What does a Cinematographer do?

Luke Leighfield
Luke Leighfield, Content Writer

Film lovers are usually pretty familiar with the actors and directors behind their favorite productions. But they often forget about cinematographers. These crucial characters are the filmmaking artists who decide how images get captured on film.

In this post, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about being a cinematographer, like the responsibilities of the job, forging a career in cinematography, how much you could earn, and lots more.

What is a cinematographer?

Cinematographers play an essential role in film production, dictating the overall look and visual style of a motion picture, television show, music video, or advert. They’re the person responsible for bringing a director’s vision to life on screen, handling all the technical aspects of visual storytelling.

Also known as a director of photography (DP or DoP), the cinematographer heads up the film crew and light crew on the film set. They’re generally involved in the entirety of the film production, from the early storyboarding stage – working on the in-depth visual narrative – right through to post-production.

A cinematographer oversees all camerawork and on-screen visual elements, including:

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    Camera placement
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    Camera movement
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    Camera angles
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    Lens choice
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    Lighting
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    Shot size and composition
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    Depth of field
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    Aspect ratio

We’ll look at these visual elements in more detail below.

What does a cinematographer do?

When on set, the cinematographer works hand in hand with the director to bring the motion picture to life. If the film director is John Lennon then the cinematographer is Paul McCartney. Or maybe the other way around. And it’s a different art form: films, not songs. But you get the idea.

A cinematographer’s job description includes all the nitty gritty details, like nailing the look, color, and lighting. Not to mention the framing of every single shot that’s committed to film. They’re not on their own, though. Cinematographers work alongside a lighting crew, camera department, set designer, gaffer, and other roles to achieve the director’s vision.

If the film production has a lower budget that doesn’t allow for a cameraman, then a cinematographer may also need to work as the camera operator. This won’t be the case on fancy Hollywood productions with huge film crews, but it’s more common on small music video shoots or indie films.

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Roles and responsibilities

Camera placement

Placing the camera in different positions can have a huge effect, like revealing characters’ behavior or highlighting their emotional state. For example, placing the camera close to the subject might engage the audience, while picking a camera placement that’s further away could distance the audience.

Camera movement

Camera movement is a great tool for building emotion and suspense. Using a steadicam to move the camera with characters can add a subjective perspective, putting you in the subject’s shoes. On the other hand, a static camera might create a more objective point of view.

Camera angles

A camera angle is the position of the camera in relation to the central theme of the image, which can have a big influence on the shot composition. You can use camera angles to draw out themes and solidify the message you’re trying to convey.

Lens choice

Cinematographers have a wealth of types of camera lenses at their disposal, which have the potential to create wildly different images. Making the right lens choices, supported by the camera department, is an essential part of filmmaking.

Lighting

All aspiring cinematographers need a robust understanding of film lighting, just like a musician needs to know their instrument inside out. Cinematographers and their light crews are responsible for choosing the type, quantity, color, and shape of each type of light before starting to shoot. They’ll also need a sun tracking app to understand how the sun will affect shooting.

Shot size and composition

Another essential part of cinematographers’ work is deciding how much the audience sees in a scene. A close-up of your protagonist’s face can breed intimacy, while an extreme wide shot can make them look vulnerable. The skill is picking the best shot size for each moment.

Depth of field

Depth of field is the range of ‘acceptable sharpness’ in front of the camera where objects are in focus to the human eye. Anything closer to the camera, or outside the end of that range, will appear blurry and out of focus. You can use camera focus to emphasize different aspects of the story, like going in and out of focus to create a disorienting mood.

Aspect ratio

Aspect ratio is the width times the height of the frame you’re shooting in. In general, wider frames are used for landscapes and action, while cinematographers use taller frames to highlight performance. Getting the aspect ratio right is a big element of helping visuals become the language.

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What tools do cinematographers use?

There are a ton of tools that’ll help you in your cinematographer role. Below, we’re going to cover two of the vital ones to help you on your way to filmmaking success.

Shot lists

A shot list is one of the most important pre-production tools for film directors and cinematographers. It’s easy to get lost during a shoot, even with a small team. If you’ve got lots of settings, multiple actors, and a large crew, then things only get more complicated.

A shot list keeps a project on track. Before filming, it helps directors to collect their thoughts and build a shooting schedule. During filming, a solid camera shot list means different departments can work independently from each other. It also makes it easy to keep going if a crew member’s sick one day, or has to leave the shoot.

Storyboards

Storyboards are another crucial element in the pre-production process, and you’ll need to know how to make them as part of the filmmaking process. And they’re not just for cinematographers: people in all kinds of film industry roles use storyboards to nail their stories.

In short, a storyboard is a visual representation of how a story will play out, scene by scene. It’s made up of a chronological series of images, with accompanying notes, helping the filmmaker to clarify their vision.

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How can I become a cinematographer?

If your heart’s set on the role of a cinematographer, you’ll probably want to start by getting a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree, or by going to film school. It’s not mandatory, but most companies will feel more comfortable hiring you if you’ve picked up a formal education in a related field to filmmaking.

Naturally, you’ll also need to master the various skills and responsibilities we’ve discussed above. Any experience you can pick up in related jobs will help you secure a role as a cinematographer, so try to get film production work in a camera department or as part of a film crew. It all helps.

Once you’ve honed your chops, it’s time to create a portfolio. It’s a collection of work that shows your visual style and cinematography skills and helps prospective employers – like agencies and directors – decide whether you’re the right person to bring in for a job or project.

You can then use your portfolio to get an agent, as well as networking with other filmmaking professionals. They can help you find work and connections, or offer tips to progress your career with production companies.

As a guide, it’ll probably take around 5 years to build up your entry-level cinematography skills, and 10-15 years to master the craft and become the next Roger Deakins.

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Average cinematographer salary

As with any other job, the amount you earn as a cinematographer will depend on how much experience you have and what job you’re working on. A cinematographer on a huge Hollywood flick will earn substantially more than a cinematographer on an indie film or television production, for example.

In the US, the average cinematographer salary is $65k, according to Careers in Film. In the UK, Glassdoor puts the average cinematographer salary at around £34k. The good news is that these figures can climb a lot higher if you land big jobs further into your career.

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