Nomadland – A Masterclass in Naturalistic Cinematography with DP Joshua James Richards

Nomadland – A Masterclass in Naturalistic Cinematography with DP Joshua James Richards

My dad used to say, “What’s remembered – lives.” This quote from the American drama “Nomadland” could be equally applied to the film itself. A couple of years have passed, but we still return in thought to the vast astonishing landscapes and the heartbreaking yet somehow optimistic story of Fern. This movie hits so close to home that it seems more like a documentary rather than a fiction feature film, partly because of its absolutely beautiful naturalistic cinematography. How and why this visual approach was the only one possible for “Nomadland”? Let’s take a closer look.

In this ASC Clubhouse Conversation held by Amelia Vincent, cinematographer Joshua James Richards leads us through all the challenges and delightful moments of naturalistic filming in “Nomadland”. Together with the director Chloé Zhao, they set some rules which allowed them to capture spontaneous moments and still create an engaging drama. For example, although the main character of Fern is played by gorgeous Frances McDormand, in a lot of scenes we see actual nomads and hear real stories from their lives. In another instance, Richards shot most of the film using only natural light. Below he explains his visual decisions and shares some of the set stories.

photo of the Nomadland's cinematographer, showing him, the camera on a tripod, and the snowy landscape in the background
Joshua James Richards on the set of “Nomadland”. Image source: ASC

Watch the whole conversation on

Inspirations and general approach for Nomadland

If you had watched “Nomadland”, then you would have already thought: “Hmm, that seems a bit like the works of Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki.” And that would be right. Indeed, we can call them an inspiration for the film’s cinematography, but only in part. Coming from a painting background, Joshua James Richards adores different art forms. When he shows some of the reference images collected during the prep, even screenshots from visual games are among them. As Richards explains, if kids get this kind of immersion at home regularly, the cinema has to keep up.

Some of the visual references for Nomadland, Richards shows during the conversation
Some of the first image references for Nomadland. Image source: ASC Clubhouse Conversations, MZed

However, it’s not the visual games per se that interest Joshua and Chloé, but the exploring of the worlds in them. How to switch from an objective to a subjective perspective, and where to put the camera so that the audience forgets they are playing a game (or watching a movie). In “Nomadland”, it was extremely important for the filmmakers that we get to know Fern’s world as it is: honest, authentic, and as real as possible. At the same time, they wanted to help spectators follow her emotional journey. That’s why they chose naturalistic cinematography. Wide landscape shots became an important part of the camera language: they reflect the feelings of the main characters and visually underline their stories.

A wide shot of Fren, her van, and mountains all around.
Image source: a film still from “Nomadland” by Chloé Zhao, 2020

To fully emerge in the life of American nomads, Joshua and Chloé kept the crew very small, 23 people in total. Most of them were preparing locations and sets ahead, so the core shooting team consisted of only a few members. Needless to say, that was hard, especially when they had to choreograph long takes with lots of extras like in the example below. (These people were living there, but they were also acting as actors in the movie – with cues and given actions). Still, such intimacy supported capturing beautiful real moments within the partly staged scenes.

Fern explores the van site during the sunset.
Image source: a film still from “Nomadland” by Chloé Zhao, 2020

Naturalistic cinematography: the technical side

A big part of the naturalistic visual approach is that the cinematographer should be ready to capture the spontaneity of the moment. Richards had to keep his gear setups light and agile. Mostly, he shot on ARRI Alexa Mini (sometimes – on ARRI Amira) handheld or on Easyrig, explaining that he just couldn’t justify locking the camera down on a tripod. “Nomadland” is a film about a journey (both physically and metaphorically), so he wanted to continuously follow the movement. This decision gave actors space to make something unexpected, and Chloé gained absolute freedom in the blocking.

For the scenes where one would have used a dolly, Joshua went for a Ronin 2 gimbal on the Tilta Armor man. Skeptical in the beginning, this choice became liberating during the shoot. According to his words, it allowed Richards to be the best and the quickest operator he could be. Turning the camera with his body, and always interacting with Frances‘s performance.

Joshua films using Ronin 2, Chloé gets a look over his shoulder on what he is filming.
Behind-the-scenes of “Nomadland”. Image source: ASC

Joshua did use sticks for the house scene, where Fern gets another chance to live with a family under a real roof. She doesn’t want to be there; everything literally freezes for her there, even the camera movement. A subtle emphasis that every time Fern is inside, she wants to break out. An admirable wish for freedom.

The magic of light: outdoors and indoors

Naturalistic cinematography also meant using the available light. Perhaps you noticed how Nomadland’s story unfolds around the extremes of the day: the sunrise and the sunset. Not only because they look good:

Every magic hour, every twilight, we see the world when it’s not lit by the sun. Suddenly, everything becomes unbiased. It is the only time we get to experience life around how it really is, not directly lit by the sun. That’s why it is magic. Even the colors appear more vibrant somehow. But these are also very sad moments because they are so fleeting.

Joshua James Richards, the cinematographer and production designer of “Nomadland”

“Nomadland” sticks to its radical naturalism, even in the close-ups. Joshua quotes Carl Theodor Dreyer here: “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.” His “Joan of Arc” was a big inspiration for the Nomadland’s cinematographer (if you want to read more about the power of Dreyer’s emotional close-ups, we mentioned them here).

Joshua also stays true to the faces of the characters, not cosmetically beautifying them. “Why would you?” – he asks. First, they are so strong, emotional, and life-kissed, especially when we’re talking about elder people. And secondly, striking light beams into the faces of people, who are not used to it, doesn’t really help to gather subtle real moments in the scenes.

2 close-ups from Nomadland combined in one image, both lit by the natural light
Image source: a couple of close-ups from “Nomadland”

The choice to light the whole film naturally also affected the interior lighting, Richards admits. Keeping naturalism was a big challenge for him, but he committed to it. Luckily, most times the weather was merciful and it allowed him to create the desired gloomy look inside. In the following examples, there is little to no artificial set lighting:

4 shots from the Nomadland - showcases of the interiors, how they look and how they are lit
Image source: several film stills showing interior shots from “Nomadland” by Chloé Zhao, 2020

Challenges of Nomadland’s naturalistic cinematography

When you only shoot during the “magic hours”, be prepared for 20-40 minutes of chaos. It’s unavoidable. Days on “Nomadland” were mostly scheduled around the light, which meant a lot of preparation time. The whole crew would stress out while the sun disappeared over the horizon. That said, Joshua still thinks it was a great privilege to work on a film with so much respect for landscapes and natural light.  

A core crew shoots the scene with Fern and the van.
Shooting during the sunset. Behind-the-scenes of “Nomadland”. Image source: ASC

Another challenge for the crew was the moody weather (like snow where it wasn’t supposed to be). Still, they had to go with it. In most cases, Richards says, such scenes turned out to be rather happy accidents. For instance, when it came to shooting on the cliffs, it was supposed to be a melancholic yet beautiful sunset moment. The weather had other ideas, blowing at the crew in a stormy hurricane. And when we now watch Fern fighting against this massive wind and smiling, the scene has so much power. Imagine if they wouldn’t have had this “happy accident”!

Fern at the cliffs - a film still from "Nomadland".
Image source: a film still from “Nomadland” by Chloé Zhao, 2020

What was also hard was for Richards to hold back tears while filming. Listening to real people’s stories could be very emotionally impactful. It’s similar to when you shoot a documentary or a particularly tough interview. Yet, this level of empathy also helps to transfer authentic feelings to your audience.


I could only cover parts of this interview on the naturalistic approach, which runs for about 1,5 hours. If you want to listen to all insights on Nomadland’s cinematography directly from Joshua James Richards, it’s available on MZed. There are over a hundred other exciting conversations from the ASC Clubhouse with different cinematographers, including current Oscar nominees – the creators of “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, “Babylon”, “Elvis”, “The Banshees of Inisherin“ and many, many others.

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Feature image: behind-the-scenes picture of using Easyrig on “Nomadland”. Image source: ASC

How did you like the naturalistic cinematography approach in “Nomadland”? Do you also try to use natural light whenever possible? We would be happy to hear about your experience in the comments below.


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