How Cinematographers Work

Job Description of a Cinematographer

Cinematographers bring stories to life visually and are responsible for shooting films.
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.