How Cinematographers Work

tropic thunder
The introductory scene of "Tropic Thunder," featuring Tom Cruise, left, Ben Stiller, second from left, and Jack Black, right was shot continuously. They are shown here at the premiere with Dreamworks CEO Stacey Snider. See more movie making pictures
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Movie filming techniques have come a long way from placing one or two stationary cameras in front of a stage set where actors read their lines. Consider the challenge of filming the opening scene of "Tropic Thunder" (2008). The scene, which was shot live, introduces the main characters in a firefight at a helicopter landing area and ends with a huge napalm explosion.

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Cinematographer John Toll, the director of photography for the movie, says that the filmmakers only wanted to film the tricky scene once because it required so many live explosives. For him, that meant not only figuring out the best angles and camera placement but also considering and planning for everything that could go wrong.

To capture the scene on film, Toll and his camera operators used seven or eight cameras on the explosion, a couple of angles for blue screen plates that would be used later for close-ups of the actors and a camera operator shooting from a helicopter. The actual filming went off without a hitch.

But while the opening scene may have been the most complicated, "Tropic Thunder" called for more quick thinking and a range of cameras to capture jungle warfare. Over the course of 10 weeks filming on Kauai and then additional scenes at Universal Studios, two-time Oscar winner Toll switched among cameras on dollies and cranes, Steadicams and handheld cameras on the ground, on moving trucks and in helicopters.

And beyond the cameras were decisions about which lens and frame rate to use in each scene, as well as film format -- in this case, Super 35 for wide screen -- and value of a digital intermediate in postproduction [source: International Cinematographers Guild].

This is all part of the cinematographer's job in creating the movie magic that we see at a theater. But what exactly does a cinematographer do? What skills are needed? And how can a person become a cinematographer? Read on to find out.


Job Description of a Cinematographer

Cinematographers bring stories to life visually and are responsible for shooting films.
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Giving a job description of a cinematographer is a bit difficult because the term "cinematographer" can apply to various jobs ranging from camera operator to director of photography. Most often, the term refers to the director of photography, or top cinematographer on a film, so let's focus on that.

Basically, cinematography means bringing a story to life visually. The word's Greek roots are kinema (movement) and graph (writing). Bringing movement to screenwriter's script requires more than simply shooting photos or video of a scene. The primary cinematographer, or director of photography, works with the film's director to capture the underlying story in a way that will captivate the movie audience. Camera operators and cinematographers for specific scenes or types of scenes work to fulfill the overall vision.


The visual interpretation of the story can be as big as "Tropic Thunder's" napalm explosion or as small as a snow globe dropped from a dying man's hand while he whispers the word 'Rosebud' in "Citizen Kane" (1941). The cinematographer's job is finding the images that bring the story to life and capturing its meaning in a memorable way [source: Blain Brown].

But while that's a general description, the director of photography also has a lot of specific responsibilities related to making a movie. In fact, the cinematographer's job starts before a single frame of film is shot.


The cinematographer discusses the director's vision for the film with him, both overall and scene by scene. Based on that, the cinematographer determines what's needed for each scene, within budget, and hires the camera crew, arranges for equipment and buys film and supplies. The cinematographer also works with other departments, like sound and lighting, to coordinate production needs.


The cinematographer coordinates the crew and works with the director to make sure each scene is set up and shot to match the director's vision of the story. For each scene, the cinematographer decides on the best combination of cameras, filters and lenses, as well as where the cameras will be placed, what the lighting should be and when the scene will be shot. On large films, several cinematographers may oversee different camera set-ups. Others may serve as second-unit directors, shooting background or locations without the actors. The director of photography oversees them all, often also managing the photography budget.


The cinematographer works with the processing lab to make sure the film retains the color and mood that he and the director wanted. The cinematographer also reviews dailies, as well as the first and final print of the film. Being a critical eye and part of quality control is important throughout postproduction [source: Tanja Crouch].

Being a cinematographer requires special skills. Go to the next page to find out what they are.


Required Skills of a Cinematographer

Cinematographers need an artistic eye for framing shots.
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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.


Becoming a Cinematographer

danny moder
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.


Lots More Information

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  • "Cinematography." Brown, Blain. Focal Press. 2002. page ix. (;dq=cinematographer&lr=&sig=ACfU3U392LysjZHjtYDUwb7GPLdt6WhHsA#PPR9,M1)
  • "Citizen Kane." Internet Movie Database. (
  • "100 Careers in Film and Television." Crouch, Tanja. Barron's Educational Series. 2002. page 111. (;dq=cinematographer&lr=&sig=ACfU3U0a2Pz6VPn6h74BqdgG-t0zNZQb6Q#PPA74,M1)
  • "Wartime Lies." Fisher, Bob. ICG (International Cinematographers Guild) newsletter. (
  • "What is a Cinematographer." (­