How to Become a Director of Photography/Cinematographer - Careers in Film
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Director of Photography

Last updated: Mar 31, 2021
Reads: 11,707

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.

Alternate Titles

Cinematographer, DP, DOP

Avg. Salary

$65,0001

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Career Description

A Director of Photography (or Cinematographer) is responsible for crafting the visual language of a film through lighting, camera angles, and camera movement. Working with the Director, they create the look and style of the film. In this role, the Director of Photography leads the Camera and Lighting Departments, which operate under their purview.

To learn about what it takes to become a Director of Photography, we spoke to the following DPs:

  • Paul Hughen (WandaVision, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)
  • Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)
  • Chris Seager (Carnival Row, Watchmen, Six Minutes to Midnight)

What is the role of the Director of Photography?

Paul Hughen (WandaVision, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)

The Director of Photography is very instrumental in helping the Film Director establish the look of the film. During the prep period (before filming) the Director and DP sit and discuss the best approach for the “look” of the movie, the commercial, or television program they are about to start.

Sometimes it might be that they decide they want their project to look like Blade Runner. They would view the film together and discuss the aesthetic approach to shooting a project similar in texture and feel. They also might look at photographs in books to discuss a look that both of them appreciate and relate to. That way they are both on the same page when it comes to technique and style.

While the Director works with the Actors, the Director of Photography during shooting works with the crew to place camera, lights, and anything else that helps the photography. Sometimes on a small project, there might be 20 crew members that the DP gets to work and communicate with. On Infinity War and Endgame I was working with 250-400 crew members in several different departments on a daily basis.

The DP sets the shots with the Director and the Camera Operator. He then lights the set and sits with the Director to discuss how things are perfect or how they can make shots or set-ups better. During post-production, after filming is complete, at some point the DP will usually arrive at a post house to do a Digital Intermediate or DI.

That is the coloring and finalizing of the show. Whether it is a commercial, TV show, or a feature the Cameraman sets the look of the film and he will follow through with the timing (DI) of the project before release. This can take several days or several weeks depending on the size of the project.

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

The Director of Photography’s job is to help express the story in visual terms. Everything comes back to story. 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.

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. When they don’t [have a clear idea of visuals], it’s a team exploration to find the look and feel that helps the viewer understand the story in the most effective visual way.

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. 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?

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.

[Next] it’s crewing up, getting equipment together and figuring out what you’re going to need to pull off the look you’ve chosen. 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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Chris Seager (Carnival Row, Watchmen, Six Minutes to Midnight)

A simple explanation is that the Director of Photography’s main role is to visualize and enable the words and thoughts of the Director and of his script. It is in reality, much more complex than that. The Director of Photography in conjunction with his Director can contribute to the “look” of the movie by offering his own visual input of the script.

The DP [Director of Photography] will work closely in collaboration with the Production Designer and other HoDs [Heads of Departments], like Costume, Hair/Make Up Designers, Visual Effects, and Stunts to name a few.

The DP will also have the responsibility along with their input of his own Camera, Grip, and Electric teams. These guys will help enable the views/aspirations of the DP and his artistic interpretations on the “set” by setting and operating cameras, cranes, dollies, and lights.

Salary

The salary range for studio Directors of Photography is approximately $5,000 to $30,000 a week. However, your average DP earns approximately $65,000 annually.

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.

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.

How does a Director of Photography get paid?

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

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.] 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.

Career Outlook

What is the lifestyle of a Director of Photography like?

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

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. [Because this role is self-employed, there’s no sick pay, no maternity leave and often no health insurance provided.]

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.

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.

Career Path

How do you become a Director of Photography?

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

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.

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.

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.

[As you’re starting a career,] there is plenty of good, non-union work and you can build up your experience that way.

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!

How many years does it take to become a Director of Photography?

Paul Hughen (WandaVision, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)

I’ve met Cinematographers who started shooting right out of college/film school. I chose to move up the ranks by starting on the set as a Loader. Then I became a 2nd Assistant Cameraman. Then a First and then an Operator. (You can look these titles up on Wikipedia to see what each position does.)

It took 15 years to move through the ranks to Director of Photography but I was getting paid to develop my craft and seek out the direction I wanted to go. That’s a long time but if I could go back I would not change the way I moved up to Director of Photography between 1980 and 1994.

I’ve met many friends that right after film school started shooting short films or low-budget features or even commercials. There are many routes to becoming a DP but you have to choose what works best for you. You can buy a business card that says DP on it. Do that when you know the craft.

Chris Seager (Carnival Row, Watchmen, Six Minutes to Midnight)

How long is a piece of string? There is no definitive answer to that question. It can depend on so many things. Skill obviously comes to the fore, having an artistic eye, or maybe just luck, or being in the right place at the right time. Determination is probably the key.

Looking, learning, asking questions, experimenting, making short films, making more short films, watching and analyzing movies and TV shows. Working your way up through the Camera Department is obviously the main way to becoming a DP.

I’ve seen 2nd ACs decide that they want to make that jump from 2nd AC to DP. It’s a big leap and invariably it takes some time, some fail and some make it, but it must be very satisfying to have made that jump and then succeed. It’s usually because they are determined and have talent. One thing to remember, becoming a DP or having been a DP for some time–you never stop learning. That is one of the joys of this job.

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

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.

Experience & Skills

What skills do you need to be a Director of Photography?

Paul Hughen (WandaVision, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)

A DP needs to understand camera placement and lighting. He or she needs to have good people skills to work with quite a few crew members.

I advise anyone who wants to become a Cinematographer to try to attend film school to learn the craft of the DP. Film school classes are taught on lighting, camera and shooting.

A DP needs to learn how to light Actors in a scene. This takes time as the craft is not easily learned. Every Cameraman works differently and most do not have a common style. Some like handheld work. Some like a more stable dolly to shoot from. Everyone is different.

Chris Seager (Carnival Row, Watchmen, Six Minutes to Midnight)

The skills needed are numerous but put simply they are as follows but not in order of importance:

Sense of humor, resilience, ability to find quick and creative solutions, understanding other industry roles, patience, leadership, calmness, verbal communication as well as visual communication, collaboration, compassion, teamwork, enthusiasm.

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

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.

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.

How can I be a good Director of Photography?

Chris Seager (Carnival Row, Watchmen, Six Minutes to Midnight)

If you sit a model at a table and frame up a shot with a locked off camera and ask 4 top DPs to individually romantically light the subject you will undoubtedly get 4 different interpretations of romantic lighting. They are all “good” DPs and you could argue for some time to say who is the best.

Becoming a good DP is I think a combination of some of the following:

Listen and understand what the Director wants to do with the script. See emotionally where the script is going and how with your input with camera style and lighting mood you can influence and enhance and be at one with the script. You are an important member of the team and have a lot of influence, but remember to collaborate with your fellow HoDs and your team, it will pay dividends for sure.

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

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.

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.

Paul Hughen (WandaVision, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)

To be a good Cinematographer one has to develop an eye for shooting. This takes time. Creating light is a challenge. Knowing the different lamps to use and how to diffuse them takes time to learn.

Working with Actors and crew is a craft in itself. This takes time. Learning from others is one way of honing your craft. Getting a camera and shooting small projects is a good path to discovering your vision.

There are many different creative aspects to discovering your vision as a Cinematographer. Camera placement. Lighting and exposure. Camera movement. Lens choices. Working with the Director. Reading every article you can on cinematography. Talking to Cinematographers.

Do you live in Los Angeles? Come to the ASC clubhouse on open house afternoon (usually in February) and speak to dozens of Cameramen who are there to answer questions. Good luck and of course, always have a great attitude and love what you do and do it well.

Education & Training

What qualifications do you need to be a Director of Photography?

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

NYU Tisch, AFI, Chapman, UCLA, and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) 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.

[However] 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.

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.

Watch movies to see what inspires you and what you actually like.

Chris Seager (Carnival Row, Watchmen, Six Minutes to Midnight)

With regard to myself and my relevant qualifications, at the age of 18, I attended art school and studied Photography and then continued on with a post graduation course in Film and Television. After this, I became a freelance Camera Assistant [2nd AC] for a time then joined the BBC Film department, where I moved up through the various camera roles from 1st AC, to Camera Operator and then a DP. I subsequently left the BBC to continue being a successful freelance DP.

First and foremost, I believe that you have to show a firm interest in Photography, Art, and Cinematography. Qualifications needed these days are a good education record, with GCSE’s and A levels. Ideally a further education achievement in Media Studies or a dedicated Film course such as at Bournemouth Film School or the National Film School.

The film industry is a competitive world and armed with a degree in Media or Film etc doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll become a DP straight away.

Paul Hughen (WandaVision, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)

Many Directors of Photography start on smaller projects and work their way up to bigger shows, commercial or television programs. You can shoot short films or documentaries to work on your craft or “style.”

You might like working in black and white. Is that your style? Watch as many black and white films that you can and learn what works best for what you like. Watch the film a second time with the sound off! That way you are paying attention, not to the story or the Actors talking but to the images on the screen.

When I wanted to be a Camera Operator I watched The Godfather five times with no sound. It is a beautiful movie with no sound. Like visiting a museum and looking at paintings all day. Gordon Willis was a master storyteller through the camera. Also, The Black Stallion. A brilliant beautiful film.

In film school, my instructor liked foreign films. We watched a lot of them. If there is a country you like you can probably find a movie that was made there. Check it out. There could be something about the film or the style that’s inspiring.

I am a big fan of the film Casablanca and have studied both the making of the film and the writing of the screenplay. I believe it to be one of the best films ever made. The black and white cinematography is outstanding. I hope that you will take the time to watch this 1942 film masterpiece. Even though the film is black and white I hope that you will watch the film twice. Once with the sound and then a second time without.

When the sound is out, look at the choices the Cinematographer made for lighting, and camera movement, and lens choices. Why is a close-up tighter on Lauren Bacall than on Humphrey Bogart? Shadows against a wall. A camera move across a room. These decisions were made by the Director of Photography.

Additional Resources

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.

FAQ

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

“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?

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

“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?

Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

“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 (A Quiet Place Part II, Legion, American Horror Story)

“Determination.”

Director of Photography Paul Hughen
Paul Hughen

Paul Hughen, ASC is a Director of Photography whose recent work includes 2nd-unit cinematography for WandaVision, Westworld, Birds of Prey, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Avengers: Endgame.

Director of Photography Polly Morgan
Polly Morgan

Director of Photography 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’s cinematography work has been featured in British Cinematographer, American Cinematographer Magazine, B&H Photo Video’s Women of Influence, IBC, Randi Altman’s postPerspective, IndieWire, Fansided, Pushing Pixels, Awards Watch, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Backstage, Cnet, The LA Times, Teen Vogue, and The Wrap.

Polly recently wrapped shooting the sequel to A Quiet Place for Paramount Pictures. She is repped by Gersh.

Director of Photography Chris Seager
Chris Seager

Chris Seager BSC is an international award-winning British Cinematographer. With a raft of wins, nominations and two British Academy awards to his name he works predominantly on high-end television drama (Carnival Row [Series1&2], Watchmen, Game of Thrones, The Alienist, The White Princess) and feature films (Six Minutes to Midnight, A Kind of Murder, Set Fire to the Stars, The Merry Gentleman, White Noise, The Walker, New in Town, Beautiful Thing and Fever Pitch).

He has worked alongside industry heavyweight Directors such as John Schlesinger, David Yates, Paul Schrader, and Michael Keaton, having shot Keaton’s directorial debut feature, The Merry Gentleman. Chris has successfully collaborated recently with talented Directors Andy Goddard, Jamie Payne and Thor Freudenthal.

This year Chris has been in Prague shooting Carnival Row [Series 2], Amazon’s dark fantasy show starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne.

  1. 1THR Staff. "Hollywood Salaries Revealed, From Movie Stars to Agents (and Even Their Assistants)". The Hollywood Reporter. published: October 2, 2014. retrieved on: April 13, 2020
  2. 2Follows, Stephen. "How does the use of the terms ‘cinematographer’ and ‘director of photography’ differ?". www.stephenfollows.com. published: 23 April 2018. retrieved on: 30 July 2020
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