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Learn the Basics of Cinematography

The cinematographer job description is a little difficult to pin down as they sometimes work various jobs, ranging from director of photography to camera operator. Most often, however, a cinematographer is the director of photography on a film or TV show. With that in mind, cinematography gives a story life by adding movement to a script and capturing the story in a way that will entertain and command an audience’s attention. Iconic films like Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia wouldn't exist as we know them without a talented cinematographer; also, commonly known as the Director of Photography, or DP. 

To become a successful cinematographer, you must be able, willing, and ready to work quickly and creatively. The needs of one client will be vastly different than the needs of another. It’s true that the movie, Transformers doesn’t necessarily require the same creativity and camera work as a Kia car commercial. Yet, the best DP's in the world will successfully employ their talents and skills from set to set, movie to movie and television show to television commercial.

A cinematographer must be comfortable making creative choices while also working within the limits of a client’s budget and skillset. A good cinematographer will have a well-rounded understanding of filmmaking and an arsenal of camera skills and thus may opt for an educational path that takes them from one end of a set to the other. This means that a cinematographer must be as comfortable picking out a lens for their camera as they are in setting up lighting.

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Pursue Higher Education

A cinematographer’s training never ends, primarily because technology is constantly changing and new techniques, as well as equipment, are developed. So, whether you are just starting out as a camera operator, or have climbed the ladder to director of photography, you must keep up-to-date with new gadgets and tools, and be ready to use them on the set. 

The first thing that you need to understand is that becoming a cinematographer is not a simple path to follow. The art industry is notoriously unreliable and deceptively fickle. What works for one DP may not work for another. As a result, the best way for an aspiring cinematographer to find success is to set themselves up with a well-rounded education. Of course, the first step, however, is to have an interest in photography and cameras. 

The decision to go to film school is a choice that will weigh heavily on the shoulders of aspiring filmmakers everywhere. Film school requires financial debt, but it also provides a path to success that can be golden in the field of cinematography. Film school will allow students to learn the ins and outs this career field while establishing positive networking moments for future work. A degree focused on cinematography will teach you all aspects of movie-making and the process of film production.  Programs can be found at both certificate and associate degree levels, although a bachelor’s degree in film or cinematography (or photography) is preferred by most employers. 

At the certificate level, students learn through accelerated programs and work in labs to became familiar with filmmaking techniques. They may learn camera lens and lighting techniques, how to use exposure meters, the role of a cinematographer, and gain an understanding of film stocks. At the associate degree level, students learn the basics of TV and film. Courses will aid graduates in securing entry-level jobs. Coursework typically includes cinematography, directing, and sound design, the role of a film editor, and may include classes in script and screenwriting. 

A bachelor’s of science in digital cinematography (the preferred degree for those wishing to enter the field) offers students further knowledge of this career field and often includes hands-on training in lighting techniques, shooting and editing effects, production preparation, animation, and the role of a film crew. Bachelor’s programs also typically require a final film project. 

For aspiring cinematographers who don't want to pursue film school, there are other options.

The simplest way to find success as a cinematographer is by spending time on film sets. Film sets aren't just limited to Hollywood anymore, as more and more states are beginning to offer tax breaks to lure in movie crews. When signing up to work as a PA (Production Assistant) on a film set, you may get to see first-hand how a movie set works and what goes into making a production tick. As you work your way up the ladder, you will pick up more and more skills, each one contributing to the overall expertise that you will use as a cinematographer. 

Cinematographers will eventually be tasked with making the jump from the indie world to the professional world. If you are in a large market, like Los Angeles or New York, this might mean joining the union. A union will offer you certain protections and certain incentives to work as a cinematographer. But, a union can also limit the available pool of work, cutting you off from the indie market. This isn't a decision that aspiring DPs should make lightly. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cinematographer will earn roughly $42,350 per year. While that is decent money, there may be a misconception of higher earnings due to the glamorous nature of Hollywood. Many people pursuing cinematography will end up working in the film industry while others will pursue local radio and TV broadcasting. Of course, those with years of experience and a stellar reputation in the field will make much more and find work more readily available.

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Seek Opportunities for Professional Development

No matter what path you take to a career in cinematography, you must follow some simple rules to continue seeing your career grow. Although some may disagree, one of the most important aspects of filmmaking is not what you know, but instead who you know. Networking is extremely important in any art field, and cinematography is no exception. So, always be ready to cultivate relationships. Stay in touch with old film school buddies and offer to help out on local theater projects. 

Once a cinematographer has started regularly working, it’s wise to begin cultivating a brand. This may mean making and maintaining a professional website that is up to date with current projects, contact information, and demo footage. Aspiring cinematographers will want to show off their skills by showcasing their best footage from various projects. All of this information should be available at the click of a button, and a website gives others that access to you. 

Mingling with professionals in the industry is also a great way for a cinematographer to find work. Attending mixers, screenings, seminars, and red carpet events can be the best way to grow a brand name. A quality cinematographer will have a stack of business cards with them at all times. Through gaining industry connections, a hobbyist DP can become a career cinematographer.  Cinematographers might also turn to industry magazines like Backpages in order to stay up to date on the latest happenings and to fill out their calendar on non-shooting days. 

Above all else, a cinematographer must be ready to create a name for themselves with their own distinctive style. You might not know Roger Deakins or Emmanuel Lubezki, but you'll know their work every time that it shows up on the big screen. Cultivating your own personal style should be a constant focus because your unique style can take you all the way to the top. 

In addition, there are some basic skills all cinematographers should have. Much of this knowledge can be gained while in college, but some may also be learned while interning or volunteering. Essential skills include an artistic eye for photography, and recognizing a good shot from a great shot. Knowledge of the technical basics of photography and how lighting impacts a shot. How to use numerous lens, film speeds, and exposure to frame a shot. An understanding of film-specific equipment and techniques, such as dollies, blue screen, Steadicam, and hand-held cameras is also necessary. 

Cinematographers much have a thorough knowledge of film production, and an understanding that flexibility and problem-solving skills are required to handle production mishaps, or when the weather won’t cooperate, equipment breaks down, or budgets are blown.  A cinematographer also needs the ability to work well with a team, from directors and actors to producers, stage hands, etc.

Get to Know Our Experts

Nick Royer

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Royer Films
  • Where:
    Omaha, NE
  • Experience:
    5 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    My interests in film-making and cinematography began in high school, where I produced over 40 short films. I learned how to write, shoot, and edit through trial-and-error, as well as reading and talking to industry professionals online. I started to pick up some paid jobs and went to work for a wedding videographer at 16. By the time I graduated high school, I was producing videos for several local companies.

    Finding the right path in college was tough. I went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, starting out with a major in business management. I continued to work professionally, getting onto my first TV documentary as a cameraman in my freshman year. I transferred to the Art College at UNO and got the opportunity to practice my skills on the projects I worked on there. Late in my sophomore year, my professional work started to gain some traction, so I left school to pursue my career full-time.Though my school didn’t have a film program, they did allow me to shoot some of my early spec-work on their campus, and they even sponsored the production of my first feature film thru a grant program. While I didn’t graduate, the experiences and connections I gained at UNO, especially in the Art College, are a big part of who I am today as a professional.Being on productions is my favorite part of the job, but most of my days are spent working at home, prepping for shoots and reaching out to potential clients. In an ideal world, I would be on-location more, but a freelancer must spend a lot of time doing the back-end business work that makes the fun parts possible.I spent a lot of time early-on trying to build up my portfolio on the paid jobs I was getting, but a very successful cinematographer advised me to go out and spend some of my own money shooting quality footage that I could use to build my reel. I was able to showcase my talents much better than the low-budget corporate work I was getting at the time, and that first show-reel jump-started my career years before it would have otherwise. It was a very smart investment.

    Advice

    Practice as much as possible

    I suggest that one practices as much as possible and to read as much as one can. With the Internet, we have access to information unlike any generation before –use it! Realize that it will take a long time, years, for your work to match your vision – stick with it, learn from everything you do, and you will get there. Be humble, willing to learn from others, and open to suggestions. Productions can be a stressful environment, have thick skin and don’t take anything personally. Don’t be afraid to change your path. There are many different careers in the film business, and you may find one you like better. Most importantly, never stop learning and trying new things.

    Education vs your portfolio

    Education is a tricky subject in the film world, especially when it comes to the technical jobs like cinematography. A film school education can be a great way to learn if you don’t have much experience or access to productions and equipment, but your portfolio of work is far more important than your educational background in this industry. A lot of people come out of film school expecting a leg-up over those without degrees, but this is usually not the case.

    Stick with it

    I’ve met some of the top guys in this industry and, though they can seem larger than life, in reality they are just regular people who started at the same place you are –only they didn’t have anywhere near the resources and knowledge we have available to us today. The film industry is a lot like a marathon –if you stick with it, you will eventually get there.

    Tim Ryan

  • Title:
    Founder & Director
  • Company:
    TAR Productions
  • Where:
    San Diego, CA
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I earned a Bachelor of Art from Loyola Marymount University and a minor in business administration. I cut my teeth in the action sports industry by shooting surfing and skateboarding videos. I worked as a freelancer for a lot of the top brands and was able to travel the world for 3 years after finishing school. I didn’t make much money doing it, but it was the time of my life, and I learned so much about the world, people, and unique cultures.

    These days it’s a little bit different running a production company. I have a family now so I don’t get to travel like I used to, and I have overhead and bills to worry about. It’s very rewarding, however, to hire on friends for different jobs. We operate under the Hollywood model, meaning we’ve two full time employees, and everyone else is a specialist freelancer. Since we’re a small company and I wear multiple hats, this means I’m Director and Cinematographer on most shoots we have.

    I am based out of a co-working space and have to focus on top level business needs on a daily basis. When we’re in pre-production on a project, I’m figuring out how we’re going to shoot a project and how the cinematography (light shape, light color, light quantity, lens choice, camera movement, etc.) will play a role in our story and connection with our audience. I then take these attributes and put them in our production documents which I’ll share with our team. We usually work with fairly small teams (2-4 others), and everyone will have their specific role, but at the same time it’s all hands on deck since most the jobs we’re doing are not under union jurisdiction. I review during our pre-production meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page when on set. You have to move fast on set, and if you can’t, you’ll have a hard time finding work.I love the ability to solve problems and be creative at the same time. Each project we take on has its own set of restraints (most common are time, budget or geographic location), and it’s fun to explore and exploit ideas. In terms of my dislikes: Being in client services can be really tricky and hard. I put so much into each project emotionally that I can take everything personally. The good news is that if you find your niche, find what you’re really good at or enjoy, you’ll find the people you work with to be much more pleasant and your life will be easier.

    Advice

    Don’t invest in camera equipment

    I suggest that you don’t invest in camera equipment. The camera is a tool; the better your camera doesn’t make you a better cinematographer. Cameras can get dated pretty quickly. Also, light is the most important thing. Focus on where to add light, where and how to remove light, the intensity and color of it. It’s amazing how much you can say with just light.

    Be prepared for it to take time

    Keep in mind that cinematography is largely a freelance career. It will take time to build up a network and get work. You’ll find the more you work the more work will come your way. It’s fairly typical to be on set and get hired on your next project via someone else on your current set. If you’re looking for a full-time gig internally somewhere you’ll most likely have to have some editing skills too. That’s the way everything is going.

    On education…

    Film school is great but not a requirement. After being in business for 10 years, I haven’t once asked if someone has a college diploma, and if so, if that diploma is in film/tv production or studies. There are a ton of resources online and you can get an incredible amount of insight through these. Shane Hurlbut, a renowned cinematographer, has a great education blog and is probably the best resource around. Nofilmschool.com has a ton of news and industry tips.

    Best way to get your foot in the door

    The best way to get your foot in the door is to do, make, create and learn. You have to get down and dirty, and do not fool yourself into needing certain equipment or money to accomplish your goals. I’d much rather see someone’s reel over his/her resume/diploma if I’m looking to hire. A diploma is great and shows me that you can put in effort to achieve something, but what matters most is what you can put on screen. Create a network, and don’t be afraid to network. I encourage you to take on projects and stories that you want to share.

    Guillermo Navarro

  • Title:
    Director of Photography and Camera Operator
  • Company:
    Freelancer
  • Where:
    Hawaii
  • Experience:
    22 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have a BA in film from Centro Cinematografico Buenos Aires of Argentina, where I am from. I started working with an NGO that did relief work all over the world, so I got to travel doing documentaries and news style reports. I traveled to over 35 countries and several times got to document Hurricane disasters or other difficult situations. One of the first ones was the Iniki Hurricane in 1992 on the Island of Kauai (Hawaii). I also covered Hurricane Mitch in 1998 in Honduras, Street kids in Brazil, Saharawi refugees in the Sahara desert in Algeria, the Amazons, etc.

    When I’m not filming, I use my time to learn about new technologies, network and market myself for future jobs, maintain my equipment, etc.I particularly like to work in cinema because there is always an artistic and creative edge. Other types of work, like reality shows or interviews, don’t seem to be as exciting. You have to be very efficient and professional, but there is little creativity involved.I was initially trying to decide between film school and architecture. Architecture looked like it was going to take me 6 to 8 years. I wish I would’ve known that becoming a good cinematographer would take 10 to 15 years of dedicated hard work!

    Advice

    Be sure you love this job

    Be sure you love this job. You have to always be learning, always perfecting your style and always working long hours. But if you are passionate about visual storytelling, lighting, composition and visual arts in general, you will love every minute of it.

    On education…

    As far as schools, I believe some film schools are great and some are not so great. What defines a film-maker is when you make films; therefore I don’t understand some film programs in which students hardly ever get to shoot anything. Everything seems to be theory. To be a cinematographer you need a technical foundation and an artistic foundation. There are some good programs that will give you a good starting point. Then, you have to continue studying for the rest of your life. Keep up with every new technology, and keep developing your artistic eye. Going to art museums, studying new trends in visual design, popular culture and arts in general is always helpful. Even music has an influence in cinematography since you can create a rhythm with your camera style. Being knowledgeable with technology is a must, but developing your own artistic style is what will make you unique.

    Know what you’re getting into

    Most people will tell you to start as a camera assistant or a grip to learn the basis of it. Even though this is good advice and you will learn the basics, you have to be aware that this is not a vertical career. You don’t start as 2nd AC, and then become 1st AC, the camera operator, and then director of photography. The cinematographer is usually hired because of his visual style and what he can bring to the project. Therefore developing your own demo reel is perhaps more important than anything else. You can do your own demo reel starting with student projects and freebies. Music videos are great vehicles to show what you can do with the camera. If you have a great demo reel, it will open doors for you more than any other thing.

    Cinematographer Infographic