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If a great novel is an extraordinary collection of sentences, a great film is an extraordinary collection of shots. No one knows that more than the movie’s cinematographer, or the “Director of Photography.” To many film buffs, the cinematographer is the second most important person on the set—after the director.

Yet for all we love about great-looking movies, how many of us really understand what a cinematographer does? Let’s explore the role of a cinematographer and learn how you can join one of the most artistic and meaningful careers in all of moviemaking.

What Is a Cinematographer?

A cinematographer is essentially in charge of how the movie looks. Camerawork, lighting, focus, and shot composition all fall under the cinematographer’s purview. As “Director of Photography,” the cinematographer’s job is simple: handling the practical work of capturing the director’s vision for how a movie should look. 

people eating
Source: Wikimedia
In Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles used both visual space and cinematography to highlight the growing emotional distance between Kane and his first wife.

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

“A cinematographer is a visual psychiatrist, moving an audience through a movie…making them think the way you want them to think.”

Gordon Willis, cinematographer for The Godfather

Before we explain, let’s look at an example from one of the most famous cinematographers in history, Roger Deakins. Watch as he points out how he shoots simple dialogue shots, as highlighted by the YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting”:

In explaining his approach to the simplest form of movie shot—showing a person’s face as they speak—Deakins reveals a wealth of information. One demonstration is enough to see how changing the lens and camera position creates a completely different context. 

It doesn’t matter if the subject is the same. When they know their camerawork well, a cinematographer can completely alter the feeling you get from any shot.

What does a cinematographer do? Simple. They use their knowledge of photography to help the director achieve their vision for the movie.

How to Become a Cinematographer

dr strangelove
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In Dr. Strangelove (1964), Stanley Kubrick used his sharp eye for cinematography to create serious visual grounding for what was otherwise a hilarious satire.

Filmmaking is inherently an artistic endeavor, but a cinematographer’s background will require a great deal of technical know-how. Famed director Stanley Kubrick started out as a photographer for Life magazine. Deakins started out learning camerawork as an operator, eventually graduating to cinematography. If you’re going to work your way up, it will help to start on a foundation of knowing your cameras inside and out.

Is There a “Cinematographer Degree”?

Yes. The New York Film Academy includes a cinematography school, for example. At the famous USC film school, you’ll find a program for Cinema & Media Studies that will help you learn.

It will be tempting to think that a degree in cinematography will be enough—that once you graduate, your school will send you to Hollywood, assign you your first Christopher Nolan movie, and you’ll be off to the races. But it doesn’t quite work that way in practice. And there isn’t one way to learn how to be a cinematographer. What else can you do?

Is It Better to Focus on Experience Alone?

Review the stories of major cinematographers like Janusz Kamiński (frequent collaborator of Steven Spielberg), and you’ll find he had to work his way up working as a gaffer, or lighting technician. As with any other job, cinematography requires you to learn the ropes and climb your way up the ladder by proving yourself capable until you get your chance.

But that doesn’t mean an education isn’t a good idea. Kamiński studied film at Columbia College in Chicago, and then again with a Masters of Fine Arts from the American Film Institute. 

As for you, it’s all about your individual journey. If you need the education, start with learning about photography and cinematography at school. But if you already know it inside and out, it might be better to focus on experience with real movie sets.

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How Much Does a Cinematographer Make?

If you’re Roger Deakins, all bets are off. But for the rest of us, it’s better to look at the median cinematographer salary to calibrate your expectations. Cinematographers work all over the industry, and not just on major Hollywood blockbusters. Television shows, independent films, and even TV commercials all need directors of photography to get the final result looking right.

PayScale reports a median salary of about $58,000 per year. This means you may see freelance cinematographer rates of about $50-60 per hour as well. If you’re effective enough at your job to earn your way into the 90th percentile, there’s hope of earning over $106,000 per year.

casablance
Source: wikimedia
Fog in the famous last scene of Casablanca (1942) is one of the most memorable uses of weather to add atmosphere to a scene.

Looking for Jobs in Cinematography

The good news about cinematography is that it’s one of the most easy-to-define career tracks in show business. 

A cinematographer job description should explain whether you’ll be the DP (Director of Photography) and whether you’ll have other duties like operating the cameras or being directly responsible for the lighting, rather than directing a team of technicians. For many small productions, you’ll handle the camerawork and lighting yourself. If you’re a freelance cinematographer, you’ll probably build up a lot of experience with both. 

But what do some of the jobs in cinematography look like? Here’s what you should expect to see:

Director of Photography

Watch a movie’s credits, and you’ll often see Director of Photography listed in place of cinematographer. This tends to be the title if you have a big team of camera operators and lighting technicians working under you. If you’re looking for cinematographer jobs for the first time, keep in mind that the DP is usually either the top of the cinematographic heap—or the budget is low enough that they comprise the entire photographic department on a set.

Camera Operator

Camera operators require a lot of technical skill: knowing which lenses to shoot with, how to compose your shots, and dealing with issues like color saturation, focus, and aperture for depth of field. For example? You’ll be the one in charge of adjusting the focus from one character to another to guide the audience’s eye.

To see how important the camera can be, check out Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Hoping his film would resemble 18th-century paintings, Kubrick used unique “ultra-fast” lenses designed for NASA. Though designed for far zooming, Kubrick used these lenses in intimate, candle-lit settings. 

The result? Flattened-out pictures giving a new meaning to making every frame a painting.

Gaffer or Lighting Operator/Technician

Some people refer to the gaffer as the chief electrician on the set. Janusz Kamiński worked as a gaffer and lighting technician in his early work in films. Although it may seem like a small role, you’ll quickly learn the impact lighting can have on every shot. 

Consider the “dome light” style of lighting in The Godfather, which lit the actors from overhead. This meant their brows cast shadows over their eyes. The lighting had a gloomy, melancholic effect on the actors: they seemed to drown in shadow, offering a visual parallel to their moral status.

Freelance Cinematographer

Every cinematographer might feel like a freelance cinematographer, floating from gig to gig and movie to movie. But a freelance cinematographer can be open to all sorts of projects, from shooting one-off movies and television miniseries to setting up the lighting in a fast food commercial. 

The chief advantage of freelancing? You’ll build up a resume—and a portfolio of previous work—in a hurry. But there’s also the risk that the gigs that come your way won’t always be up your alley.

Learning to Become a Cinematographer

Although a cinematographer’s work can be unique and distinctive—like Deakins’—your role as a cinematographer can also be to disappear. You don’t always want the audience to know the visual tricks you’re playing on them. In The Lord of the Rings series, the cinematographers went to great lengths to build sets and use camera tricks that made the wizard Gandalf appear much larger than the Hobbit, Frodo Baggins. The audience might not always know it’s happening, but the cinematographer always does.

Learn it right, and you can work your way up to the same sorts of achievements. But it’s difficult to make the leap to Director of Cinematography straight out of film school. Think of DP as a management position: you’re not just the chief camera operator, but the leader of a department. You’ll have to work your way up.

With technicians and operators under you and a director over you, you can sometimes feel like the person caught in the middle. But there’s always one comfort: When it comes down to it, the audience is going to see the movie through your lens.

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