The camera serves as the audience’s eye into worlds that are strange, dramatic, and fascinating. Through film and television the viewer suspends disbelief to accompany the cast on an adventure—to end in catastrophe or celebration. The director of photography is perhaps most responsible for guiding our eye on the journey the directorhas designed.
The director of photography (also known as the DP or cinematographer) is hired at the start of preproduction, and is typically hand-picked by the director. This person will supervise the camera, lighting, and grip departments, and is tasked with selecting the cameras, lenses, filters, film, and other accessories required for principal photography. She or he will also have input on hiring camera operators and assistants and grip and electrics crews. The first task is a thorough read of the script and consultation with the director. The two work out storyboards, consult with the production designer, and plan a shooting schedule and budget.
Under the International Cinematographers Guild (IATSE Local 600) basic agreement, the director of photography is not permitted to operate a camera during production. Instead, the DP instructs the camera operator in framing, focus, aperture, and movement. She or he directs the key grip and gaffer in the setup of lighting and other effects to achieve the shot to match the director’s vision and portray the proper mood and emotion of the scene. The DPalso makes suggestions to the director concerning how to capture complicated action sequences and tracking shots, the use of cranes and dollies, and the actors’ blocking. At the end of each shooting day, the director of photography sits down with the director to review dailies and take notes. After principal photography has wrapped, the DP oversees the digital grading and film development process. She or he will also participate in any necessary reshoots and the addition of visual effects in post.
Skills & Education
A director of photography needs expertise in lighting, color theory, camera operation, and the techniques of cinematography. It is possible to pick up a general knowledge by studying under a mentor on the job, but a college degree in film and television production is the most comprehensive education toward this career. As a supervisor of the camera, lighting and grip departments, this person must be proficient in each area. Prior professional experience in one or more production departments is required. The most successful DPs, however, are artists, not simply experienced technicians—visual maestros like Sven Nykvist, Haskell Wexler, Roger Deakins, and Lance Acord create moving paintings out of light and shadow.
What to Expect
The camera department is still the standard proving ground for future cinematographers, but it is becoming more common to see DPs who have graduated from the lighting crew asgaffers. To work on projects for major film and television studios, a director of photography must become a member in good standing with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. If working on independent productions, the specific scope and duties of this position can vary widely. Cinematographers are both skilled technicians and talented visual artists. It is important to practice your craft, familiarize yourself with the camera at the component level, and continue to stay abreast of the innovations and inventions in camera technology, but also to nourish your eye: Visit museums and art galleries and keep up-to-date with contemporary art trends. You should be prepared to work for many years to rise to the senior-level role of the director of photography. This is a freelance career that requires long hours, substantial travel, willingness to adapt to changing conditions, and the patience to work with personalities from diverse backgrounds.