What does a Cinematographer do?
- What is a cinematographer?
- What does a cinematographer do?
- What tools does a cinematographer use?
- How can I become a cinematographer?
- Average cinematographer salary
Film lovers are usually pretty familiar with the actors and directors behind their favorite productions. But they often forget about the cinematographer. These crucial characters are the filmmaking artists who decide how images get captured on film. These are the folks who determine everything visual about a film, from those breathtaking shots to the mood-setting lighting. They're the artists, the tech whizzes, the visual storytellers.
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. Their role is far from simple; they interpret the director's vision into the language of cinema, managing the technical complexities that this entails. 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, camera and light crews 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:
- Camera placement: Finding the ideal spot to capture the action or a specific mood.
- Camera movement: Deciding how the camera will move to follow the action or enhance the scene.
- Camera angles & choice of camera lens: Selecting the right angle and lens to tell the story effectively and artistically.
- Lighting: Setting up lights to create the desired atmosphere and highlight important elements of a scene.
- Shot size and composition: Determining what is in the frame to guide the audience's attention.
- Depth of field: Choosing what's in focus to isolate subjects or create a particular visual style.
- Aspect ratio: Selecting the frame's width and height, impacting the overall aesthetic of the film.
Each of these elements requires a keen artistic eye and sharp technical expertise. Below, we'll delve deeper into each aspect.
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.
The cinematographer's role is all about the overall visual style — determining the look, color, and lighting of a scene. They're the ones who take the director's ideas and translate them into actual, tangible images. It's more than just setting up a camera and hitting record; it's about creating a visual atmosphere that can tell a story all on its own. This involves a ton of intricate details, from the way a scene is lit to the exact spot a camera is placed.
But it's not a solo gig. A cinematographer is at the helm of a whole team, including the lighting crew, camera department, set designer, gaffer, and more. They all work together like a well-oiled machine, ensuring each shot is purposeful and contributes to the overarching vision of the film.
On smaller productions, like indie films or music videos with tighter budgets, the cinematographer often wears more hats. If the film production's budget doesn't allow for a camera operator, then the cinematographer may also need to step in as the camera operator too. It's a bit different from big-budget Hollywood sets where roles are more specialized, but it shows the versatility and range of skills a cinematographer has.
Roles and responsibilities of a cinematographer
Camera placement is all about perspective. 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. This isn't just about what looks good—it's about what feels right for the story.
Camera movement changes the energy of a scene and can be 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.
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. It's all about the relationship between the viewer and the subject. A low angle can make a character look powerful, while a high angle might do the opposite. Cinematographers use this to subtly influence how we should feel about what's happening on screen.
Cinematographers have a wealth of types of camera lenses at their disposal, which have the potential to create wildly different images. Choosing the right type of camera lenses, supported by the camera operator and camera department, is an essential part of filmmaking.
Camera lenses are the cinematographer's paintbrushes, each one offering a different look and feel. Some lenses draw you into a moment, while others give you the big picture. The choice can dramatically change the vibe of a scene.
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.
Lighting sets the tone. It's not just about bright or dark; it's about warm or cold, harsh or soft. Cinematographers use light to amplify emotions, create atmosphere, and guide our focus throughout a scene.
Shot size and composition
Another essential part of a cinematographer's work is deciding how much the audience sees in a scene. What's in a shot and how it's arranged can tell you a lot. A close-up might indicate an intimate moment, while a wide shot could show context or isolation. Cinematographers craft each frame like a photographer, emphasizing what's essential. 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. It's a way of guiding the viewer's 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.
A sharp subject with a blurred background can make you hone in on a character's emotion, while a clear foreground and background might reveal more about the scene's context.
Aspect ratio is the width times the height of the frame you're shooting in. The aspect ratio shapes your viewing experience. A wider frame can feel epic and cinematic, perfect for breathtaking landscapes. A narrower one feels more personal, often used for tight, character-driven scenes. The cinematographer picks this based on the story they're telling. Getting the aspect ratio right is a big element of helping visuals become the language.
What tools does a cinematographer 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.
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 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 a cinematographer: 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.
Thankfully, we’re kind of experts at storyboarding at Boords. Our secure web-based software helps your team assemble, amend, and deliver great storyboards – faster than ever.
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. Starting a career as a cinematographer is a mix of formal education and hands-on experience. 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. It gives you foundational knowledge and a bit of a head start in the competitive industry.
But education is just one part of the equation. 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. This means getting as much experience as you can, preferably in positions that bring you close to camera work. Whether it's assisting in the camera department or working in different roles on a film crew, it's all valuable. Every job is an opportunity to learn and a stepping stone to the next.
Once you've honed your chops, it's time to create a portfolio. Think of this as your visual CV. 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.
Networking is equally important. Having an agent can help, but so does knowing people in the industry. Relationships matter, as jobs often come through recommendations and word of mouth. Stay connected, and don't hesitate to reach out to people in the field.
Patience and perseverance are key. Developing your skills and building a reputation doesn't happen overnight. 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.
Average cinematographer salary
Navigating the world of cinematographer salaries can be a bit like location scouting for the perfect shot: it varies a lot depending on where you are and what you're working on. Experience, the type of production, and even the location play huge roles in determining how much you'll pocket on each project.
In the U.S., Careers in Film suggests that the average cinematographer makes about $65k a year. Across the pond in the UK, Glassdoor puts the average cinematographer salary at around £34k. But remember, these are averages, which means just like in films, there are plenty of twists.
Working on a blockbuster Hollywood movie? That's likely to come with a paycheck with more zeroes at the end compared to, say, an indie project or a TV show. The size and budget of the production you're working on can really swing your earnings.
As you build your reputation and skill set, you're more likely to land bigger (and better-paying) gigs. So, while the starting figures may seem modest, there's potential for some serious growth. Think of your early work as the opening scenes of your career movie - you're setting the stage for bigger reveals and grand finales in terms of paychecks down the line.
Becoming a cinematographer is a journey of artistic vision, technical mastery, and constant learning, where you get to literally paint with light and shadow. Whether you're just starting out or have been in the game for a while, remember, every lens choice, lighting setup, and camera angle tells a part of the story that words just can't. With the right tools at your fingertips and passion in your heart, this career can be as rewarding financially as it is creatively. So, keep honing your craft, network like it's going out of style, and who knows? Your unique viewpoint could be exactly what the next big film project needs.