What do you want to become?
Director of Photography
Alternate Career Titles:
Cinematographer, DP, DOP
Career Overview: The Director of Photography (DP) works with a Director to execute their vision for the script. They are in charge of both Camera and Lighting Departments, creating the visuals that help tell the story.
General Salary Range: $500 to $7,000+ (day rate)
Become a Director of Photography
“The Director of Photography’s job is to help express the story in visual terms. Everything comes back to story,” says Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC, the Cinematographer behind many episodes of Legion, Call The Midwife and Strange Angel. She goes on: “The story and script inform the visual language: what genre are you working in? Is it a romantic comedy, is it a genre horror film, is it a drama? We can all imagine how those types of films look.”
Morgan explains that every project is completely different because you’re working on a new vision, a new story. The rhythm of the work varies with each Director: “With a very visual Director, you can just set up the camera and be told what lenses to use. Conversely, you can be working with a Director who has come from a theatre or writing background and you have to lead the way in terms of the visuals for the production. It can fall at either end of the spectrum or anywhere in the middle.” It’s clear that some Directors have a very clear idea of the aesthetic and others don’t. Morgan clarifies, “When they don’t, it’s a team exploration to find the look and feel that helps the viewer understand the story in the most effective visual way.”
Morgan clarifies the workflow for a Director of Photography at various stages of production: “In the early days, you spend time understanding the story, the arc of the characters and what the Director is trying to say. We have a lot of conversations about story, theme, characters.” Ultimately, the Cinematographer has the ability to make the viewer feel a certain way with images and Morgan explains that “We try and get into the Director’s head to get a feel for what it is they want the audience to feel.”
“Once you’ve had all those conversations, you start to look at visual references together — are there any films that have a similar feel or are there artists and Photographers that invoke something that might be relevant to the story we’re telling,” she says. Once the DP and the Director have agreed on a general ‘look,’ the focus shifts to the practicality of execution. Morgan elucidates: “After that, it’s about lighting and camera movement — what movement is most relevant to the production? Is it handheld or do we need more graceful, sweeping moves that might employ a crane? Still, the conversation is grounded in how best to tell the story in visual terms.”
At that point, the DP’s job becomes organizational and logistical: “It’s crewing up, getting equipment together and figuring out what you’re going to need to pull off the look you’ve chosen.” The size of the production is also important to how the job looks: “If you’re working on a big studio movie, your department heads (Gaffers, Key Grips) might come in a month or more prior to camera roll. They’ll prep with you to figure out how to shoot and what you’ll need to achieve the big scenes. Nowadays, because there are so many visual effects, we have something called ‘pre-visualization’ where the visual effects company will actually work with the Director and Cinematographer to do a rough CG build of certain scenes. Films like Gravity use this a lot so they can see what the camera angles will be, where the earth will be, where the light is coming from, those types of things.”
On the other hand, with less money comes less prep time, laments Morgan: “If you’re working on an independent movie, it’s a lot smaller and there’s a lot less money — department heads will probably just join for the tech scout and you won’t get much prep time with them. Saying that, with smaller budget films, I get behind the camera more which I absolutely love!”
Morgan stresses the collaborative aspect of cinematography and the group energy that goes into pulling off the visuals: “Working in production is tiring and there’s a lot of pressure involved, so you really need to get on well with the people you’re working with. I make sure we’re on the same page because it’s like going into battle together — you need to be there to support each other and collaborate.” Moreover, the Director of Photography is in charge of keeping the production moving along in a visual sense, setting up shots and shot sequences. Morgan says, “You do rely a lot on the people around you to help meet the deadlines. It’s important to respect people at work and give them the space to do their job.”
Morgan sums up her approach to cinematography: “When I choose a project, I’m not only choosing a story that speaks to me, I’m choosing the person I’m going to be working with. There has to be a connection.”
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Morgan knew from a young age that she wanted to be involved in film production, but she had to learn how the roles broke down: “As I started working, my experience with art history and photography drove me towards the creation of the images for film — that’s what spoke to me. I started right at the very bottom as a Production Assistant, then I moved to the Camera Department as a Camera Trainee, then a Second Assistant Camera. All the while, I was shooting short films on 16mm film. Then a Cinematographer I was working with suggested I go to film school. And I did — I enrolled at AFI in Los Angeles.”
Morgan points out that there is no right or wrong way to work your way into cinematography and the Camera Department in general: “What I love about today’s world is the growing diversity in the film business and people come from all walks of life. I know people who have worked their way up through the Camera Department, I know others who started in the Lighting Department then moved into cinematography — it’s really about making sure you’re a visual person with an eye. Above all, it’s about your attention to story. It doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Morgan is also adamant that we are always learning, no matter where we are in our journey: “My goal is to keep moving forward and tell good stories. I’ve been lucky recently, starting to shoot bigger budget, studio films with very visual Directors. That allows me to pull together really arresting, exciting images rather than working on more character-driven films. I hope to continue along this path of finding an expressive aesthetic.”
Education & Training
These days, there are so many reputable film schools where you can learn about cinematography: lighting, shot design and how to tell visual stories. Morgan points to high-end institutions in the US like NYU Tisch, AFI, Chapman, UCLA, and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). However, Morgan offers these up with a considerable caveat: “These are graduate programs that take 2-4 years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They can be out of budget for most people; I spent a lot of time trying to get scholarships for AFI and I still owe a lot of money. Even the short courses at the New York Film Academy cost a fortune.”
The good news is Morgan insists there’s no substitute for practical set experience: “As a PA, you can watch how all the different departments interact and collaborate. That’s priceless. It helps you to be patient because you can see how challenging each job really is. As a PA, the level of responsibility is fairly low so you have time to stand to the side and observe people at work. That’s a hell of an education. If you haven’t had that set experience, and you start working straight out of film school, you can miss that big picture experience. I see young DPs coming in without working their way up through the Camera Department because, with digital capture, it’s more achievable to move up quickly. I still think it’s important to understand the process and know how to treat people with respect. Ultimately, I’m only as good as the people who are working with me — I can’t do this job alone.”
In terms of practical advice, Morgan remains true to the art: “Just shoot. Shoot short films using any equipment you can find, even your iPhone — we have such easy access these days to video capture, even under low-light and natural light situations. Shoot as much as you can.” Beyond that, there are resources freely available online. Morgan suggests checking out YouTube for tutorials on camera movement and shot setup. Above all, she says, “Watch movies to see what inspires you and what you actually like.”
Experience & Skills
Morgan is clear that any aspiring Director of Photography needs, first and foremost, to understand who they are and what moves them: “It’s your unique eye and voice that will make you stand out, so take time to do the things that nourish you as a person — travel, ingest art and have a solid sense of who you are and what you want to say. Life experience informs your art.”
She goes on to suggest that there’s no better time than now, and to begin building your skills and experience no matter the pay: “I worked a lot for free, doing short films and taking any job I enjoyed. I don’t think anyone should feel that is beneath them — it’s a technical job and there’s a lot to learn. It’s better to do it when you’re not spending a lot of other people’s money.”
Morgan also advises younger Cinematographers not to start the race too quickly: “Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take it slowly. If you take a job that’s too big for you too early, it’s easy to fall at the first hurdle. It’s great to be ambitious, but I remember someone telling me when I was a twenty one year-old PA that it would take me ten years to become a DP. I was absolutely horrified… but then I shot my first feature at thirty-one! They were spot on! It takes time to learn your voice and your aesthetic sensibilities. Frankly, I’m still learning, every day I go to set.”
In terms of the “type” of person that goes into cinematography, Morgan says the variety of people is what makes the profession so colorful. That range of personalities is also something to consider when developing your working skillset: “We need to be very malleable depending on the types of personalities surrounding us. You’re always working with different types of people, so when you start on a new project, it’s a process of getting to know everyone — how they tick, how they operate — and you become very close with them during production.”
Morgan also points out that times are changing, and there is far less room for sub-standard behavior: “In the old days, some people could get away with behaving disrespectfully on set (and we still see a bit of that), but these days, we want to work with people who are easy and collaborative. I would say, spend time on set to understand the intense conditions, drop the attitude, know your role on the team and understand that anyone can have a good idea. Even a PA can have excellent input if you stay open. There’s just no room for ego these days.”
Becoming a Director of Photography involves accepting a non-conventional lifestyle, explains Morgan: “I travel all around the world and shoot in all kinds of places. If you want to do this job, be prepared to be nomadic because production happens everywhere. Once you start having a family, it can become extremely complicated, so you have to be able to roll with the punches and be a bit of an adventurer. Things are never really going to be settled — it moves quickly and you don’t know what’s around the next corner. Really, it’s about relinquishing control.”
Morgan highlights the pitfalls of her self-employment — there’s no sick pay, no maternity leave and often no health insurance provided. With that said, Morgan has some tips for how to deal with the peripatetic life of a Cinematographer: “Self-care is important — the life can get intense with lack of sleep and long hours. It’s important to take care of yourself; at the end of the day, it’s just work and you have to be able to step outside of it and have some life of your own. It can be all-encompassing.” Morgan also has some practical advice for those starting out on the journey: “Sometimes you’ll work a lot and then you might not work for six months so you have to manage your money and not spend it all at once. It’s not a settled lifestyle, so think about that.”
Becoming a Production Assistant (PA) is almost certainly the most tried and tested way to break into the Camera Department. Even working as an Intern at a production company is a foot in the door — once you’re in, you can begin to map out your own path. Morgan says, “There is plenty of good, non-union work and you can build up your experience that way.” Morgan also offers a valuable word of warning for any younger Cinematographers-to-be: “Don’t rush to get an Agent. You’ll end up giving away 10% of your money and, at the beginning, you probably won’t have enough credits for them to push you. Take your time!”
There is an enormous amount of variation in the daily rate of pay for Directors of Photography. Not only that, but rates are dependent on the types of production you’re working on. Morgan casts some light on the process: “If you’re on a commercial or music video or short, you are paid per day. On TV and movies, you get paid on a weekly basis. Bear in mind, you do get paid a little less for prep than you do on shoot.”
There used to be a “quote system” in place where a Director of Photography would expect to earn the same or more than their previous production. But, Morgan explains, “The quote system has practically disappeared so you just negotiate your quote on a per-production basis — it’s dependent on whether it’s a studio or indie project.”
As for the specifics of remuneration, the range is huge. You might be working freelance at the beginning of your career, starting for free, moving up to smaller rates such as $500 per day. After that, a more established music video shoot might garner up to $1,500 per day. Once you’re into regular production and have built up some real experience as a DP, you can be looking at daily rates of $3,500 per day, and upwards, depending on experience and acclaim.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Morgan explains that you enter the Local 600 Camera Union under different roles: “It takes time to be accepted into the union as a DP. I started in the union as a Camera Assistant and eventually moved across the union to a DP classification. You have to pay a fairly hefty sum of money to join the union, but you do get a pension and health insurance thereafter. If you join too early, you have to pay a lot to join as annual dues can be costly at first.”
If you are at the start of your career, Morgan advises, “Don’t be in a hurry to join a union or get an Agent — it eats up your money if you’re not working enough. Build up your non-union days first and, once you’re working regularly, consider joining.”
The criteria for joining the Local 600 change all the time, so do check the website for up-to-date information.
- Just shoot. Pick up your phone or find someone with a camera if you don’t have one. There’s no better experience than getting your hands dirty.
- Engage deeply with art — find the artists, Photographers and filmmakers that you most admire and investigate what it is about their work that makes you tick.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Find a local production company and try to get experience there, even as an Intern. First-hand knowledge of how production works is golden.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Ego. No one is entitled to the job. Saying that, if you work hard and remain kind and respectful to the people around you, there is space.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I think people see cinematography as glamorous in some way, but the job is not for the faint of heart. It’s incredibly hard work, taxing and challenging on all fronts. Don’t take it lightly.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Polly Morgan was born in London and, after working as a Camera Assistant for many years in the UK and Canada, Polly attended AFI (American Film Institute) in 2008, completing a Masters in Cinematography.
Soon after graduating, Polly began shooting independent features that garnered acclaim at festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca, before branching into television in both the UK and America. She has shot on series including American Horror Story, Strange Angel, Call The Midwife and Legion.
Named an ASC Rising Star in 2012, Polly has since become one of the youngest members to join the BSC and was named as one of Variety’s “Ten Cinematographers to Watch” in 2016.
In 2018, Polly shot Noah Hawley’s Directorial debut for Fox Searchlight, Lucy In the Sky with Natalie Portman, and become one of the youngest members of the ASC. She is the only female ever to be both an ASC and BSC member.
Polly is currently shooting the sequel to A Quiet Place for Paramount Pictures.