What is a Cinematographer?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

While a film director may have a general idea of how a scene should look, it is the responsibility of a cinematographer to make it happen. This professional is an expert in both the technical and artistic capabilities of a movie camera. He or she works closely with the director during principal shooting in order to properly frame each shot according to the script and/or the director's personal vision. The head cinematographer may also be credited as director of photography or DP, although the two titles are not as interchangeable as one might think.

A cinematographer works closely with film directors during shooting in order to adequately frame each shot.
A cinematographer works closely with film directors during shooting in order to adequately frame each shot.

A cinematographer may also be considered a camera operator, especially if his or her decision-making power is minimal. While working, he or she actually looks through the lens of a camera while filming a scene, much like a still photographer snaps individual photographs. The lighting director and crew will often work with the cinematographer to make sure the amount of light reflecting off the actors and scenery is acceptable. If a special lens or filter is required for an artistic effect, it is this person's job to make the changes.

Lighting directors often work closely with the cinematographer to ensure their vision is carried out.
Lighting directors often work closely with the cinematographer to ensure their vision is carried out.

If a film has a large budget, several cinematographers may be hired to work different camera set-ups. Smaller film companies may only be able to hire one, who must be present for every shot. Occasionally, a director may take over the cinematographer's duties if the set needs to be closed for privacy. An experienced cinematographer may also act as a second-unit director, responsible for shooting general background or establishing shots without the principal actors. A sweeping view of a city at the beginning of a film may be the work of this person alone.

A cinematographer helps to create the feeling and mood of a particular film.
A cinematographer helps to create the feeling and mood of a particular film.

It is not unusual for a film director to hire the same cinematographer for most of his or her productions. The working relationship between a director and a 'cinema photographer' requires a shared vision with regards to the overall look of a film. Many of the greatest films in Hollywood history achieved their status through the unsung work of this professional. Orson Welle's masterpiece "Citizen Kane" benefited greatly from the contributions of cinematographer Gregg Toland, for example. Toland created camera movements that had never been used before in major films.

A film with a large production budget may hire several cinematographers.
A film with a large production budget may hire several cinematographers.

Becoming a cinematographer requires years of technical training in the use of professional camera and video equipment. A period of apprenticeship under an experienced professional may follow, leading to camera work for independent films or low budget Hollywood productions. After building up a solid resume, a budding cinematographer may join an organization such as the ASC, the American Society of Cinematographers.

Cinematographers may get work filming a wedding.
Cinematographers may get work filming a wedding.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon150249

thank you. this has been good. now i can finally pursuit my goal to be a cinematographer.

anon123562

got some good stuff. i dream of being a cinematographer.

anon94958

yes, thank you. It has been my dream to become a cinematographer.

anon88176

Thanks for the article. It's very helpful.

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