8 Top Film Programs for Aspiring Cinematographers

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While directors often get most of the glory for beloved films, cinematographers (or directors of photography) bring the shots to life. With an expert understanding of lights, lenses, and camera, cinematographers have one of the most critical roles on a shoot. Where do DPs learn to do what they do? Most cinematographers will say that working in the field, studying films, and getting your hands on a camera is the best experience possible. But there are also training programs for filmmakers that offer mentorship, networks, and opportunities to experiment. Below, Backstage highlights some of the best programs for cinematographers.

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American Film Institute

A conservatory MFA program with deep industry connections, the AFI Conservatory incorporates intensive training in both digital and film, providing students a chance to work on close to 30 films a year. Cinematography fellows showcase their work in a visual essay, which is showcased for industry decision-makers every year. Since AFI’s founding in the late 60s, the program has trained the artists behind 34 Academy Award wins for cinematography. The program also provides a free, four-day workshop intensive for cinematographers who identify as women to increase gender diversity in a male-dominated field.

“The courses are challenging and the material rigorous—AFI’s sole focus is to make you the expert of whatever your discipline is,” says 2019 graduate Paola Villegas. “They train you to be capable not only within your chosen field but the collaborative nature of the film projects that you engage in stresses cooperation with your fellow filmmakers. This is absolutely essential in this industry, as filmmaking is such a collaborative art. The instructors all seem genuinely interested in you as a person [and] because it is a small program, they are able to follow you and track your progress from day one. This is invaluable in guiding your journey to becoming a better [filmmaker].”

Degree: Master of Fine Arts
Tuition*:  $61,425
Notable Alumni: Robert Richardson (“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood”), Matthew Libatique (“A Star is Born”), Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”), Janusz Kaminski (“Lincoln”), Wally Pfister (“Inception”)

Chapman University

Dodge College at Chapman is considered one of the most multi-faceted film schools in the nation with undergraduate and graduate programs that trains students with a focus on industry practices. With state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, the program has cultivated a faculty of working artists in the industry to mentor students. Further, the college is organized for students to collaborate frequently, allowing relationships and networking to build between directors and cinematographers. 

“Chapman teaches style over substance so make sure to teach yourself what your classes aren’t providing,” says a Dodge College undergrad. “At the end of the day, it’s somewhat of a craft-school, but that’s not a bad thing: if you’re a [director of photography] it means you’ll work with the most talented [directors], editors, sound designers, etc. you’ll ever meet, and if you’re any of the aforementioned emphases, you’re likely to get really good at your job and will be in high-demand post-grad.”

Degree: Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Fine Arts
Tuition: $56,830
Notable Alumni: Olatunde Osunsanmi (“The Fourth Kind”), Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer (“Stranger Things”), Justin Simien (“Dear White People”)

Columbia University

With a special emphasis on independent film, Columbia is a prolific producer of international filmmakers who apply an academic rigor and analytical approach to their craft. Alums from their master's program consistently receive honors from Sundance, Cannes, Venice, and Berlin film festivals—along with some Oscars too. With the Ivy League icing, this degree can be competitive to achieve but for cinematographers, it can not only give your practical skills but invaluable global connections. 

According to a 2017 graduate, “The school focuses very heavily on story. Structure, dramatic blocks, narrative storytelling...all the faculty do this very well. They may teach it differently, but they are all focused on telling a story, even when discussing camera moves, blocking, etc…. [And] nearly half of my class is international, and I suspect [at least 50%] female. The interests and perspectives of my classmates [are] wide and diverse.” 

Degree: Master of Fine Arts
Tuition: $62,912
Notable Alumni: Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), Richard Crudo (“American Pie”), Chris Teague (“Obvious Child”)

Emerson College

Known as a Boston college that pipelines entertainers, Emerson also has a campus in Los Angeles where students study and connect with the “Emerson mafia,” the school’s many-tentacled alumni network. Offering top-shelf equipment and an interdisciplinary faculty, Emerson allows undergraduate and graduate cinematographers to develop their skills in a variety of settings and mediums from the east coast to the west. 

“If you are a person who has great ambition to work in [film], this is the place. The old adage applies here just the same, you get out of it what you put into it, but there are so many opportunities to try out and master emerging technologies and to collaborate with other students (who may become your future colleagues) on films,” says Christine, a 2008 graduate. “You build a huge network while attending Emerson, and then once you’ve graduated, you are protected or interviewed by prior Emerson alum who are often embedded in the field. Word of mouth and reputation are the keys to continuing work in film and TV, so if you get a leg up into that world through another Emerson alum, you pay it forward and help out those who come next where possible. It’s a supportive atmosphere while in school and once out."

Degree: Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Fine Arts
Tuition: $48,560 (undergraduate)
Notable Alumni: Shane Hurlbut (“We Are Marshall”), Amir M. Mokri (“Man of Steel”)

Fitchburg State University

A little-known (and incredibly-affordable) program that emphasizes learning-through-doing from year one, Fitchburg State University is a name you should be familiar with. While this state school in Massachusetts offers the lowest tuition fees on this list, it’s not just the affordability factor: Fitchburg has earned its place with a rigorous focus towards on-hand experience. Unlike other programs, undergraduates get to work with industry-level equipment and technology in their freshman year in a highly-immersive environment that stresses learning through doing. 

“You didn’t have to wait one or two years learning theory before getting access to equipment,” says graduate Kevin Ouellette. Alumni Ken Tolley echoes this, saying, “FSU exposed me to cameras, edit machines, and lighting equipment, but more importantly, the teachers exposed me to filming concepts, editing styles and cinematography breakdowns.”

Degree: Bachelor of Science
Tuition: $970 (in-state), $7,050
Notable Alumni: Brian Hennessey (“The Voyager”), Thomas Chalifour-Drahman (“Not for Resale”), Sarah Rummel (“Castle Rock”)

University of North Carolina School of the Arts

With a program track that hones in on cinematography specifically, UNCSA offers an official partnership with Sundance, several on-campus sound stages, and ample opportunities to collaborate with artists in all sectors of the film industry in a conservatory setting. Students can apply for the cinematography track in their second year of studying film at the school and by the time they’ve earned their degrees, they will have a sizable portfolio and connections to alums working throughout the industry coast-to-coast.

“[UNCSA] was the only school, in terms of the curriculum, where they said they’d put you on set day one. It was all about a hands-on approach to learning,” says 2004 graduate Zoë White. “They weren’t lying—we were folding C-stands and wrapping cables on day one.”

Degree: Bachelor of Fine Arts
Tuition: $6,497 (undergraduate, in-state), $23,040 (undergraduate)
Notable Alumni: Tim Orr (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”), Adam Stone (“Mud”), Rob Givens (“Legacies”), Zoë White (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)

“Students are immersed from day one. You make films in the first year and never stop until graduation...those who have committed to cinematography will each have a mentor guiding their progress. It’s a creative partnership based on hard work and truth-telling. Students are held to a high standard. ”

Tom Ackerman

Cinematography Chair, UNCSA School of Filmmaking

(Read More)

New York University

Considered a hub for the industry, the camera program at NYU emphasizes digital and legacy film science in its curriculum to train students in a variety of approaches to the industry. Students in the program not only learn the history of cinematography but also train in the scientific nature of cinematography and lighting. The journey of light is, after all, one of the essential competencies of a capable director of photography. 

“NYU’s curriculum is all about cultivating an understanding of cinema by breaking it down to its roots,” says Cody Brown (2009). “You start with a photography class to learn how to find an evocative image. You move on to sound to pursue the intimacies that an audio recording can capture. Soon enough you are putting them together and in some cases the results can be outstanding. The program is designed to elevate the nuances of cinema.”

Degree: Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Fine Arts
Tuition: $65,828 (undergraduate), $71,330 (graduate)
Notable Alumni: Reed Morano (“Kill Your Darlings”), Andrew Shulkind (“The Ritual”), Joel Coen (“Fargo”), Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”), Spike Lee (“BlacKKKlansman”)

University of California Los Angeles

UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television offers a graduate track in Cinematography that takes four years to complete. Students take classes in lighting, color theory, digital cinematography, and script analysis. In the final two years, students work as the director of photography for thesis projects of directing students in the program and research an academic focus within the science of cinematography. The approach not only prepares students to be thought-leaders in the field but also builds director-cinematographer relationships that could last throughout a career. 

Degree: Master of Fine Arts
Tuition: $32,374
Notable Alumni: Stephen H. Burum (“Mission: Impossible”), Dean Cundey (“Apollo 13”), Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”)

*Tuition costs and various school fees can range widely. The tuition costs listed above do not include the cost of living, room and board, or material expenses. 

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!

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