How to Become a Professional Cinematographer

Gritty scenes that show heart and empathy in the middle of a war zone. Balancing the hustle and bustle of a futuristic metropolis with the age-old desire to discover the truth. Bringing out the color of a performance in a black and white film, and occasionally falling backward out of a plane to get the perfect shot.

What does a Cinematographer Do?

The job of the cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (DP), is more than just pointing a camera and shooting. Working closely with the director, the cinematographer is in charge of all the lighting and camera work on a film.

Led by the director’s vision, the DP leads the camera operators and directs the key grip (supervisor of lighting and camera rigging) to set up every shot. Depending on the scope of the movie, the DP may need an assistant or two to keep everything organized.

There are two sides to the DP career – having an artistic, creative eye for setting up a shot and then having the technical expertise to make it happen. The combination of the two is what leads many cinematographers into the director’s chair.

Technical Cinematography Aspects

Knowing how to shoot day for night and the other way around requires an understanding of fill lights, camera lenses, filters, and other special effects created on set. While celluloid was king for more than a century, most filmmakers have moved to digital. If nothing else, digital removes the worry that you might run out of film during a shoot.

There are many different brands of cameras (Arri Alexa, Panavision Genesis, Red One, and so forth) used throughout the film industry. Is one better than the others? It depends on who you ask, but every professional cinematic camera will have what a DP needs – and then a few more bells and whistles.

You won’t have $60k to buy a camera, so make do with what you can afford. Reading about technical aspects is one thing. Messing with the settings, light, and other facets of the camera and getting instant results can provide a much more hands-on learning experience.

You don’t necessarily need to know every facet of every camera. But you do need to familiarize yourself with the latest advances in camera technology as well as understand common film camera lingo. Understanding what each part does will allow you to better use all of the camera’s capabilities.

Shutter/Shutter Speed – the part of the camera that allows light for a shot. The shorter the shutter speed, the darker the image. Longer shutter time allows more light in for brighter pictures. The difference in speeds also affects how sharp the final shot will be.

Lens – Cameras can have lenses permanently affixed or allow for the interchange of lenses. When considering cameras, the ability to switch out lenses for a shot is quite a luxury. Just make sure you understand apertures, focal lengths, and other capabilities before growing your lens library.

Aperture – Another aspect of how much light is let in, the measurements are counted in f-stops. Lenses come in a wide variety of aperture settings so many cinematographers have many on hand to choose from for the perfect shot.

The body, flash, viewfinders differ between style, design, and brand. How they fit on a shoulder, tripod, dolly, and other types of rigging can be adjusted. After these basics, cameras can be equipped with filters to alter shots even further. Do your homework. Don’t buy a Ferrari if you just have a learner’s permit. Take the time to understand what a camera is capable of.

Artistry

This is the part of a cinematographer’s job where the professionals are distinguishable from the wannabes. Just like most people won’t be able to paint like Picasso, not everyone will be able to match the eye of Emmanuel Lubezki or Roger Deakins (winners of five of the last seven Oscars for cinematography).

There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams explains to Matt Damon there’s only so much you can glean from books; the only way to truly wonder in awe about Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is to see it in person. You have to live art to develop your artist’s eye.

Find shots you really appreciate and try to emulate them. Find out how your favorite movie was made, from Titanic to The Revenant, and learn how to shoot each. Try something completely revolutionary and see how it translates to the screen. Taking a camera apart and putting it back together is one thing. Using that camera to capture imagination will need more than an owner’s manual.

Careers in Film: Work Your Way Up

After learning the technical aspects of camera and lighting on your own, it’s time to find your way to learning the rest and moving up the ranks. The assistant camera (AC), for example, is responsible for keeping the correct subject in focus. This could be the lead running through a hail of bullets or a plastic bag fluttering in the wind.

Not every entry-level job needs to deal with camera crews or cinematography skills. Finding your way to a production assistant job will get you on the set. When that happens, make yourself indispensable while watching cinematographers work with the camera and camera movements.

As a PA, you will be responsible for helping anyone who needs it. Ask if riggers need a hand or if the key grip needs assistance. Short films, music videos, a TV pilot, and feature films all have a lot of moving parts – make it your job to learn as much you can about each one.

Cinematography Education: Start Learning on the Set

The Film Connection Cinematography Program will place you within a professional production company, working side-by-side with an industry professional as your mentor. Along with the technical aspects of how to operate a camera, your mentor will help develop your “eye of the DP.”

Our curriculum is based on what you need to know when working towards becoming a cinematographer. The Film Connection learning system has many externs move on to the silver screen and the TV screen, but they earned their shots. Will their success become your success? Well, that’s up to you. Apply today.

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