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How Cinematographers Work

Required Skills of a Cinematographer
Cinematographers need an artistic eye for framing shots.
Cinematographers need an artistic eye for framing shots.
© Hisham Ibrahim/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Whether a cinematographer is a director of photography or a camera operator, he needs both creative and technical skills to succeed, as well as knowledge of the most up-to-date equipment and technology and the flexibility to change and work as a particular film or the movie industry requires.

Here are some of the most important cinematographer skills:

  • Having a good artistic eye for photography, or in other words, being able to frame shots and recognize good shots, as any photographer would.
  • Knowing the technical basics of photography -- how to make lighting work to your advantage, how to use lenses, and how film speeds and exposures work.
  • Having knowledge of film-specific photography equipment and techniques, such as film cameras on dollies, hand-held cameras, the Steadicam and blue screen. This includes both set-up and operation.
  • Being experienced with the filmmaking process from preproduction through postproduction, including working with a film house to prepare the final print.
  • Being able to collaborate with a movie director in developing an artistic vision for a film and then producing it.
  • Having the flexibility and problem-solving skills to handle production when scenes don't go as planned due to weather, equipment problems, budget limitations or artistic changes. This includes being able to make fast, instinctive decisions about which film, technique or equipment works best for a particular scene.
  • Keeping up with ever-changing advances in film technology and knowing when to shift to or drop in new technology instead of the old.
  • Being able to manage a budget and staff, and coordinate with other departments like lighting, to keep production running smoothly.

Because filmmaking is a collaborative art, bringing many people together in the production process, a cinematographer needs the ability to get along and work with everyone. As cinematographer John Schwartzmann phrases it in the book "100 Careers in Film and Television," "The most important skill that you need to be successful in the film business is to be able to play well with others."

Sound like the right job for you? Keep reading to find out how to become a cinematographer.