Cinematographer (Director of Photography or DP)

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A cinematographer is also known as the director of photography (DP for short). They are the head of the camera department and it is their job to capture the photographic impression of the directors' vision. Although the director determines the action and blocking of a given scene, it is the DP who looks through the camera to catch the moment on film. The director gives his/her vision of a particular shot to the DP who then translates that into how the camera will capture it.

What Is a Cinematographer?

The DP receives a "shot-list" from the director and then analyzes how each scene will be lit, which camera filters and lenses to use, as well as the position of the camera. They will put their crew into motion to make certain that they get as close as possible to what the director initially had in mind. The DP is in charge of all camera operators, camera assistants, focus pullers as well as the lighting crews. Following production, the DP is responsible for making sure that the processing of the film is done to his/her exact specifications to insure all elements captured while shooting remain intact.

Skills and Education

To be a truly memorable cinematographer, there are a few skill sets you will want to master:

  • Your eye: Before the camera captures a shot, you will need to fully envision it in your own mind first. This is one skill you need to develop now.
  • Lighting: Study lighting. In every day life look around you and see how light works to set a mood. You have to understand how to work with lighting to get the most out of your shots.
  • Study the past: Study all movies and find out what it is about certain shots that work for you and learn how they accomplished it.
  • Technology: Stay up on the latest photographic technology.

Technological skills are great assets to have, but you also must have a passion for the craft of cinematography.

At its core, cinematography is an art form. It is a craft that must be mastered. After all, it can often make or break a movie or television program. There are numerous examples of where a great movie could have been a mediocre movie had the cinematographer not been up to snuff. If you do end up going to film school, don't expect to start at the top as a DP. You will be expected to earn your way up the ladder through your hard work, passion, persistence, people skills and lastly, your talent.

Career Advice

To get your foot in the door of a career as a DP, you must be willing to work extremely hard. Unlike a writer who simply needs to learn the craft and start writing, becoming a great DP isn't dependent on you learning your craft and shooting amazing shots on your own. You must learn the craft, perfect it and then earn the right to become a DP.

The best way to accomplish this is by doing everything you can to learn from others. After all, as the old saying in Hollywood goes, "the people you meet today are the people who hire you tomorrow." So, when you're on a set, learn from anyone willing to teach you. A great DP understands the workings of the entire set and is eager to learn new things.

Expect to start at the bottom and have no ego about it. You will gain the respect of those around you by doing so and they will be more eager to help you over the course of your career.