I really like the Wandering DP podcast, with Patrick O’Sullivan. He is a very talented cinematographer in his own right, and he excels at breaking down his own work, explaining the gear, instruments, and how it was used shot-by-shot in some of his commercial work. Not only have I been exposed to new techniques by tuning in to Patrick's Podcast, as well as picking up new styles of lighting, the thing I have learned the most from Patrick’s podcast is simply how to break down a shot, like this...
It is not good enough to take a glance at a monitor and decide whether or not the shot looks good or not. Maybe it does look good to you? Maybe it looks good to your client? But, is the shot all that it could be? Does it look good on a waveform? In false color? If you look closer at your own work with a keenly critical eye will quickly see that you have areas where you can improve.
With that in mind I have come up with my own mental checklist of decisions that need to be made in each and every shot. It’s a list of questions in my own mind that I make a point to ask myself before I step back from the monitor and say that we're ready to roll. For instance, "Am I portraying the mood properly with my lighting of the subject?" "Am I making it obvious where I want my viewer to look?" "What IRE levels am I looking for on the key and fill side of the subject's face?" "Do I have levels of interest in my composition?" So on and so forth.
This allows me to take a shot that I think already looks pretty good, and use every last minute that I have available tweaking, and making the shot more interesting, more beautiful, and more relevant to the project as a whole. Another big thing that I am learning is that there are way more questions and I’m not even thinking to ask myself yet. So, now I have made it a point to deconstruct the work of other cinematographers that I admire. Perhaps this sounds lame, but, when I’m watching other cinematographers work I am asking myself what that cinematographer is asking herself. What is the mental checklist of questions did this person go through and constructing the shot? The idea is not to copy their look or techniques. Rather, putting myself in their shoes, imagining (or in the case of Patrick's Podcast, him simply telling...) the dialogue they were having as they were making decisions about that shot.
And, cinematography is all about identifying problems and making decisions to solve them. Simply, the better you are, the more problems you will create for yourself. Why just accept that you have a blown out window behind your subject? Because you think you can't do anything about it? Demand that it's a problem. I'm not saying that you should be a jerk to the producer or director. Just have higher standards. Buy a roll of ND. Rent a net. Keep a few window sheers in your grip kit. If it's crunch time and you don't have any of those little tools, change the shot around. Show just a smidge of the window to prove that it's there. That's just one simple example - but there are so many instances where we, as cinematographers, think that we're powerless or a victim of the location when what is really happening is that you're settling for good when you maybe just don't know how to make it great.
It takes time. Takes some homework, too. And that's why I point back to resources like Patrick's Podcast, as one of the many tools available to DPs that have a day off.
Make problems for yourself. Have fun deciding on how to solve them.