How to Become a Cinematographer or Director of Photography

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Photo Source: Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

When a film has an award-winning look, we often give credit to the director. However, behind every distinctive shot is a cinematographer, sometimes known as the director of photography (DP). In this guide, you’ll find information on everything that’s fundamental to cinematography: exactly what the role entails, what the highest-paying jobs are, and how to get your career off the ground. Let this be your go-to resource for becoming a cinematographer.

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What is a cinematographer or director of photography?

In general, cinematographers work on film and video sets as part of a production crew—they’re there on the day of shooting to collaborate closely with the director and any assistant directors (ADs). They determine how each shot should be blocked and composed, map out all camera angles and movements, and typically supervise the camera and lighting crews, guiding the camera operators, gaffers, and key grips

“It’s a cinematographer’s job to visually interpret the director’s vision,” Eric Branco (“Clemency,” “Emerald City”) says. “I think the director of the film is overall at the helm of the script, and I think it’s the cinematographer’s job to translate their ideas into something real and tangible, something that you can photograph.” Michael E. Satrazemis (“The Walking Dead”) adds that a DP’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. And then you work with all the other departments—the production designer, the wardrobe—with textures. It’s a collaborative thing.”

Is there a difference between a cinematographer and a DP?

“Cinematographer” is an umbrella term for someone who knows how to operate and manipulate a camera to achieve a desired visual approach or effect. The term cinematographer is often used interchangeably with director of photography. Typically on film sets, a DP is a more specific cinematographic job; the DP is the most senior official at the top of the cinematography department, managing equipment and crews. Part technician, part artist, the DP works with the director to make the shots possible and tell the film’s story with the camera.

“On a narrative project, a director of photography helps tell the story through the visual choices they make in lighting, camera movement, and framing,” says Polly Morgan (“Lucy in the Sky,” “A Quiet Place Part II”). “We work closely with the director in prep to decipher the tone, character arcs, and visual language that will be used to tell the story.”

What jobs can a cinematographer do?

A cinematographer’s day varies depending on what point of the production they’re in. During preproduction, they participate in location scouting, breaking down the script to create a shot list and storyboard, determining what equipment is necessary, and hiring their team and heads of the departments they oversee: camera operators, 1st AC, 2nd AC, gaffer, key grip.

Once principal photography begins, the cinematographer is often juggling several responsibilities at once. Not only do they have the largest crew on set, they’re also in continuous communication with the director and production designer to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of a visual style. They’ll also attend rehearsal to adjust the camera in response to a gesture, action, or change in blocking. 

“Upon arriving on location, we unpack and assemble the camera(s), grip, and sound and lighting equipment,” says Danny Cohen (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Misérables”). “At any one time, the DP has to oversee a group of people surrounding this one piece of equipment. Camera operators, camera assistants, camera grips and focus pullers are all crew members whose sole responsibility revolves around the camera. It’s an entire department. On smaller productions with tighter budgets, some of these responsibilities filter down to [the DP].”

In postproduction, the director is in the editing suite’s driver seat. However, sometimes, the cinematographer or DP will be brought in to consult on which takes would be the most effective or for color-grading on shots to enhance the image. (For an hour-by-hour breakdown of a DP’s life on set during production, check out a set diary from Neil Oseman during his time shooting a short film in London.)

How does someone get started working in cinematography?

Getting started freelancing as a cinematographer is really just about that: getting started. “You have to get your hands on a camera—whether it’s an iPhone or a Red [a high-end camera for big-budget work],” says Tripp Clemens, co-founder and creative director of Windy Films. Finding work as a 1st AC, gaffer, camera operator, or even production assistant on film sets can help improve your skill set and make professional connections that lead to more work. Crew jobs are also a great way to stay afloat financially. But don’t assume that putting in years as a camera operator will lead to a career as a top DP. Rather, the people in charge want to see cinematography work of one’s own design. So pursuing creative opportunities, paid or unpaid, that add to a cinematographer’s résumé and reel is the way to get started. Passion projects are where art is made and artists are launched.

Branco fell into cinematography via student films: “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.” Morgan worked as a PA before landing work in the camera department. “I worked as a camera assistant for five years, shooting short films in my spare time,” she says, “before finally coming to the U.S. to do a master’s degree in cinematography at the American Film Institute.”

Finally, while higher education training isn’t necessarily the only way to gain the technical knowledge one needs to become a working cinematographer, the professional networks that school settings provide can prove invaluable for finding creative partners. 

What skills are needed to be a cinematographer?

Cinematographers should have a strong technical knowledge of camera equipment and lighting. They must master the interplay between light, lenses, and locations, as well as camera operation and techniques, a great eye for detail, and strong leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills. Robert Richardson, who consistently works with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and Quentin Tarantino, says aspiring cinematographers should be constantly practicing with a camera: “Carry a camera at all times and shoot constantly. Learn what composition pleases your eye, what light does to that which you shoot.” 

DPs must be able to “track the journey of light,” as Clemens puts it, which requires education in color theory. However, a BFA or MFA is not the only way to achieve this knowledge. DPs can learn their craft through apprenticeships and on-site experience.

What equipment do cinematographers use the most?

Cinematographers work with more technical equipment than pretty much any member of a film set. For more specifics on the camera equipment and other hardware cinematography requires, read our checklist. 

Your guide to getting cinematography jobs.

Making a living in this field, as with any area of the entertainment industry, requires promoting oneself. Here’s how to find cinematographer jobs: 

  • Browse and apply to freelance gigs on job sites. Seek out work with local creatives, film students, agencies, on short films, and on job boards. From general job posting resources to ones more specific to film and television, commercial, and branded content jobs such as Backstage and Mandy, the demand for cinematographic skills is everywhere. The keys to maximizing your odds of booking such gigs are persistence and consistency; bookmark job databases in your browser or schedule regular times to check them out.
  • Network. It’s essential to be an engaged community member to build relationships with potential collaborators. The labor of the filmmaking industry is built on word-of-mouth recommendations. To get ahead, the key is to maintain and grow personal connections, including with fellow cinematographers and like-minded artists. Online communities are essential: Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, and more feature groups of industry professionals eager to help each other get ahead.
  • Build and keep updating a body of work. A personal website fully equipped with dazzling video is an ideal way for cinematographers to display professional work. Reels and samples of work (see below) should be organized by project type. In addition, social media like Instagram can be a powerful tool for both promoting work and networking.

What should cinematographers include in their demo reel?

A DP’s reel should be a collection of the best shots they’ve executed that showcase a clear cinematographic style. When it comes to learning how to make a demo reel, Kevin Waczek, founder of the Filmmaker’s Blog, has a few pointers. 

  1. Decide between a montage or excerpts of full scenes. Montages give you the “opportunity to showcase a more diverse shot selection,” he says, while excerpts offer “a more comprehensive sample of your cinematographic style.” 
  2. Use raw footage when possible to “free yourself of the creative restrictions of others,” namely the editor. 
  3. Be honest with yourself regarding what your best work is. “There needs to be a quality line when deciding what shots to include,” he says. “Take your best shots and analyze them to find out what is great about them.... If you can find something in every shot that you are proud of, then you have a contender for your reel’s final cut.” 
  4. Most importantly, your reel should illustrate who you are as a creative. As a cinematographer, your job is to tell a story, so make sure the shots you choose to include in your reel tell the story of you.

How much do cinematographers get paid?

With film production alive and well today, film and TV cinematographers are indeed in demand. Career sites including ZipRecruiter estimate that a film cinematographer makes $30 an hour, equalling about $61,000 a year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks salaries for all camera operators in the motion picture and video industries, estimating an average of $81,000 a year. Check out their site for more data.

According to the New York Film Academy, DPs earn an average of $60,000 to $70,000 once they’re experienced enough to get regular, paying work. Recent research from CareerExplorer shows average annual earnings in cinematography, based on level of experience:

  • Entry-level: $25,000–$28,000
  • Junior-level: $28,000–$32,000
  • Mid-level: $32,000–$40,000
  • Senior-level: $40,000–$59,000
  • Top-level: $60,000–$106,000

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

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