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How to Become a Cinematographer or Director of Photography

Shreyas Dasharathe
A picture is worth a thousand words. A moving picture is worth much more. They speak in space and time, in color and form. In cinema, the person behind all of this is the cinematographer. With the process of movie making getting easier, more and more people are opting for this profession.

Did You Know?

Filmmaker and cinematographer Stanley Kubrick often went to great lengths to perfect his shots. For one film, he obtained lenses originally developed for NASA, to shoot scenes lit only with candlelight.
A cinematographer, or Director of Photography (DoP), is the person who is responsible for translating the director's vision in moving images. He has to work very closely with the director to put together the right kind of visuals that can amaze and inspire the audience at the same time.
Becoming a director of photography requires skill, creativity, and great command over the various facets involved in motion photography. A cinematographer not only looks over recording images, but is also involved in other processes like production design, sound, location scouting, visual effects, etc.
Aspiring cinematographers must bear in mind the amount of hard work and dedication this field demands. One of the dilemmas faced by a fresher starting out in any field is planning. Although it would be unrealistic to have every bit and piece planned out, it is always useful to have a rough direction before setting foot onto something.
The following points will be helpful in providing some insights about this job, and answer some of the questions on how to become a cinematographer.

Understanding What a Cinematographer Does

The process of filmmaking is evolving pretty fast with all the advances in the technologies and development of new visual styles. For instance, most movies are shot digitally nowadays, as opposed to film, which was the only medium of recording images since the beginning of this art.
A cinematographer today has to be flexible enough to be able to shoot for television and feature films alike. The boundaries of these mediums are fading away with 'quality story-telling' being the focus in both.
Taking a camera and hitting the record button is probably the last thing on the mind of a cinematographer on site. A cinematographer's language is his images. But he has to be able to communicate with the director and the technicians precisely to get the work done. The job is physically as well as mentally demanding.
He has to set up rigs, design and arrange lighting schemes, compose shots so that they are aesthetically appealing, and do all of this within the constraints of a budget and time, without compromising the director's vision. A cinematographer constantly has to jump sides from creativity to practicality, and create an astute process for everyone involved.

Education Needed

Getting a related education always helps in learning the technicalities and gaining hands-on experience on various equipment that go into shooting a visual. Various film schools offer different kinds of courses, varying from certificate courses to 2-year degree programs.
It is advisable to have an education for someone who is not very well-versed with the technical knowledge of the equipment. Though a degree or a certificate is helpful at entry-level jobs, what really counts is the kind of work and experience the cinematographer has. So, the education that counts would be working on more projects, and building a portfolio.

Discovering Your Form

A cinematographer does not only shoot big Hollywood blockbusters. While most of them like to jump between forms and genres, some might focus their work on specific areas, like documentaries, wildlife, music-videos, commercials, etc. There is a lot to be explored in each of these forms.

Starting Out

Applying for assisting jobs can be a great start. In all likelihood, you will begin with a low-profile job. But being on set is an amazing learning experience, which will give you on overall understanding of the process.
The pressure of working within constraints, the technical problems faced on location, and all kinds of tricky situations will help you learn and grow.
Given the nature of the job, you have to build a network and connect with more and more people. It will not only help you get clients, but also provide a wider reach for your work. Don't shy away from taking smaller projects. The more you work, the more you learn.

Learning to Manage Finances

Unlike a conventional job, the pay of a cinematographer is not constant. Every project has a different budget, and so the pay varies from project to project. For those who are starting out, the pay may not be great.
So, it important to have good financial planning and manage expenses accordingly. The pay sure does increases with increasing experience and number of projects. Being part of a union or a guild can help finding work and making connections.

Watching Other People's Works

There are great cinematographers doing spellbinding work in all kinds of movies. It is always helpful to follow the works of cinematographers working in different genres and areas of film-making.
Documentaries, wildlife, sports, and various other areas have their own grammars of shooting, and an exposure to these can be instrumental in discovering and developing a unique style. More and more technical understanding will be helpful in dissecting a scene and recognizing the usage of various elements involved in photographing it.
For example, the lighting schemes, the angles and shots, the composition, etc. Besides photography, there are other good art forms that can be learned from. For example, paintings, architectural works, and sculptures can serve as excellent sources of learning the various facets of composition and color.

Creative Curiosity and Spontaneity

Apart from handling the huge number of equipment and people, what lies at the core of being a cinematographer is his creative curiosity and spontaneity. This is probably the only tool that will help you go places, especially during hard times.
What matters most is creating amazing images. Being spontaneous is sometimes the only way of putting out honest images. Do remember what the crux of all this is. Live by the values of capturing great images and composing astounding frames.
A few names who excelled in this field are Roger Deakins, Darius Khondji, John Toll, Kazuo Miyagawa, Vittorio Storaro, Gordon Willis, Christopher Doyle, Charles Rosher, besides many others.
Becoming a cinematographer is quite a journey, but given the right amount of dedication and passion for the art, it is totally worth it.