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How Cinematographers Work

Becoming a Cinematographer
Many cinematographers start as photographer directors or cameramen like Danny Moder, shown here on the set of "The Taking of Pelham 1:23.".
Many cinematographers start as photographer directors or cameramen like Danny Moder, shown here on the set of "The Taking of Pelham 1:23.".
© Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images

Becoming a cinematographer requires a lot of technical training that never ends. That's because the technology behind cinematography changes constantly as new equipment and new techniques are developed. You can't simply learn how to use a particular professional camera, for example, and keep using it throughout your career. Whether you're a director of photography or simply a camera operator, you'll need to keep up with what's new and be ready to use it in your work.

If you want to be a cinematographer, you probably already have experience with a camera and an interest in photography. You most likely will want to get a degree focused on cinematography from a filmmaking school. This will help you learn not only about the visual aspects of movie making but also about the full process of film production.

Once you have that background, you need to break into the business and build your resume so you can work your way up. You may be able to find apprenticeship work on commercials or documentaries or even a low-level job in a film studio. Directors often work with the same cinematographer, and directors of photography tend to keep the same crew together. So you'll want to build a portfolio and network to attract the attention of these potential job providers.

Being a Hollywood cinematographer means being a member of a union, the International Cinematographers Guild. The union can help members find work and can be a way to make contacts within the industry. The American Society of Cinematographers is an invitation-only organization, but it offers educational programs, a magazine, podcasts and products. Perhaps you've seen the initials "ASC" after a cinematographer's name in film credits. If so, that cinematographer is a member of the society.

Well-known cinematographers have taken many different paths to their chosen career.

  • John Toll, who won Oscars for "Legends of the Fall" (1994) and "Braveheart" (1995), worked for a film production company while earning a liberal arts degree. From there, he worked on camera crews for documentaries and low-budget feature films before moving up to TV series, commercials and feature films.
  • Wally Pfister has been nominated for two Academy Awards and was cinematographer for "The Dark Knight" (2008). He started out shooting TV news and documentary footage for eight years of experience before studying cinematography at the American Film Institute. After that, he worked on ultra-low budget films and as a camera operator for AFI alumni before one of his films attracted a director's attention at the Sundance Film Festival.
  • Roger Deakins, six-time Academy Award nominee and cinematographer for "No Country for Old Men" and "In the Valley of Elah" (both 2007), discovered photography while he was in art school. He received a degree in cinematography from England's National Film School and shot documentaries and TV shows before earning his first feature film credit. He has teamed with Joel and Ethan Coen on films since 1991.

[source: International Cinematographers Guild]

As you can see, a combination of skill, education, experience, contacts and simple luck can lead to success as a cinematographer.

For lots more information about cinematographers and related topics, view  the links on the next page.