By TACP Staff on March 09, 2022


Cinematography is the art of visual storytelling and motion picture photography. Cinematography supports the overall look and feel of a film’s visual narrative and is responsible for bringing the script to life by controlling the image and creating a visual style. The cinematographer is the artist behind the camera who oversees all of the on-screen visual elements of a film or television show, including lighting, composition, framing, lens choices, camera motion, film selection, focus, color, and exposure.

What Is a Cinematographer?

Also referred to as the Director of Photography, the cinematographer is one of the most important and visible members of the filmmaking team. A cinematographer works closely with the film director to create a unified vision for a film and acts as the crew chief responsible for the camera and light crews, to ensure that all visual elements are captured and executed according to the director’s wishes.

Cinematography is a collaborative art form and is often considered one of the most challenging and creatively rewarding positions on a film crew. Cinematographers must have an intimate understanding of optics, light, motion, and color, as well as strong creative instincts and storytelling skills. They must be able to visualize a scene and bring a story to life while working within the budgetary and scheduling constraints of a production.

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

The cinematographer is responsible for creating the overall look and feel of a film’s visuals. This includes working with the director to establish the visual style, composing shots, selecting lenses and cameras, lighting scenes, and adjusting color and exposure. They work with other members of the crew to ensure that their choices support the director’s vision for the film and that each visual element that appears on screen is cohesive and enhances the story.

Cinematographer Job Description

A cinematographer typically has a range of duties that include:

  • Meeting with the director to discuss the visual style and storyboarding shots
  • Work with the script supervisor and locations manager to plan each scene and scope out the most effective camera angles
  • Choosing the appropriate lenses, cameras, and lighting for the project
  • Coordinating with the art director to create set designs and props that support the visual look of the film
  • Working with the camera and light crews during production to capture the desired footage and adjust the color and exposure as needed
  • Collaborating with the sound designer to ensure that the sound and visuals work together
  • Attend rehearsals with the actors to better understand the framing of each shot
  • Reviewing footage during post-production and making any necessary edits
  • Working with the post-production team to create visual effects and titles

Cinematographer Skills & Education Requirements

Cinematography is a creative and technical field, so you’ll have to balance artistic expression with practical considerations to be successful in the field. For aspiring cinematographers, this means developing a broad range of skills in cinematography, storytelling, motion picture photography, and visual effects.

The role requires a firm grasp of each aspect of the filmmaking process, from the initial conceptualization of a project in pre-production to the final editing and post-production stages. Fine details such as how to operate a camera and light a scene are also essential to the role and must be learned on the job.

Formal Education

The skills you need can be acquired through formal education or on-the-job training. While there is no direct path to becoming a cinematographer, most professionals in this role have an undergraduate degree in film, video production, cinematography, photography, visual effects, or a closely related field.

Film schools offer degree programs that focus on the art and craft of cinematography, and many programs also offer courses in visual effects and post-production that will provide you with a well-rounded education in the entire filmmaking process.

Cinematographer Salary

Breaking into the film industry as a cinematographer can be difficult, and the salaries for people in this role reflect that. Rising cinematography professionals often get started as production assistants, camera operators, or gaffers in order to gain experience and work their way up the ladder over time. According to marketplace data published by ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for this occupation is $61,612 per year, with an hourly wage equivalent of approximately $30.00 per hour.

Wages are substantially higher for those with more experience and skills, and those who work on larger budget productions can expect to earn a higher salary. For example, professionals in the top 10% of all earners reported salaries higher than $206,500, and these reports may not include income from professionals at the highest level of the field who are hired for major studio productions. Cinematographers who have their own production companies can also earn a healthy income from their work.

Highest Paying States for Cinematographers

Rhode Island$63,471$30.51
North Dakota$62,376$29.99
New York$61,913$29.77
* Zip Recruiter, Average Film Cinematographer Salary by State, March 09, 2022

Cinematography Organizations and Resources

Cinematographer FAQ

A filmmaker is someone who conceives, writes, directs, and edits a movie. A cinematographer is the person who captures the images on film or video. The roles for each often overlap because there is a significant amount of collaborative work that goes into making a movie and many times the same person will wear both hats on a project. However, the definition of a cinematographer is more narrowly focused on the technical aspects of capturing footage while a filmmaker is responsible for the overall vision and storytelling of a project.

A cinematographer is someone who plans, executes, and controls the photography of a film or television production. A cameraman is someone who operates a camera to capture footage. There is some overlap between these two roles, but generally, a cinematographer is more focused on the artistic aspects of capturing images while a cameraman is more concerned with the operational aspects.

Cinematography is a highly specialized field that requires a mix of creativity and technical skills. It can be a challenging and rewarding career, but it is not for everyone. As with any profession, the level of success you achieve depends largely on your own efforts and dedication. If you are passionate about film and have the drive to learn the necessary skills, then cinematography can yield an enormous amount of satisfaction and career opportunities.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because the skills and experience required for cinematography vary depending on the level of position you are aiming for. However, most professionals in this industry have an undergraduate degree in a related area such as film and have accumulated several years of experience working on productions before reaching the top of their field. Altogether, it can take anywhere from 5-6 years to develop entry-level skills and significantly longer (possibly 10-15 years or more) to become a master cinematographer.

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