8 Top Film Programs for Aspiring Cinematographers

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Photo Source: Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Though directors get most of the credit for films, it’s cinematographers who bring the shots to life. Thanks to their expert understanding of lights, lenses, and cameras, directors of photography play a crucial role on a shoot. Most DPs will say that getting your hands on a camera, working in the field, and watching films is the best way to learn the trade. But if you’re interested in taking a more formal route, there are plenty of training programs for cinematographers that offer opportunities for mentorship, networking, and experimentation. Here are some of the best college offerings in the U.S.

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American Film Institute Conservatory

AFI has deep industry connections. Its cinematography MFA program incorporates intensive training in both digital and film shooting, giving students a chance to work on close to 30 projects a year. Each year, cinematography fellows put together a visual essay showcasing their work, which they then present to industry decision-makers. AFI also offers a free four-day intensive for DPs who identify as women in an effort to increase gender diversity in the 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,” she adds. “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: MFA
Tuition*: $62,049
Notable alumni: Robert Richardson (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Matthew Libatique (“A Star Is Born”), Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”), Janusz Kamiński (“Lincoln”), Wally Pfister (“Inception”)

Columbia University School of the Arts

With an emphasis on independent cinema, Columbia’s School of the Arts encourages its international student body to take an analytical, academic approach to the craft. Alums of its master’s program have earned honors from the Sundance, Cannes, Venice, and Berlin film festivals—and some Oscars, too. As an Ivy League school, Columbia is competitive to get into, but the application process is worth it for cinematographers. This degree program will give you practical skills and the opportunity to make 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. 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: MFA

Tuition: $66,880
Notable alumni: Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), Richard Crudo (“American Pie”), Chris Teague (“Obvious Child”)

Dodge College of Film & Media Arts at Chapman University

Chapman’s wide variety of undergrad and graduate programs make it one of the most multifaceted film schools in the nation. The college gives students access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, and its faculty includes plenty of artists who are actively working in the industry. The program encourages collaboration among students, allowing directors and cinematographers to build relationships with each other. 

“Chapman teaches style over substance, so make sure to teach yourself what your classes aren’t providing,” says one 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 [cinematographer,] it means you’ll work with the most talented [directors], editors, sound designers, etc. you’ll ever meet. And if you’re [studying] any of the aforementioned emphases, you’re likely to get really good at your job and will be in high demand post-grad.”

Degree: BFA, MFA
Tuition: $62,400 (undergrad); $49,788 (grad)
Notable alumni: Olatunde Osunsanmi (“The Fourth Kind”), Matt and Ross Duffer (“Stranger Things”), Justin Simien (“Dear White People”)

Emerson College

Though it’s based in Boston, Emerson also has a campus in Los Angeles where students can earn an MFA in Film & Media Art. They also have the chance to network with the so-called “Emerson mafia,” the school’s many-tentacled alumni network. Offering top-shelf equipment and an interdisciplinary faculty, Emerson allows cinematographers to develop their skills in a variety of settings and mediums on both coasts.

“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 alums 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: BA, BFA, MFA
Tuition: $54,400 (undergraduate)
Notable alumni: Shane Hurlbut (“We Are Marshall”), Amir Mokri (“Man of Steel”), Larken Seiple (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”)

 

Fitchburg State University

This Massachusetts’ state school’s little-known program emphasizes learning by doing from day one. What’s more, it offers the lowest tuition cost on this list. But affordability isn’t the only plus: Fitchburg has earned its place thanks to a rigorous focus on hands-on experience. Unlike other programs, undergraduates get to work with industry-level equipment and technology in their freshman year in a highly immersive environment. 

“You [don’t] have to wait one or two years learning theory before getting access to equipment,” says graduate Kevin Ouellette

Alumni Ken Tolley agrees. “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,” he says.

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

New York University Tisch School of the Arts

Tisch is a major hub for the industry. Its cinematography program trains students in a variety of approaches to the craft, with an emphasis on both digital and legacy film science. In addition to learning about the history of cinematography, aspiring DPs study the technical side of the craft—particularly when it comes to lighting. Understanding the journey of light is, after all, a key skill of the trade.  

“NYU’s curriculum is all about cultivating an understanding of cinema by breaking it down to its roots,” says 2009 alum Cody Brown. “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.”

Degrees: BFA, MFA
Tuition: $66,388 (undergraduate), $73,698 (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 School of Theater, Film, and Television

UCLA offers a four-year graduate track in cinematography in which students study lighting, color theory, digital cinematography, and script analysis. In the final two years of the program, they pair up with directing students to work as DPs on their thesis projects, building professional relationships that could last throughout their careers. The program takes an academic approach to the science of cinematography, preparing alums to become thought leaders in the field.

Degree: MFA
Tuition: $18,136 (in-state), $33,238 (out-of-state)
Notable alumni: Stephen H. Burum (“Mission: Impossible”), Dean Cundey (“Apollo 13”), Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”)

University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Cinematography undergrads at UNC benefit from the school’s partnership with the Sundance Institute. They also have access to on-campus soundstages and ample opportunities to collaborate with artists across the film industry, all within a conservatory setting. Students can apply to the cinematography track in their second year of studying film. By the time they’ve earned their degree, they’ll have a sizable portfolio and connections to alumni in the cinema world.

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

Degree: BFA
Tuition: $6,497 (in-state), $24,241 (out-of-state)
Notable alumni: Tim Orr (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”), Adam Stone (“Mud”), Rob Givens (“Legacies”)

“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
UNCSA School of Filmmaking

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

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