From Roger Deakins’ color palettes in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Blade Runner 2049,” to Claudio Miranda’s digital innovations in “Life of Pi” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the art of cinematography brings film aesthetics to life. Keep reading to learn why it's an important part of film production and to learn more about the path to becoming a cinematographer yourself.
- What is a cinematographer?
- What does a cinematographer do?
- Why is cinematography important?
- Where does the cinematographer fit within the crew?
- How much does a cinematographer make?
- Getting started as a cinematographer
- What skills are needed to be a cinematographer?
- Who are some of the best cinematographers?
“Men” behind the Scenes Courtesy A24
A cinematographer is responsible for the photographing and recording of a film, TV series, music video, or other filmed live action production. They create a visual narrative by deciding on how to capture all of the onscreen elements—including camera angles, lighting, framing, color, and filters—as well as deciding the camera, film, and lens type.
Cinematographer vs. director of photography
The term cinematographer is often interchangeable with director of photography (DP)—both titles refer to the person on set who is responsible for crafting the visual style of a production. “Cinematographer” tends to be used for projects with more aesthetic elements, while “director of photography” is often used for projects with special effects.
Behind the scenes of “Better Call Saul” Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures
Cinematographers bring a director’s vision to life by making artistic and technical decisions. They bring together all of the onscreen visual elements to create a specific look and feel. They also determine how each shot should be blocked, composed, framed, and lit; map out all camera angles and movements; and guide the camera operators, gaffers, and key grips throughout the shoot. Some cinematographers operate the camera themselves.
“[They] work closely with the director in prep to decipher the tone, character arcs, and visual language that will be used to tell the story,” says Polly Morgan (“Lucy in the Sky,” “A Quiet Place Part II”)
Michael E. Satrazemis (“The Walking Dead”) adds that a cinematographer’s job is also to “work with the actors and help them out if they need information as to when the big moment is or when the impact is.” They then work with all the other departments to collaborate on the entire production.
As head of the camera department, the cinematographer also supervises the camera and lighting crews on set.
Behind the scenes of “Stranger Things” Credit: Tina Rowden/Netflix
Cinematography helps create a film’s mood and communicates its meaning by translating the emotional experience of the narrative onscreen. Emmanuel Lubezki’s use of fluid camera movements and natural lighting conveys the powerful violence of “The Revenant.” Ed Lachman’s mix of angelic light and dark shadows creates the mythological sorrow and nostalgia of “The Virgin Suicides.” The lingering shots in “In the Mood for Love” capture the emotional longing between the two protagonists. Combined, the visual elements of a film create the atmospheric mise en scène: the culmination of set aesthetic and actor arrangement.
Behind the scenes of “Power of the Dog” Credit: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix
The cinematographer is the second-most crucial creative voice on set, right after the director. From preproduction to postproduction, they work closely with the director, helping to craft the visual style and mood of the entire project.
During preproduction, costume designers, hair stylists, makeup artists, and production designers all report to the cinematographer, workshopping ideas together before launching into their respective work. This collaboration sets the film’s comprehensive look. Cinematographers also oversee the camera operator, first assistant camera, second assistant camera, gaffers, electricians, and key grips.
The cinematographer is similar in title or scope to several other positions:
Cinematographer vs. videographer
Generally, a videographer records an event, while a cinematographer directs the aesthetic and technical approach for a TV or commercial production.
Cinematographer vs. art director
An art director’s job happens primarily during preproduction, when they create an artistic vision by designing sets and overseeing artists. A cinematographer is more heavily involved during production by choosing how best to film those sets.
Cinematographer vs. director
The director is in charge of the creative process of the entire production, while the cinematographer is specifically responsible for its visual elements.
Cinematographer vs. producer
The producer oversees all aspects of production, particularly logistics. While they might work with the cinematographer to determine location and budget, the producer usually works more with the director, and then the director with the cinematographer.
According to ZipRecruiter, cinematographer salaries range from $20,000 to $174,000, with an average of $63,709 per year. They usually get paid between a few thousand and a hundred thousand dollars per job.
Cinematographers are represented by IATSE Local 600—the International Cinematographers Guild—which sets standard minimum rates for union productions.
Behind the scenes of “Hustle” Credit: Scotty Yamano/Netflix
Becoming a cinematographer requires a mix of education and experience:
Many cinematographers get their start in film school, where they learn all elements of filmmaking and gain technical skills in lighting and camera work. They may also attend fine arts or liberal arts programs that offer cinematography classes. Undergraduate and/or graduate degrees in film, film production, cinematography, or photography are advantageous, but having hands-on experience—and a solid reel to show for it—is also important.
Education can also happen outside the classroom. One of the best ways to learn cinematography is to pick up a beginner camera and create your own content. There are numerous affordable options that let you shoot in 4K, but in a pinch your smartphone can capture quality images as well. The goal isn't to make a masterpiece, but to get creative with lighting, composition, and telling a story through framing.
Any experience on set can help immerse aspiring cinematographers in film production processes. It’s common for cinematographers to start in the crews they end up leading. Many will climb the ladder as camera assistants, lighting and grip technicians, and camera operators. Before landing these jobs, they might start as production assistants, then transition into the camera department, where they can cut their teeth as camera trainees.
“I worked as a production assistant,” says Morgan. “I then managed to meet some camera crews, and after many months of volunteering, started working in the camera department. I worked as a camera assistant for five years, shooting short films in my spare time.”
Independent films, commercials, videos for advertising agencies, or personal passion projects can all provide experience. Eric Branco (“Clemency”) fell into cinematography accidentally via acting: “When I started making student films and shorts, I realized there was no one to hold the camera, and so I kind of fell back from in front of the camera and started holding the camera, and then I totally fell in love with photography and the moving image.”
Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who consistently works with Martin Scorsese (“Hugo,” “The Aviator”), Oliver Stone (“Platoon,” “JFK”), and Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained,” “The Hateful Eight”), says aspiring cinematographers should make sure to always practice with their camera: “Carry a camera at all times and shoot constantly. Learn what composition pleases your eye, what light does to that which you shoot.”
Then, study film as if it were your job. “When you have viewed a film and feel you have experienced it as fully as possible, turn the sound off, start from the beginning, and find where the film works and does not. Then, ask why,” he advises. “Only through focus and patience can your skills mature.”
The skills beneficial to succeeding as a cinematographer are:
- Proficiency in camera operation and techniques
- Considerable experience and ability in shooting and lighting
- Technical skills to craft mood through the use of color, light, and shadow
- Comprehensive understanding of aesthetics
- A great eye for detail
- Strong leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills
Behind the scenes of “Ozark” Credit: Jessica Miglio/Netflix
Along with the cinematographers already named in this article, other famous cinematographers include:
- John Alcott: “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” ”The Shining”
- Robert Burks: “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “The Birds”
- Gunnar Fischer: “Wild Strawberries,” “The Seventh Seal,” “The Devil’s Eye”
- Tak Fujimoto: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Gladiator,” “The Sixth Sense”
- Conrad L. Hall: “In Cold Blood,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “American Beauty”
- Hoyte Van Hoytema: “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk,” “Let the Right One In,” “Her”
- Ellen Kuras: “Analyze That,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “If These Walls Could Talk”
- Matthew Libatique: “Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Pi,” “A Star Is Born”
- Rachel Morrison: “Fruitvale Station,” “Black Panther,” “Mudbound”
- Rodrigo Prieto: “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Irishman” “Babel,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”
- Bradford Young: “Arrival,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “Selma”
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!