Careers advice and planning

Cinematographer: job description

5 Dec 2023, 14:59

A cinematographer (or director of photography) is the person who physically shoots the footage for films, TV series, music videos and adverts.

cinematographer operating camera

What does a cinematographer do? How much money do cinematographers make? | Who employs cinematographers? | How to become a cinematographer | Key skills

Cinematographers take the creative lead on how to turn a script into visuals, based on what the director has discussed with them. They work closely with the director to establish how to visually develop the script and bring it to life – they will plan the sound, lighting and framing of their shots and decide what crew and equipment will be necessary to achieve the vision. Being a cinematographer means collaborating with other people on set such as the camera operator, first and second assistant clapper, steady cam operator and script supervisor.

They play an essential role in film production as they dictate the overall look and visual style of what is being filmed. It can be an intense and challenging, but equally exciting role. Typically, cinematographers are responsible for:

  • taking instructions from the director about the required mood, theme and feel of shots (and advising the director on what is feasible and what would work best creatively)
  • researching details such as available filming locations, props and weather conditions
  • blocking with the director (this means deciding the exact placements and movements of the actors and the camera)
  • communicating the blocking decisions with the camera operator, gaffer (responsible for lighting) and grip (a technician who sets up, operates and maintains equipment to support the camera) so they can figure out camera movements and lighting requirements for the shoot
  • marking up the shots for focus and framing in preparation for shooting
  • attending all shoot rehearsals to see how the visuals are looking and give advice where needed
  • approving costumes, make-up and hair
  • training the necessary crew to use equipment
  • working with the post-production team to make sure the vision came to life as it should have and that the mood/tone is right.

Cinematographers work on set – this can be an established film or tv studio or on location (such as a house, school or somewhere outdoors). Shoots can take place across different areas of the UK and abroad, so they need to be prepared to travel around.

Cinematographers also tend to work unsociable hours – a typical day on set can be anywhere between 10 and 16 hours long. The work can be physically demanding as you’ll often be standing on your feet all day.

How much money do cinematographers make?

It is difficult to pinpoint an exact salary for a cinematographer as they generally work on a project-to-project basis and pay can vary between jobs. Cinematographers usually negotiate salaries with producers on every project and the amount they are paid depends on the scale of the project, what is being filmed, how long the project will take to film and the level of experience the cinematographer has.

For instance, career resource MyJobSearch reports that cinematographers with regular work and a decent reputation can expect to earn around £1,300 per day for mainstream distribution releases. The site also reports that the entry rate for paid work is typically around £500 per day for cinematographers on a studio-funded shoot. However, some freelancers working on small, independent films will offer their services for around £275 per day.

If you are looking for a rough idea of a yearly earning figure, job site Glassdoor states that the average salary for a cinematographer in London is £41,726 – this is based on five salaries submitted anonymously to Glassdoor by cinematographer employees in London.

Who employs cinematographers?

Cinematographers are typically employed by:

  • production companies
  • broadcasters
  • advertising companies
  • film companies/studios
  • TV companies/studios.

How to become a cinematographer

You do not need a degree or formal qualification to become a cinematographer. However, a degree in digital film, filmmaking, film and television production, art, drama or photography can give you valuable knowledge of the industry and some first-hand practice with basic camera and photography principles.

Ultimately, the way to get into cinematography is to build your experience and perfect your craft. You can practice and gain experience in a number of ways, such as:

  • volunteering in community film productions as a cinematographer
  • applying for a runner role on a film or tv set/production and gathering contacts
  • developing specialist filming skills in your own time, such as underwater photography
  • gaining experience by working as an assistant director. Cinematographers work closely with directors, so spending time as an assistant director can give you valuable skills and knowledge
  • creating, writing and shooting your own short films – you could send these to agents, post them online or even enter them into festivals and competitions to get your name out there.

If you can afford to invest in some camera equipment, it’s a good idea to study the functions and practise, practise, practise. Even if you don’t have a professional camera or other film equipment, you can find ways to learn photography best practice with little cost. Most current phone models have good quality cameras. It’s wise to create as much as you can with what you’ve got and start to build a portfolio of work.

Another route into cinematography is to apply for internships and placements. Lots of big production companies run internships and placement programmes (some paid, some unpaid) for those interested in a career in film and television. These programmes introduce you to different aspects of filmmaking (including cinematography) and give you the opportunity to work with industry experts. You’ll also have the freedom to work independently and collaborate with others on creative projects. Some companies even offer employment opportunities at the end of the programme.

Skills needed to become a cinematographer

Being a cinematographer requires a combination of both technical skills and personal skills, such as:

  • an interest in and understanding of photography, film, digital video and the film production process
  • understanding of lighting techniques, colour and shade
  • artistic skills (for example, being able to independently create visuals)
  • knowledge of film theory and the importance of visual storytelling
  • adaptability
  • attention to detail
  • collaboration
  • flexibility
  • patience
  • attention to safety
  • strong verbal communication
  • team management.

More advice on the creative industry

Get more advice on off-screen roles in film, TV and video production and read our general overview of different careers in film .

For more content geared towards the creative arts, create your free targetjobs profile and tell us what your career interests are. You’ll get access to tailored content including advice, events and career opportunities.

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This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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