When talking about film production, the actors and the directors are the ones that tend to receive the most attention. However, behind every great director, is a great cinematographer, and many have gone onto form their own category of famous cinematographers, from the likes of Roger Deakins, Hoyte van Hoytema, Rachel Morrison, Emmanuel Lubezki, Bill Pope and Bradford Young.
What is a cinematographer?
A cinematographer is one of the most critical roles on a film set. A cinematographer (sometimes known as a director of photography (DP or DoP)) is the person responsible for the filming (or shooting) of a film, music video or TV show.
Cinematographers are often the closest collaborators for directors. As a result, a cinematographer will have ultimate control over the lighting and camera crew. They are responsible for selecting the camera, film type (digital or film stock), lenses, filters and lighting patterns.
A cinematographer salary will depend on many different factors.
Cinematographers are often confused with cameramen. Though cameramen share many of the responsibilities of a cinematographer, there are some subtle differences. Cinematographers work with highly specialised equipment and collaborators, while cameramen work with cameras and more specific software. Though this will generally depend on the projects you are working on, cinematographers tend to be the most direct manager of a cameraman.
Although they are not the editor for the piece, a cinematographer may still be used in the post-production process.
A cinematographer has several key responsibilities on a film set. The responsibilities you will undertake for this role will largely depend on the budget and scale of the project you are working on.
The most common responsibilities for a cinematographer are:
- Aiding in the creation of storyboards.
- Approve colour textures.
- Approve lighting coordination.
- Decide on the preferred filming technique (digital, film stock etc.)
- Deciding and agreeing on the visual identity and approach of the project with the director.
- Establishing the visual style of the project.
- Keep abreast of industry developments.
- Selecting lenses to be used.
- Selecting the cameras to be used on set.
- Train crew members to safely use equipment.
- Visit locations.
You may be asked to undertake additional responsibilities if it is a small-budget project. Many cinematographers are consulted after completing a project on sound design, post-production, editing and visual effects.
A cinematographer salary will depend on many different factors. For instance, union workers or those signed up to a recognised industry cinematography association or society have a minimum standard they are paid for work on a specific project, which is influenced by the project’s budget and what it is (i.e. music video, corporate video, film, TV show etc.).
Generally, the salary for a cinematographer will have a very large range. As this is largely a freelance-based role, you will need to source your own jobs. Therefore, the amount you can earn is based on your work and how you are paid. In the UK, cinematographers earn between £10,000 and £50,000 annually, averaging around £27,000. Though freelancers in London have been known to earn more.
A university degree is not required for this role, but is hugely beneficial. Most collaborators prefer to work on the basis of your portfolio and a record of any previous work you have completed.
These skills can be further honed by training and development.
Despite this, a bachelor’s degree in film studies, cinematography degrees or photography will be hugely beneficial. The main benefit of studying either an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in this area at university is that you will have a greater opportunity to network with industry talent. This is not always the case, of course, however, many lecturers may have connections to the industry that could benefit you. It is also a good place to meet potential future collaborators.
Generally, qualifications are not necessary for this role, as it relies more on your passion, skills and portfolio. If you are not interested in a university degree, a higher national diploma (HND), a college diploma or BTEC will also be accepted.
Training and development
Training and development will be entirely down to you. As this is largely a freelance role, you will need to source any training courses. Training will largely be on the job and will likely involve a lot of trial and error.
Some external providers have useful courses for those who need them. Those who register with the British Society of Cinematographers, will have access to mentoring programmes and general training courses, as do the Association of Camera Operators.
It is also possible to study while working as a cinematographer. Many cinematographers may take part in a university or college course to expand their skill set, while also finding work related to their studies.
There are several key skills required to be a cinematographer. These skills can also extend into post-production elements, but most projects will not need this area of expertise from you.
The career prospects for a cinematographer are very good. Generally, cinematographers need to work their way into the role.
The most common skills required to become a cinematographer are:
- An eye for shot composition.
- Delegation skills.
- Excellent communication skills.
- Excellent hand-eye coordination.
- Excellent knowledge of cameras, lenses and filters.
- Excellent time management skills.
- Excellent video editing skills.
- Good eye for detail.
- Good knowledge of lighting.
- The ability to work under pressure.
- The ability to work with and understand sound and its relation to moving images.
These skills can be further honed by training and development. You will also find that you will pick up new skills when working on new projects.
Work experience is not required for this role. Though your future employment is also depend on how good your showreel (or portfolio) is, most cinematography jobs require you to be in sync with the director’s wishes and to have the ability to do what is being asked of you.
Of course, work experience can be beneficial. It is also possible to get in touch with working cinematographers and find out if they will allow you to shadow them while they work.
If you struggle to find work experience as a cinematographer, you may find some as a camera operator.
The career prospects for a cinematographer are very good. Generally, cinematographers need to work their way into the role. Initially, you will likely be a camera operator and move into cinematography areas later in your film careers.
It is also fairly common for people to work as a production assistant or runner first. A production assistant is someone who handles various tasks around the production of a film or TV show, while runners tend to take on more junior roles and work their way up from there.
It is not uncommon to begin work in other departments of a set first. Many cinematographers have started out in the lighting department or as boom operators before moving into cinematographer jobs.
A cinematographer is one of the most critical roles on a film set.
After working as a cinematographer, there are other areas to move into, but they likely won’t be related to cinematography. This could mean moving into areas of post-production or even pre-production work, though these tend to require more organisational skills or skills related to editing.