How to Become a Director of Photography

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Photo Source: “Fear the Walking Dead” behind the scenes — Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC

When a film has an award-winning look, we often give credit to the director. However, behind every distinctive shot is a director of photography (DP). From Mauro Fiore’s otherworldly depictions in “Avatar” to Rob Hardy’s futuristic claustrophobia in “Ex Machina,” directors of photography drive a film’s visual elements. In this guide, you’ll find information on everything that’s fundamental to the role: exactly what it entails, its place in the crew hierarchy, and how to get your career off the ground.

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What is a director of photography?

'Umbrella Academy' behind the scenes“Umbrella Academy” behind the scenes — Photo Credit: Christos Kalohordis/Netflix

The director of photography uses their artistic eye and technical know-how to create a film’s visual elements. They are responsible for everything that involves capturing images with the camera, including the camera itself, shooting angles and camera movements, film and lens type, lighting, framing, color, and filters.

What does a director of photography do?

Filming 'Only Murders in the Building'“Only Murders in the Building” — Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Conceptualize the film's look

Working with the director and production team, the director of photography conceptualizes and crafts the way a film will look. They develop the film’s tone, color, lighting, special effects, and mood, at times through mood boards or look books.

Prepare to film

During preproduction, traditionally, the DP participates 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 (more on that below).

Direct the camera crew during production

During production, the DP blocks shots, directs the camera and lighting crews with particular focus on composition and movements, and reviews each day’s unedited footage. Not only do they have the largest crew on set, they’re also in continual 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 any rehearsals 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,” Danny Cohen (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Misérables”) told Particle6. “At any one time, the DP has to oversee a group of people surrounding this one piece of equipment.”

Consult on color

In postproduction, the director is in the editing suite’s driver’s seat. However, sometimes, the DP will be brought in to help choose takes or consult on color-grading.

Where does the director of photography fit within the crew?

'Ghostbusters: Afterlife' behind the scenes“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” behind the scenes — Photo Credit: Kimberley French/Sony Pictures

The director of photography reports to the director. They supervise the camera operator, first assistant camera, second assistant camera, gaffers, electricians, and key grips.

Director of photography vs. cinematographer

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. On the set itself, the director of photography is a more specific hierarchical role; 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 every shot possible.

“On a narrative project, a director of photography helps tell the story through the visual choices they make in lighting, camera movement, and framing,” Polly Morgan (“Lucy in the Sky,” “A Quiet Place Part II”) told Backstage. “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.”

Director of photography vs. camera operator

The director of photography crafts the visual scene for the shots, which the camera operator physically captures.

Director of photography vs. director

The DP brings the director’s vision to life, but the director controls the film’s full artistic and dramatic aspects.

Director of photography vs. producer

The DP works creatively on set, while the producer plans and coordinates the logistic elements of a film’s production.

How much does a director of photography make?

'The Son' behind the scenes“The Son” behind the scenes — Photo Credit: Van Redin/AMC

According to ZipRecruiter, a director of photography's salary typically ranges from $19,000 to $239,000, with an average of $81,919 per year. 

Directors of photography are represented by IATSE Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild. The guild sets standard minimum rates for union productions.

Requirements to become a director of photography

'Stranger Things' behind the scenes“Stranger Things” behind the scenes — Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/Netflix

Education

While higher education training isn’t the only way to gain the technical knowledge one needs to become a working DP, the professional networks that school settings provide can be invaluable for finding creative partners. Film school gives a robust introduction to filmmaking and teaches technical skills in lighting and camera work. According to Tripp Clemens, co-founder and creative director of Windy Films, DPs must be able to “track the journey of light,” which requires an education in color theory. However, a BFA or MFA is not the only way to achieve this knowledge. 

Experience

Getting started freelancing as a director of photography is really just about that—getting started. On-set experience is necessary to learn about film production, map out crew relationships, and gain technical knowledge. 

Finding work as a first assistant camera, 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 DP work of one’s own design. Passion projects are where art is made and artists are launched. “You have to get your hands on a camera,” says Clemens. 

Skills

Directors of photography 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. DPs should also have 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 regularly practice 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 should also be strong communicators and good leaders, with the ability to give and follow instructions well.

How to get director of photography jobs

DP on setElizaveta Galitckaia/Shutterstock

Making a living in this field, as with any area of the entertainment industry, requires self-promotion and hard work. Here’s how to find DP jobs: 

  • Browse and apply to freelance gigs on job sites: Seek out work with local creatives, film students, and agencies, or find work on short films and on job boards. From general job posting resources to ones more specific to film and television, commercial, and branded content—such as Backstage and Mandy—the demand for movie photography 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 directors of photography and like-minded artists. Online communities are essential—Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, and more platforms host groups of industry professionals eager to help each other get ahead.
  • Build and keep updating your body of work: A personal website fully equipped with dazzling video is an ideal way for DPs to display professional work. Reels and samples of work should be organized by project type. In addition, social media such as Instagram can be a powerful tool for both promoting work and networking.

What should directors of photography include in their demo reel?

'Turn' behind the scenes“TURN: Washington's Spies” — Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

The reel should be a collection of the best shots that showcase a clear style. When it comes to learning how to make a demo reel, Kevin Waczek, founder of the Filmmakers Blog, shared a few pointers on his site: 

  • Decide between a montage or excerpts of full scenes. Montages give you the “opportunity to showcase a more diverse shot selection,” he said, while excerpts offer “a more comprehensive sample” of your style.
  • Use raw footage when possible to “free yourself of the restrictions of the creative choices of others,” namely the editor. 
  • Be honest with yourself regarding what your best work is. “There needs to be a quality line when deciding what shots to include,” he said. “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.” 
  • Most important, your reel should illustrate who you are as a creative. As a director of photography, your job is to tell a story, so make sure the shots you choose to include in your reel tell the story of you.

Once you have a solid demo reel, be sure to browse the freelance and staff openings for directors of photography.

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