – the most comprehensive on this list and arguably of all the courses I’ve ever reviewed! Yeah, it could have been more concise, but its flow is very casual and natural so most people will like it. Some may not! It is not meant to be consumed in one sitting anyway but over a week or at least three days.
All three of these CreativeLive courses and high quality and well worth their price of admission, some of them a very low price. As always, I will repeat that you should consider the total cost of the courses you’re looking at and figure out if it may be worth paying a little more and getting unlimited yearly access.
To be honest, these guys don’t offer exactly a cinematography course. Still, the quality and value of these presentations are so immense that I will always mention them when appropriate.
Both classes are from directors’ points of view and cover a complete filmmaking process. Therefore, the cinematography is only a small part of each. Werner started as a camera guy himself and maybe that’s a reason why his course has more time devoted to cinematography.
So, anyway, we’re almost off topic here, almost! But if you are serious about a career in filmmaking, you can always learn from the greats such as these two. As I said before, I find it crucial to know what others around me are doing. It makes for a better final product and makes everyone’s life so much easier.
This may be especially true in filmmaking where it is truly a team effort. Besides, as a cinematographer, the one person you will be working most closely with is the director. So knowing what they’re dealing with is extremely important.
Here I go again “complaining” about a fairly difficult task of finding many or any online choices, but I managed to dig something up in this department as well.
In the offline world, there are numerous options. Well-known and highly rated schools such as New York Film Academy and UCLA, and UCLA Extension all offer in-depth cinematography programs, degrees, and certificates.
I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that you won’t be able to become a cinematographer just by attending online classes. Still, there’s a great deal of ground you can cover from the comfort of your own home – at your computer and at your convenience.
I will list these three options for you and you can do your own additional research.
- Full Sail University – Digital Cinematography Bachelor of Science
- Academy of Art University – Motion Pictures and Television Degree
- Arizona State University – Bachelor of Arts in Film & Media Studies
Being a big fan of cinema and filmmaking, I can’t miss this opportunity to share a handful of great YouTube channels with you. They are all different and ran by like-minded people who know way more than we do. So you can not only learn a great deal but be entertained in the process as well.
Here they are:
When I first put together this list, I thought it would be an overwhelming number of choices. I was afraid I might seem undecided and uncertain. But the fact is that all of these actually work best together, in groups, with knowledge stacked on top of each other.
None of these courses are that comprehensive to be the only course for you to take. That’s why I have given them to you per platform as each chunk makes one complete and logical choice. Some of you may be looking for a cinematography short course, but such a thing does not exist. It is a deep complex subject that requires both big technical and creative curriculum each. And on top of that, you can pick up all the little tips and tricks from the experienced pros.
I would be perfectly happy taking these courses as I’ve presented them and I’m hoping that you will be as well.