Control Your Light
I feel really old saying it but twenty years ago I started freelancing as a cinematographer. Everything was tungsten back then. I had some 1k fresnels, some cheap hardware store clamp lights, and 3-light Lowel kit. The majority of the light I was working with was hard and at the time my idea of softening it was bouncing it off a wall or a ceiling.
While that light that's coming back will be softer it will also be harder to control and one of the ways your cinematography is going to improve this year is by controlling the light.
In the last nineteen years I've invested in new lights and cameras but also in a lot more grip gear then I had before and it's making a big difference in the look I'm getting. My younger self could never understand the joy my older self now has working with C-stands, flags, and 4x4's.
While I still have all those old tungsten lights, I also have a bunch of new LED lights most of which are made by Aputure. The new Aputure COB 120t/d and 300d/t are very powerful and look great with the Aputure Light Dome but to make these even softer I really love pushing these through a 4x4 with 1/2 or full grid cloth to soften my key with two layers of diffusion.
Bouncing light off smaller surfaces like 4x4 foamcore is a good way to start creating softer and more controllable light.
I recently watched a Cooke Optics video on Youtube where Bradford Young talked about his approach to shaping light by using negative fill. He talked about going as far as blacking out ceilings to kill any reflective light spill. I definitely want to try that on an upcoming shoot.
INCREASE YOUR KNOWLEDGE
There are so many brilliant places to learn about cinematography online and there's never enough you can learn about your craft. I'm spending my driving time and workout time listening to the Wandering DP podcast. He does episodes with guest cinematographers and also breaks down his own commercial work (it helps to listen and have access to the website so you can follow along with the images).
I gave myself the gift of knowledge for my birthday in December by scoring a MZED Pro membership at a discount, but even at full price the content is worth it. It's not all about cinematography but as film units begin to shrink it's important to know as much about other departments as you can. My wife chipped in and got me a Masterclass subscription and the film courses there are top notch as well.
There's also some really great Youtube channels now that are heavily focused on cinematography like Cooke Optics and Cinematography Database.
I love to visit film-grab.com and save stills from movies to analyze and study the lighting techniques of the pros.
The second way your going to improve your cinematography this year is by studying the subject from as many sources as you can.
CHALLENGE YOURSELF - VARIETY
About four years ago I was starting to feel like my skills as a cinematographer were not progressing at all. I was shooting the same kind of corporate videos day in and day out, using the same boring talking head set-ups. I felt like I was trapped. I needed to move out of my comfort zone and challenge myself.
I decided the best way to do that was to start working on a greater variety of projects. I was still working on corporates but I was challenging myself each day to light my talking heads differently. I was working on more documentaries and started to really train my eye to find good natural light and figure out subtle ways to complement it with bounce and negative.
I bought a set of Rosco color gels and really started playing with more color in my work.
The third way your going to improve your cinematography in 2018 is to challenge yourself by working on a greater variety of projects and try new setups.
BONUS - USE PRACTICALS
Here's a bonus. I've been studying thousands of screen shots at film-grab as well as evanerichards.com and it was only two years ago that I really started to realize how important the usage and placing of practicals is and how prevalent it is.
Practicals are everywhere in all your favorite films and shows and help motivate light.
Technically, I believe practicals like lamps can sometimes fall under the Art or Set Design role, but all the small time projects I'm working on never have these positions. So this year, I'm investing in some different practicals and bulbs to bring with me on narrative sets.
HOW ABOUT YOU?
Let me know how you're going to improve your cinematography this year.