How To Become a Cinematographer
What Exactly 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, painting pictures in the dark.” — Legendary Cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Annie Hall)
“There’s a philosophical and logistical aspect of working as a Cinematographer,” says Nicholas Matthews, an in-demand Los Angeles-based Cinematographer (also known as a DP, or Director of Photography). “They create part of the emotional throughline of the film by trying to capture both the Director’s and characters’ perspectives in the film. The visual exploration of themes creates lots of logistics necessary to do the job well. One of the biggest challenges is how to turn creative ideas into effective realities. The audience never knows how much prep was taken or how much change happened on the day of shooting. They only see the final image.”
The logistics come down to the fundamentals of film production: pre-production, principal photography, and post-production. The film is essentially conceived three times and it’s the Cinematographer’s job to help shepherd the project through the first two stages and then provide counsel on the final one.
Pre-production involves strategizing with the Director, getting inside their mind and figuring out how to craft something that fulfills their interests and wants, even if it’s in unexpected ways. Much of this is listening and taking notes before making suggestions. It’s getting to know the box before it’s possible to step outside of it. Therefore, these in-depth artistic conversations are integral to making decisions later in the process.
The next step is to scout locations with the other department heads and begin to analyze what the potential problems may be. From there, the Cinematographer collaborates with the Director on making a shot list and storyboards that convey the style and structure of the film. They also depict the color palette, lighting, and camera movement. Most aesthetic ideas are mulled over until production is ready to begin. The other responsibilities of pre-production for a Cinematographer are to work with the Camera, Lighting and Grip Departments to get the proper gear.
Production is all about management. It’s all about determining what the shooting order is and figuring out how to best collaborate with other department heads. It’s also about staying connected to the moment being capturing and not getting too far ahead or stuck in the past. Compromises will always have to be made so a lot of the job is looking at the day and realizing what is vital to capture. The easiest way to communicate with the Grip and Electric teams is through making lighting plots and revising them as necessary. It’s the Cinematographer’s job to make sure every shot is usable and flag them when they’re not.
During post-production, in the interim before color correction begins, the Cinematographer reviews images and tries to imagine what they should become. Sometimes creative ideas shot during production will change in the edit so it’s crucial to remain flexible. When it comes time to color the footage, a lot of it is out of the Cinematographer’s control but it’s important to be present and give creative ideas.
There really is no specific entry-level position for becoming a Cinematographer. There are other jobs that can be done to improve cinematography skills like becoming a 1st Assistant Camera, Gaffer, Key Grip or Camera Operator but Producers aren’t going to hire off seeing those jobs on a resume. It is almost the opposite, in fact. “Producers and Directors are only interested in seeing cinematography work so if someone becomes stuck in another position, they’ll have to invest time and money into reinventing themselves,” warns Matthews.
A Cinematographer advances in their career by finding work for themselves and building their resume. Starting out is very challenging. There are some slow and some good months so it’s important to have a flexible day job. An example of this would be to camera operate in secret and then work as a Cinematographer when it’s available. In this case, one’s online presence should just be as a Cinematographer. Taking free work is a great way to build a reel and move onto doing paid work. These situations can also be great learning experiences. It’s all about creating a consistent identity.
Education & Training
“The best way to become a Cinematographer is to start shooting,” advises Matthews. Get a hold of a camera package and begin shooting free work and camera tests. The images created will become a tool in selling the Cinematographer’s work. Aspiring Cinematographers should try to get specific types of shots representative of the shooting they want to do.
Film school can be a great way to build contacts and develop a reel, as well. It provides opportunities to do internship programs, which allow for real industry experience. Of course, the best education is getting one’s hands on a camera and learning from professionals.
What skills do you need to be a Cinematographer?
The Cinematographer is an artist whose work spans the Camera, Grip, and Electric Departments so he or she needs to understand how each functions. “Collaboration is a crucial skill, along with problem-solving and adaptability because everything is constantly changing,” says Matthews. Most of all, it’s important for Cinematographers to own their miscommunications and work through them to create a productive work environment.
Other classes or subjects to study are speech classes, film history, and photography. These learning experiences will help with presenting ideas, understanding how cinematic grammar works and learning the technical aspects of cinematography. The Director of Photography is a multifaceted job that requires knowledge in many different areas.
Matthews says, “The best way to craft a cinematography career is to find skilled individuals and collaborate with them. Find people who share a similar aesthetic and make projects together.” Networking is a huge part of the job so it helps to be an extroverted person but it’s not a necessity. Someone who makes the right connections and is daring enough to invest in him or herself will succeed fast. Producers will have the chance to recognize the quality of their work. Getting more chances to work creates a snowball effect and gives the aspiring DP more chances to develop their craft. The more impressive a resume is, the easier it is to book a job.
Working as a Cinematographer means being a freelancer. The hours and length of days are all contingent upon each job. Usually, it’s twelve-hour days. “It’s important to take time to develop, have a life and network with filmmakers, even though it doesn’t pay upfront. In the long run, keeping a balance will save a person from burning out and getting stuck in the same level of projects,” says Matthews.
The typical collaborators for a Director of Photography are the Key Grip, Gaffer, Director, 1st Assistant Director and Production Designer. They all work together to achieve the Director’s vision and come up with creative solutions.
The most important thing a Cinematographer should have when looking for work is a reel on an updated website. Matthews says, “People must be able to identify them as a Cinematographer to hire them.” It can’t just be any type of cinematography either because out-of-character work can give the wrong impression of their talents. Displaying work that isn’t what the Cinematographer wants to shoot will lead them into doing more work of that type. In this case, it becomes hard to hone the desired skills and get back on the right track. Shooting free jobs, building a network and creating a reel are crucial. After a Cinematographer is ready for professional level work, gigs can be booked off Mandy.com, Craigslist.com, or through referrals.
How Much Does a Cinematographer make?
What a Cinematographer earns will depend on his or her level of experience. Freelance Cinematographers working on indie or low-budget projects will obviously earn less than those working regularly for a certain production company. At the top of the hierarchy are the “name” Cinematographers working on big-budget TV shows or studio films.
Unions, Groups & Associations
Matthews says, “The most valuable online resource is on the forum of legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Shawshank Redemption) website.” There’s tons of information to scour. He also answers questions. Another great resource is the “Ask David Mullen Anything” thread on reduser.net. There are over 500 pages of info on the thread and he answers questions constantly. Otherwise, Bruce Block’s book The Visual Story is a great resource for understanding the elements of visual storytelling. It’s good to pick up books on other departments of filmmaking, too. These books don’t need to be crazy in-depth but understanding what other departments do will help improve collaboration skills.
Professional Cinematographers will be members of the International Cinematographers Guild.
- Research nearby production companies and find good fits for collaboration.
- Read books on filmmaking.
- Shoot with a digital camera and develop a reel.
- Email working professionals to grab coffee.
- Follow Photographers on Instagram.
- Create a bank of images for reference on future projects and try to figure out how they were made.
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What is the intent behind an image?
People never ask about why an image works for an aesthetic. This isn’t something for just the Director to ponder; the Cinematographer has to know what it means, as well. They have to add their own artistic intent or else they’re just acting as a lackey for someone else’s needs. It’s their job to serve the Director’s vision but knowing why something is done makes it easier to collaborate. The Cinematographer must be an active participant, adding depth to the story to be successful.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The best advice for a Cinematographer is to make sure they can be booked. This involves networking, constantly updating their website, adding to social media and crafting relationships with talented people. Often Producers and Directors make recommendations to their friends. Even sending cold emails to people and telling them you appreciate their work can be effective in acquiring a meeting. It’s a game of relationships so the better at networking one is, the more likely they will be hired.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What is the lifestyle of a Cinematographer beyond the work?
It’s important for people to realize how competitive the film industry is and how much devotion it takes to succeed. The job becomes the Cinematographer’s life. They end up thinking about films all the time. It also poses a strain on friends and romantic relationships because Directors of Photography must leave for months at a time when working on feature films. It’s difficult to find a balance in the Cinematographer life, especially since there is a lot of mental anguish when not working. It takes a lot of courage and self-belief to maintain a personal life as well as a professional life while working as a Cinematographer.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“One of the biggest mistakes for new Cinematographers is an emphasis on gear versus the actual image being created. An audience will never know or care how something was made. They just care about what they are seeing. The overemphasis on technology is propagated by some of the equipment manufacturers but also by a lack of understanding of what makes a beautiful image. The camera can only capture what is in front of it. If the acting, locations, and framing are bad, even the most expensive camera will feel cheap. The image doesn’t need to be ‘pretty,’ it just needs to mean something for the story.”
Hailing from the South and the Midwest, Nicholas Matthews is an award-winning Los Angeles-based Cinematographer. He has shot five feature films in Mexico City, Colorado, the Mojave Desert, and Los Angeles, starring actors Isabel Lucas (Knight of Cups), Alexandra Parks (The Royals), Gerardo Taracena (Apocalypto), and Jose Sefami (Amores Perros). His work has screened at the Nashville Film Festival and Hollyshorts, to name just a couple. Recently, the LA Times called his work on border thriller The Boatman“more art film than action film; deliberately paced, skillfully shot, emotionally challenging.”
He has also worked with celebrities Ice Cube, Kylie Jenner, Rainn Wilson, Grace Helbig, Paul Scheer, and the band Rise Against. He has worked with MAGIC! on commercials and music videos. He thrives on collaboration in finding each project’s unique voice. For more advice from Matthews, check out this profile by Pro Video Coalition and his appearances on the podcasts Super Secret Filmcast and Art Vs. Commerce.