Director of Photography | What Is It, and What Do They Do?

Tips Feb 23, 2021

If you've ever seen a movie, series, TV-show, basically anything to do with a motion picture, you've comes across the work of a Director of Photography. That almost sounded like a question. Let me rephrase: When you turn on your favourite episode of Downton Abbey, what you see is the work of a cinematographer. Well, and actors, screenwriters, producers, there's many. Still, today, in this article, the spotlight goes to…the Director of Photography.

What is a Director of Photography?

A Director of Photography or cinematographer (often shortened DP or DoP), is the chief of camera, light, colouring, framing, exposure and camera movement. The cinematographer is also responsible for making the artistic and technical decisions related to the image. Everything about creating a visual environment that helps the audience better apprehend the characters and the story, you got it, that's the Director of Photography's responsibility.

If we go back in time, all the way back to the dawn of creation… no wait, that's too far back, we'll settle at the time motion pictures was still in its infancy. Back then, the Director of Photography was typically the Director and the person physically handling the camera, but how the times have changed. As technology advances are storming the castle of old school cinematography, the Director and camera operator's role has separated. With the arrival of artificial lighting and faster film stocks, improved optics and more, the technical aspects of cinematography needed a specialist in that area. That's the part where we welcome the Director of Photography.

Today, the cinematographer is in charge of the biggest crew on set; the light and camera crew. So, the DP is not only responsible for bringing (and potentially elevating) the Director's vision. He or she will also be responsible for coordinating the camera crew, making sure equipment is working, and testing special lenses and filters. The cinematographer is responsible for leading his or her team of photographers with delicence and precision.

Director of Photography vs Cinematographer: What is the difference?

Director of Photography vs. Cinematographer: what's the difference

Do you know what homonyms are?

Well, to give you the short answer: Director of Photography and a cinematographer is that – they are homonyms.

The two are interchangeable and refer to the same thing: A recorder of cinema.

However, if you wish, there are few, and I mean a few things that you might argue differentiate the two. A cinematographer is an umbrella occupation; it needs to be someone who can operate and manipulate a camera to achieve the desired look and feel to a movie. In comparison, the Director of Photography is the overall helm figure of the film. A Director of Photography is part technician, part artist, part manager and must be able to work side-by-side with the Director to make the visual effect possible.

What does a director of photography do?

Being responsible for everything the audience sees on-screen (so, everything) is a lot. A Director of Photography doesn't just whip out his or her camera; there's a lot more to it.

The DoP determines how each shot should be framed, composed, lit, which camera angles and movements should be used and coordinate and manage the camera and lighting crew. A cinematographer will also need to work together with the actors to support them in figuring out when that big moment is and collaborate with departments such as production designers, wardrobe teammates to set the right visual texture.

Up for the challenge?

If yes, you will also need to come to terms with the fact that it will most likely mean many early mornings and late nights. The DoP typically arrives early, to set up equipment and start rehearsing – I hope you have a good coffee machine at home or live near a Starbucks.

Let's break the responsibilities and duties of a Director of Photography down, right now.

A Director of Photography duties during Pre-Production

Even before the actual production of the film begins, the work of a cinematographer commences. The DoP will spend many hours considering the best way to interpret the script and decide the cinematic style and visual feel.

DoP duties during pre-production

Brainstorm

A DP will be working with a lot of people. Reason being: it takes a village to make a movie. In this production phase, the DoP will sit with the Director, screenwriters, production designers, and other departments leaders to brainstorm what the film should look and feel like.

Storyboards

Creating a storyboard is crucial when producing a film. Once you got a thorough idea of the film's visual appeal and tone, the next step is to go through the film's script and create visual representations for every individual shot. The storyboard will help give an overview of the movie in its entirety so the Director and producers can start scheduling and planning the production.

Location, Location, Location

Many movies will stay inside the comfortable walls of a studio. However, some movies might just explore other areas of the world. Ever heard of the movie Avengers: Infinity War? Only one of the highest-grossing film of the past decade. Here, the producers used locations such as Brazil, Scotland and the Philippines. The Banaue Rice Terraces were used as Thano's resting place at the end of the story. If you watch the movie, look carefully, perhaps squeeze your eyes real tight, you'll almost spot the rice terraces in the background.

The Director of Photography will accompany the location manager in search of the best location for the film. Once found, the DoP will consider its natural lighting (or lack thereof), equipment setup possibilities, and help decide whether it's in line with the film's visual atmosphere.

Assemble the needed equipment

The DoP is in charge of the camera- and lighting crew; however, there's not much to be in charge of, without the actual camera equipment. So, start scouting what type of camera equipment will help capture the visual language of the movie. That includes cameras, lenses, filters, tripods, gimbals, audio, lighting equipment and much more.

In particular, a good idea to start considering early in the process is the lens choice. There are multiple types of lenses out there, each with a different feature. Overall, you can choose between either a zoom lens or a prime lens. Potentially if you have a bigger budget, you can select both.

One type of lens that a cinematographer needs to be acquainted with is the unique anamorphic lens – a DoP favourite. Learn more about what an anamorphic lens is and why you should use it. Or if you already know that you want to use the anamorphic lens, find which will be the best for your project.

Assemble the dream team

Cinematography is an exceptionally collaborative job. A DoP will need to gather people he or she has trust in can be their right-hand man.

A Directory of Photography duties During Production

While pre-production might seem like a handful, the Director of Photography's real work starts during the production phase. Let's break down what duties the DoP will have during production.

DoP duties during production

Shoot

Not surprisingly, this is the phase where the DoP shoots the film. It is the responsibility of the DP to directs the camera- and lighting crew to pay attention to all of the following areas:

Composition and framing

Should the audience have a full view of the scene, then a master shot is preferred or should the audience get real and close to the subject, then an extreme close-up shot might do the trick. That's up to the Director of Photography.

Exposure

Refers to how much and what type of light that specific shot needs. The lighting setup plays a fundamental part in what the audience sees and experiences. As head of cinematography, you need to know what the best type of lighting is. Should you use soft lighting or more harsh lighting to capture the mood?

Movement

Just to make the life of a DoP easier, how you choose to move the camera will affect how the audience engages with the scene.

Lenses

I said it before, and I'll say it again; the lens plays a crucial role in the story you're telling. Are you going in for a master shot in the opening shot, then a wide-angle lens might be ideal. Or are you looking to create an extreme close-up shot, then a telephoto lens might be better for that purpose.

A Directory of Photography duties during Post-Production

Once the DP reaches the post-production phase, a well-deserved break is awaiting just around the corner. There is, however, one crucial task left – the colour grading.

DoP duties during post-production

Colour grading

Colour grading tweaks the look and funny enough, colour of the film. The cinematographer must advise the colourist on how the colour palette should appear.

Of course, how involved the DoP will be in the post-production phase will depend on the size of the project and the character of the individual DoP. Overall, the Director of Photography will support the colourists and editor to further develop the mise en scene.

What skills does a cinematographer possess?

To be frank – a lot!

As the cinematographer comes with quite the portfolio of duties, it requires a comprehensive portfolio of skills.

The DoP needs to be a visually creative individual who can contain a technical role and manage a whole team of creatives.

DoP needed skills

Artistic vision and flair for photography

The DP sets the visual look for the film, so, he or she needs to understand the camera and lighting technique and utilize these techniques in favour of the story.

Technical camera knowledge

A DoP also needs to have an in-depth understanding of all the different type of cameras, lenses, lights, etc. This knowledge is essential, as different types of equipment can support the visual story.

Can both give and follow instructions

As a cinematographer, you will have many people depending on your guidance and instructions. If you don't give proper advice during the production phase, it will show in the post-production phase. While the DoP is on top of the chain, you're not entirely king of the jungle. You need to listen and accommodate for the Director's vision and then bring that vision to life.

Must be organized

As the DoP is leading a team of creators, they need to be highly organized, during video production. A cinematographer must be in control at all times (within the human capacities) to capture the scene.

Attention to detail

The DoP will need to have a flair for details, with every aspect of the visual output. Suppose the actors need different makeup or adjusted costumes. In that case, it's the responsibility to call for the makeup or costume department to fix any visual problems.

It's hardly a secret that being a DP is not just a walk in the park. It requires a whole lot. You need to learn the essential elements of cinematography to understand the route of becoming a DoP.

How to become a cinematographer

There's no secret passages or magical wardrobe that can lead you the become a Director of Photography overnight. It's a senior role, and creators don't just wake up one morning and become a DoP. While some will start as an unpaid camera trainee others will be floor runners or assistant Director.

The critical thing to remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint. So, take the time to perfect the skills you need to not only become a decent DP but an excellent one!

How to become a Director of Photography

Consider film school

Suppose you know that you want to go to film school. In that case, consider choosing subjects about art and design or graphic communication with maths and physics. In general, attending film school can be a great way to understand better how all the technical aspects work.

Get an apprenticeship

An apprenticeship is the right blend of work and training. So, this is your opportunity to earn while you learn – got to be honest, it's not a bad idea. However, the chance of making money whilst learning all the do's and don'ts, well, let's just say, you're not the first who thinks that sounds like a good idea.

Consider taking a job in another sector, for example, a digital media company or art gallery. That way, you learn the core skills of photography and makes you look much more attractive than your fellow aspiring DoP's also applying for an apprenticeship.

Build a portfolio & get work experience

Everyone has to start somewhere. Like any situation, you have to learn how to walk before you can run. Work your way up the ranks and build your portfolio up. Take assistant jobs, unpaid internships anything that can pave the way to a Director of Photography career. Get as much experience as you can in photography, both still and moving images. A portfolio is essential for impressing admissions tutors and people in the filmmaking industry.

Start working for an equipment company

You might not get the touch and feel of all the technical aspects, but it is a way to learn more about the kit and build up contacts. Contact equipment rentals companies, such as Panavision or ARRI rentals… or, just thinking out loud – Wedio? Ask if you can become a kit runner or driver for them. If you're just starting, everything helps, even just being close to the gear.

Networking all the way

Not surprisingly, networking. Anyone can be the person to open the door into the world of cinematography. While you'll be the one walking through, you need someone to pull the handle in the first place.

Create a LinkedIn profile. Look for Facebook groups or pages or other social media groups for people making films or videos in your area – and join.

What do you need to get started as a cinematographer?

How to get started as a DoP

Since there is no one way to becoming a DP, getting started is really about just that: get started! Pick up your camera, whether that's the built-in on your iPhone or the acclaimed Sony PXW-FX9, is not the point. The point is, just shoot, no amount of reading or education can do the same for you.

But who am I to lecture you about that?

Learn what professional filmmaker Tom Andrews, had to say about why and why not film school is worth trying.

If you have any DP's you find incredibly inspiring or skilled, use them! You know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Engage deeply with their art, find out what you admire and investigate what is about their work that makes you tick.

Who does the Director of Photography work with?

A DoP is working together with almost every single person on set. In particular,  the Director to discuss the visual appearance of the film. Afterwards, they start scouting for equipment and crew that can help achieve that.

Who does the DoP work with?

Who should the crew consist of? Well, I'm getting to that now:

Camera operator

These make sure the cameras and rigs are set up and ready to use. During filming, they operate the camera and attend the composition – by direction from the DoP.

Steadicam operator

The Steadicam system keeps the camera's movements smooth regardless of how fast the operator is moving or how bumpy the ride might be. Steadicam operators will set the Steadicam system up, balance the camera, and make sure the shots work. Know, this is not a job for the faint of hearts. It is physically demanding work as the Steadicams are heavy, and the operator undergoes specialist training.

Script supervisor

The script supervisor ensures that the lines are in the shot. A line can be the next "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse" but if it's not in the image, the line is missed. During shooting script, supervisors will stand by the cameras to make sure that doesn't happen.

Focus puller

Focus pullers make sure all the shots are in focus. They set up cameras, test lenses and calculate distances. They anticipate focus problems and if so, informs the Director of Photography about a potential focus issue.

Clapper loader

Clapper loaders prepare and maintain the equipment. They are responsible for record-keeping and the slating of each take. They will work with the script supervisor to ensure notes, camera logs, and other paperwork are organized.

Digital imaging technician (DIT)

DITs are responsible for ensuring the cameras are set up with the correct digital settings.

Data wrangler

The data wrangler is responsible for transferring the footage from the camera onto the cards or drives. It's the Data wrangler who will produce log sheets with details of the contents of the files and keep track of what footage has passed from shoot to post-production.

Video assist operator (VAO)

VAOs check that the playback systems work so the Director can see what's shot. You know, the part where the Director yells "CUT"? That's from looking at the playback systems.

Camera trainee

Trainees support the camera department in moving equipment and testing cameras.

The gaffer

Oversees the lighting-action. While the DoP creates the overall lighting design, the gaffer is in charge of implementing his or her vision.

The key grip

Will operate the dolly if a dolly shot is needed, the crane or if other non-electrical equipment is required. It's also the key grip who will maintain the camera and lighting equipment.  The cinematographer is in charge of setting and communicating the vision, to the key grip. The key grip will then do whatever it takes to make the DoP's vision a reality.

Of course, crew size will vary depending on film and budget. So, be prepared to handle the task of a DP and everything from a camera operator to clapper loader.

Famous cinematographers

Famous DoP's

No DP is the same; every cinematographer will have their fingerprint, their signature style. However, that doesn't mean you can't take inspiration from some of the greats. A good tell, whether a cinematographer is one of the greats – which directors are he or she typically works with?

DoP's working with directors such as, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, chances are… it's not their first rodeo. These DoP are great to take inspiration from firstly because their work is easy to find. Secondly, continuously working with some of the business's biggest names, should tell you – these guys did not come to play.

So, we'll be going through some of the best and most skilled DoP's, right here:

Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009)

This British DoP was the first to win an Honorary Oscar in the history of the Academy Awards. He's known for his primordial silent movies and has been described as a "genius, a daydreamer."

He's won the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography all three times due to his beautiful Technicolour work. He's worked with Alfred Hitchcock in "Under Capricorn" – Alfred Hitchcock, that's what I would call a big director.

Roger Deakins (1949 – )

Another British DoP – do we have an invasion on our hands? Roger Deakins is known for his affection for realistic and simple aesthetics. It is precisely this rather tasteful modesty that has made him one of the most appreciated cinematographers.

He started, studying graphic design, but quickly found love in a hopeless place – photography.

Although he's known for his simple aesthetics, he has directors such as Sam Mendes and Martin Scorsese on speed dial.

He is responsible for some of the most beautiful-looking movies, here among Shawshank Redemption (1994), Fargo (1996) A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Skyfall (2013).

Janusz Kaminski (1959 –)

Kaminski climbed the DoP ladder with the acclaimed movie the Schindler's List (1993), which gave him seven awards, an Oscar included, for Best Cinematography. The film also marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship with famous movie director Steven Spielberg.

Together the duo has given us Saving Private Ryan (1998) together with multiple other masterpieces.

Kaminski uses unusual cinematography techniques, such as having old lenses restored to achieve a more foggy and grainy―and therefore realistic―image.

Robert Richardson (1955 – )

Robert Richardson has some great movies on his hit list. Here among JFK, The Aviator, Shutter Island, Kill Bill, Inglorious Bastard, well, the hitlist goes on. He's won numerous significant prizes, such as three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography.

Even today, he's still enlightening cinematography with new technologies to his productions, as a way to continually adapt and renew himself. Richardson is an oldie but a goldie – and is worth a look.

Final thoughts

Feel inspired by some of the greats? Well, the best cinematographer's didn't just roll out of bed and decided to become one of the best DoP's out there. They trained, rehearsed and studied all the essential cinematography techniques.

Follow their lead – learn all the essential cinematography techniques.

Sarah Solvsteen Knudsen

Sarah is a digital marketing content intern who enjoys telling unique stories that captivate audiences. She loves going a few rounds in a boxing ring just as much as picking up a great book.