How to Become a Cinematographer

By TACP Staff on June 22, 2019

A cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP), is responsible for all the visual elements of a film; in other words, this professional is literally, the eye behind the camera. Under the guidance of the film’s director, the cinematographer makes creative decisions affecting the picture’s lighting, camera motion, shot color, depth of field; as well as scene composition with regards to actor positioning, zoom, lens usage and techniques.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Cinematographers

Additional Guides

If you are considering a career within the film and video industry you have a wide variety of exciting professional options to choose from. Check out these additional how-to-become guides to learn about additional career options in the field.