Cinematographers (a.k.a. directors of photography) work alongside directors to give films, TV shows, music videos and television commercials their own unique aesthetic style. Responsible for managing camera crews and lighting crews, they oversee the selection and manipulation of technical equipment to create striking images on screen.
The visual impact of a film is driven by the creative choices a cinematographer makes. These guys make the big decisions about the use of different lenses, filters, lighting techniques and camera movements to create dramatic effect and prompt different emotional responses from the audience. They’re also responsible for making decisions about aspect ratio, digital effects, image contrast, and frame rates.
Cinematographers get involved throughout the entire production lifecycle. Before filming starts, they dissect the screenplay, conduct extra research into different styles and motifs which relate to the subject matter of the script, and liaise with the director to discuss their creative ideas.
The next step involves meticulously planning the technical execution of each shot. They also figure out what equipment and staff will be required. They are then responsible for handling the procurement of equipment and the recruitment of camera operators, gaffers, grips and other technical production specialists. Throughout this process, cinematographers need to be mindful of budget restrictions and time constraints.
During filming, cinematographers run the show, directing the technical production crew and making sure the correct lenses, filters, cranes, Steadicams, dollies and lights are used for each shot. Sometimes cinematographers operate camera equipment themselves—although this is more likely to happen on low budget movies with smaller crews.
Post-production, cinematographers work alongside directors and editors to make sure the colour grading of the film or TV show is spot on.
Salary & benefits
Cinematographers can earn anywhere between £50,000 and £300,000 per annum. Understandably though, the vast majority of cinematographers start their careers as junior camera operators, where they are likely to earn around £15,000 a year.
After gaining plenty of experience, a camera operator’s salary may gradually increase to around £35,000 a year, but it takes years of dedication before you can make the step up and start earning the big bucks.
Salaries in this area fluctuate massively, as most cinematographers work on a freelance basis and therefore their wages are entirely dependent on how frequently they manage to secure work.
Salary levels also depend on the size and budget of each production that the cinematographer works on. Indeed, those who work on feature films with large budgets can earn a handsome wage.
If you become a cinematographer, you won’t be clocking-off at 5pm every day. Expect to be working long, irregular and unsociable hours. The nature of film production means that filming can take place at any time of the day. You may even be required to work at the weekend from time to time.
You will also usually find yourself working in a variety of different places, i.e. in studios, offices and on-set in remote locations. Travel, both domestically and internationally, is also common.
Many cinematographers go to film school before getting their first break in the film industry. However, this is by no means necessary!
Admittedly, studying a degree or diploma in a relevant subject, such as film production, cinematography, film studies or media studies, will help you to hone your craft and give you a great insight into how a film is made. However, you could study a degree in any discipline and still manage to develop a career in cinematography.
You can even enter this profession without a degree or diploma. After all, the only essential entry criteria for this area of work are a passion for film and expert knowledge of how to use cameras and other film-making equipment.
Whichever route you decide to take, you will most likely start off as a runner, photographic technician or camera assistant, and then work your way up through the ranks for many years before finally becoming a cinematographer.
Indeed, the only way to progress in this industry is to get work experience, learn from the best, and build up a network of useful industry contacts.
Training & progression
All of your training will be done whilst on the job in a lower-level position. As you gain more experience and establish yourself, experimentation is the key to development. You’ll need to push yourself and try out different things.
You will also need to keep up-to-date with the latest advancements in technology and filming techniques.
Cinematographers are at the top of the career ladder and tend to work on a freelance basis. Consequently, there are no real opportunities for career progression. At this level, it’s all about building your reputation, earning more money and gaining recognition from ‘the Academy’.
The way to achieve this is through hard work, personal endeavour and networking. The British Society of Cinematographers offers great opportunities for you to develop your network of influential contacts.