Chris Layhe: Director of Photography & Cinematographer
What makes a great Director of Photography? The ability to conceptualize a shot and it’s part in a sequence and story, determine how it can best be captured, and then communicate that clearly to the rest of the camera, lighting and gaffer team - or shoot it himself where lean and mean is the nature of the project.
Of course, it’s essential to have an innate feel for composition, lighting, color, motion and focus but I take that as a given in any professional who has been working in the same role for many years successfully.
But when you have a high degree of expertise across several disciplines it can invite the question are you are actually a master of none and just a generalist? I consider myself to be very lucky as I’m an excellent Director, Cinematographer, Videographer, Editor and Colorist – and have made my living doing the first three of these for over twenty years, adding color grading in the last few years as a natural extension to my work as a DP. This breadth of skills makes me better at handling the many diverse demands put on the head of the camera department and right hand of the Director.
The nice thing about camerawork is that it isn’t a discipline where you can talk a great game but an unknown risk until you actually deliver – because a decent selection of shots is going to tell anyone who sees them whether you have the eye or not. How these shots perform to create a program is going to demonstrate whether you are able to get shots which are not only attractive but also tell the right story and do so effectively. That’s good news for both of us because it means that you can run the little camera reel at the bottom of the page and make your own decisions, along with the videos on other pages of this web site, and I don’t have to keep writing!
One aside – Chris Layhe and CLAi have been known as a heavyweight RED player in the San Francisco Bay area for the past eight or nine years, and we still use the RED today and will continue to do so. But in that time other cameras have come along that have the same capabilities or better, and they are simply the right choice for some projects. Recognizing that, along with changes in the way videos and films are created today, I have stopped being a multiple RED camera owner so that I can bring in the right gear for any project as either a DP leading a full camera team or a solo Cinematographer and Videographer.
I do still have my own cameras, a Sony FS7 and Sony FS5 with all of the bells and whistles to enable 4k and RAW recording, and I do still have oodles of lenses, lighting, gaffer and other goodies… but this move has freed me to rent in the most appropriate equipment and team for any shoot, or just come along to a shoot by myself and use your own cameras and lighting. This is the same as most other Directors of Photography and Cinematographers would do, whether they are in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, New York or London. It’s been a liberating experience in so many ways, and it really does change everything as both a film and video camera dude… anyway, end of the aside and back to the reel.
The DP, DoP or Director of Photography title is a constantly evolving one – and can be someone who is essentially a one man band videographer on a basic run’n’gun shoot to the commander of a crew of 30+ who may never touch a camera or light. I can work the position from either of these extremes, coming from the image/photography side of the discipline more than the lighting electrician side.
I work as a DP on both digital film and video projects, and views my role very much as the “protector” of the look and action, turning a shared vision with the director into reality on a media card – with the extended vision that comes from a deep understanding of the edit and the grade, and how the raw footage fits into the final image equation.
As one of the bold few who ventured away from 35mm film into digital cinema production back in the mid-2000s, I have owned and shot with UHD, 4k, 4.5k and 6k cameras for many years. While 1080P HD video is still the delivery format for most productions this techie knowledge is invaluable in getting the very most out of these new systems, and in understanding how the post-production process will affect the final image and ways it can be used.
The difference between a cinematographer, a DP and a videographer? To my mind it is about the way the control of the image role plays out – a DP is as responsible for the lighting and camera motion as he is for the camerawork. But often I like to work with a really good lighting director, or LD, who handles the lighting with the gaffer crew, and a good key grip and his crew who handle the camera motion, leaving me to concentrate on the camera and shot composition. I see the videographer role as much more akin to a camera operator, with no responsibility for directing action, making calls on detail or controlling takes… a task that often falls to a good DP or cinematographer when the director is working away from the talent.
Of course, like the DP role, this is something that I do in both the digital film and corporate project worlds and it is one that I particularly enjoy – as it often means getting back to the simple purity of “moving” still photography on small crew natural light projects, which is a beautiful thing!
The Camera Reel