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Arts & Entertainment

How to Become a Cinematographer

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

The cinematographer is one of the most important and coveted jobs on a film set. Cinematographers are the people who make a director’s vision come to life with their artistic eye, technical know-how, and creativity.

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What Is a Cinematographer?

A cinematographer, also known as a director of photography (often shortened to DP or DoP), is the person responsible for creating the look of a film. A cinematographer works with the camera and lighting crew to make sure that the camera is capturing the action the way that the director is intending it to. A good DP will know how to elevate a director’s vision, and introduce ideas and concepts the director may not have considered.

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

A professional cinematographer’s job description changes depending on what stage of the filmmaking process they are in. These are a cinematographer’s responsibilities during pre-production:

  • Brainstorm: During pre-production, cinematographers work closely with the film director, the film production designer, and the rest of the art department leaders to brainstorm the look, feel, and visual storytelling techniques of the film. During this phase, directors of photography will raise questions like: What is the tone of the film? What is the color palette? What other films inspire the look of this film? What special effects will we need? Directors and cinematographers often communicate with each during this phase using mood boards or lookbooks.
  • Scout locations: The director of photography will accompany the location manager or location scout as they search for locations to film. In this instance, the cinematographer’s job is to survey the location for its natural light (or lack thereof), its space and set up, and whether or not it is line with the aforementioned visual look of the film. Learn Martin Scorsese's tips for location scouting here.
  • Gather the camera equipment: The DP will give the line producer a list of required camera equipment (which includes cameras, lenses, filters, and film stock) to rent or purchase.
  • Assemble the team: Many DPs have built a team they can trust through working on many different projects, and will often work with the same camera crews and lighting crews from film to film. They also work with the line producer to hire and fill out the film crew. The primary positions that interact with the DP the most include the camera operator (also known as the cameraman), the 1st and 2nd assistant camera, the gaffer, and the key grip.

These are a cinematographer’s responsibilities during production and post-production:

  • Determine how to shoot a scene: Once on the film set, the DP directs the camera and lighting technicians, paying attention to such cinematography techniques as composition, framing and exposure. This includes choosing the camera lens and filters, determining the ideal depth of field for the shot, and discussing with the director which shots should be close-ups, medium shots, or wide shots. The DP will also instruct the camera operator as to what type of camera movement and camera work is necessary in a given shot.
  • Go over dailies: Dailies refer to the raw, unedited footage that was shot that day. Dailies are reviewed by the director and DP to ensure that everything is aligned with the original vision of the motion picture.
  • Color grading: During post-production, DP’s will apply their cinematography skills to the process of color grading. Color grading tweaks the look and color of the film. The DP is responsible for the film’s color palette, so they advise the colorists on how the color palette should appear.
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How to Become a Cinematographer

Here are some tips that can help you become a cinematographer:

  1. Pursue higher education. Aspiring cinematographers can benefit greatly from enrolling in film school. Film school provides an opportunity to study the technical side of a cinematography career, immerse yourself in film studies, and provide a network of future coworkers or employers. There are a number of degree programs available at most film schools, although most employers prefer a bachelor’s degree in cinematography or photography. Such a program will often give students an overview in all aspects of filmmaking, including lighting techniques, film & video production, and directing. You’ll also meet peers working in sound, lighting, and video editing who you may end up collaborating with in the future. Obviously, there are some downsides to film school—they’re usually expensive, for one thing—but attending can increase your ability to get entry level cinematographer jobs in the film industry.
  2. Spend time on film sets. Spending time on a film set is an invaluable way to immerse yourself in the process of filmmaking and observe the best cinematography practices. If you can’t immediately find a job as a cinematographer, that’s okay: most cinematographers of feature films and tv shows began as production assistants and worked their way up the ladder through hard work and dedication. Even if you’re working on the sets of low-budget short films or indie music videos, the time spent on set will give you a priceless introduction to lighting and camera equipment like steadicams, as well as the overall practice of filmmaking. Luckily, film sets are not confined to New York and Los Angeles anymore due to tax incentives offered by other states. Get involved with your local film scene and research which sets are looking for PA’s.
  3. Hone your technical skills. You don’t need access to a Hollywood movie set or an expensive film school to practice your craft. Cinematographers need to be fluent in how to manipulate light, color, and shadow, and must be intimately familiar with the equipment required to do so. Use the camera on your phone to experiment with the look of different lighting equipment. Practice shooting at different times of day to see how it affects your image. Listen to podcasts or read articles with cinematographers you trust. There’s always a way to be honing the skills necessary for a career in cinematography.
  4. Put yourself out there. Even if you’re the most talented cinematographer in the world, nobody will hire you if they don’t know who you are. Try to attend mixers, screening and events with other professionals in the industry. Jump at the opportunity to take freelance gigs that can help you meet people. Make sure you have a website or a reel that’s up-to-date. It’s important that people know where to find you and can easily access your work.

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