Mastering Cinematography for Directors – A New, Comprehensive Course on

March 29th, 2024 Jump to Comment Section

There is a popular cliché about two types of directors. Roughly put, the first ones are great at working with actors but have no clue where to point the camera. Conversely, the second kind is gifted in visual storytelling but leaves actors to their own devices. While I strongly believe that crafting the performance and giving your cast correct motivation is the primary job of a good director, neglecting the importance of camera language would be a mistake. Can we have both, please? Sure we can. The new course, “Cinematography for Directors” on, held by seasoned filmmaker and educator Tal Lazar, takes you to the very heart of your story and explains how to express it in images. Below, we’ll give you a glimpse into this exciting, collaborative journey.

As Tal Lazar reminds us, a huge part of filmmaking is communicating to others your requirements or intentions. In his 4,5 hourlong hands-on course “Cinematography for Directors”, you will master both how to talk about important story-driven decisions and how to lead a technical team without being a tech camera expert yourself. In other advanced topics, Tal speaks about visual language, explains how to find the essence of a scene, and demonstrates tools like the narrative perspective, camera position, choosing a suitable lens, and more. All this theoretical material comes in a simple, digestible form combined with examples from great films and practical exercises to try out.

In other words, if you ever thought to yourself: Oh, I’m actually more of a creative person than a tech guru, then this course is definitely for you. Not convinced? Read on to gather the first takeaways from Tal Lazar’s lessons, which we share below.

Ready to dive in? Head over to MZed and start watching “Cinematography for Directors” now.

Meet your Cinematography for Directors instructor

But first, let me briefly introduce you to your instructor. Tal Lazar is an experienced filmmaker, who started as a cinematographer, and later became a producer and director. He worked on countless productions from short films to features, documentaries, fiction, and commercials. (You can find his full filmography here).

At the same time, Tal is an educator who teaches at leading film schools such as Columbia University, the American Film Institute, and other prestigious institutions.

cinematography for directors - tal lazar as an educator
Tal Lazar and some of the institutions where he educates. Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

Combining these two areas of expertise and stepping into the shoes of different roles on set, Tal Lazar knows exactly how to communicate his vision and story cinematically. And as you probably know, correct communication is the key to bringing your film to life.

Cinematography for Directors: following the purpose of images

The first and foremost thing you ought to learn as a director who wants to up their game visually is how to talk about images. You might think it means defining the right angle or choosing a suitable lens, but technical aspects are definitely not where communication starts. To demonstrate this, Tal Lazar leans on a quote from a famous photographer from the last century, Irving Penn.

cinematography for directors - a quote by Irving Penn: "A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective."
Quote and photos by Irving Penn. Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

“Effective” is the keyword here. As filmmakers, we don’t make images to enjoy or impress (not primarily, at least). We craft them to tell stories. So, talking about “what” the shot should tell comes way before “how” we are going to pull it off.

The first takeaway here is: When you talk to your cinematographer about a particular image, don’t say whether you like it or not. Instead, speak about it in terms of its effect. Does it communicate the story you intend? Has it achieved the goal you set for it? What’s its purpose in the first place? It means your final shot might not be beautiful or conventionally likable, but it has to be effective. Look at the following still from Coppola’s masterpiece, “The Godfather”.

cinematography for directors - a rather dark film still from "The Godfather"
A film still from “The Godfather” by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

It’s not very nice, is it, with faces almost too dark and eyes barely visible? However, it tells you a story. So, before you jump into discussing technical decisions and visual choices, you have to define the purpose of the image you’re creating. Narrative visuals can fail if they’re ineffective, you see! And that leads us back to the basics – talking about the story.

Cinematographic approach to the story, not the plot

So, what’s your story? Tal Lazar explains that one of the most common mistakes filmmakers make (especially when starting out) is using the camera to tell the plot instead of the story. The difference is, of course, extreme. Here are some of the term definitions from the course:

cinematography for directors - basic definitions
Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

Telling the plot means pointing the camera at the physical action happening one after the other according to the script. However, concentrating solely on the outside events takes a toll on your final film. Mostly, such scenes cut together won’t move the audience in any emotional way. For that, you need to emphasize the internal change going on inside the characters as the story evolves. Sometimes this emotional journey won’t be completely evident in the screenplay, but that’s the director’s job to establish and know it – as well as answering the cinematographer’s questions about what parts of it they are interested in revealing.

When the story is discussed and clear to all involved (not only for the entire film but also for each scene), the next step is to talk about visual strategy. In the course, Tal Lazar demonstrates that we often start from the middle of the scene by finding the most crucial moment. Then, it’s important to decide on a way to emphasize it and transfer the essence of the story through it. The surrounding visuals will obey. For example, if you want to use a sudden rack focus during this moment, the shots before and after should be rather quiet and slow – to make the contrast work.

Bending the rules

According to Tal Lazar, another big mistake that a lot of filmmakers make is relying too much on a ready-made formula. This applies to seasoned professionals as well, who have long been in the business and learned some things in a specific way. For instance, you might have heard of a standard setup for a dialogue scene: a middle or close-up shot of one person, the same-sized reverse shot, and a wide angle from the side. Does it work? Sure. Is it always effective for the story? Not at all.

Some conventions go even further. Tal was once told on set that you should measure the distance to your actors exactly, and match it from one dialogue shot to another. Otherwise, they wouldn’t cut (or so this person said). To prove the opposite, Tal shows us a scene from the movie “Get Out”, which can be broken down into the following four angles:

Have you watched the movie? Show of hands who felt disturbed by the editing back and forth between these allegedly unbalanced shots! I wasn’t, and neither was Tal Lazar. On the contrary, the visual language here helps us to better grasp the emotional aspects. Also, it communicates the perspective of Chris, the protagonist. He tries to react friendly to this woman but fails. As her behavior becomes weirder, she gets closer to the wide lens that distorts her face. We also push in on the protagonist, but as he is shot on a long lens, we see him differently, normally.

So yes, we should know the rules. Yet, bending them is a part of filmmaking fun and a note in your filmmaker’s voice as well.

Cinematography for Directors: learning to analyze visual language

One of the important tools in mastering cinematography for directors is learning from others. Tal Lazar gives a lot of examples and exercises in his course, teaching you how to analyze visual language. We’re surrounded by images throughout our lives; that’s why we are fluent in it. However, reverse engineering powerful film stills helps us to understand how they work. Let’s try it out together: Please examine the following shot and consider what information it conveys and the emotions it evokes.

cinematography for directors - film stills from Girlhood
A film still from “Girlhood” by Céline Sciamma, 2014. Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

This woman seems to be in the middle of making a decision. She doesn’t seem helpless though. Tal Lazar points out that center framing gives us a sense of balance and control. At the same time, there is much contrast to this image: the character is almost a silhouette against the bright kitchen light. What does it say to you? To me, intensity and even anger. You might have a different interpretation of this image. That’s okay: the point of analyzing is not to agree, but to start a conversation and back up our feelings with arguments about why we think visuals work that way. Acquiring this skill will be very helpful in your further film collaborations.

What else can you learn in Cinematography for Directors?

It was just a tiny sneak peek into “Cinematography for Directors.” In this course, well-versed and fully packed with expert knowledge, you will also learn:

  • What are different perspectives and when to use one or the other? How does it affect the most fundamental decision with a camera – where to place it?
  • The different characteristics of lenses and the vocabulary you will need to dictate choices with this important tool;
  • Hidden secrets of various frame compositions;
  • How to use color on an advanced level and impact the audience with it emotionally;
  • When should the camera move, and when should it stay still?
  • How to leverage viewers’ past experiences and incorporate them into storytelling?

…and that’s not all. You can read the description of all the course modules here.


“Cinematography for Directors” is available to purchase for $49.00. Or you can subscribe to MZed Pro and watch this course, along with over 55 other courses for only $349 for the first year, and $199 for every year after that.

As an MZed Pro member, you have access to over 500 hours of filmmaking education. Plus, we’re constantly adding more courses (several in production right now).

A small portion of the hundreds, and hundreds of educational content part of the MZed Pro subscription.

For just $30/month (billed annually at $349), here’s what you’ll get:

  • 55+ courses, over 850+ high-quality lessons, spanning over 500 hours of learning.
  • Highly produced courses from educators who have decades of experience and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award.
  • Unlimited access to stream all content during the 12 months.
  • Offline download and viewing with the MZed iOS app.
  • Discounts to ARRI Academy online courses, exclusively on MZed.
  • Most of our courses provide an industry-recognized certificate upon completion.
  • Purchasing the courses outright would cost over $9,500.
  • Course topics include cinematography, directing, lighting, cameras and lenses, producing, indie filmmaking, writing, editing, color grading, audio, time-lapse, pitch decks, and more.
  • 7-day money-back guarantee if you decide it’s not for you.

Full disclosure: MZed is owned by CineD.
Join MZed Pro now and start watching today!

Are you a director? Do you often make cinematography choices? What is your approach to developing a visual language for a film? Let’s talk in the comments below.

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