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What is a Cinematographer?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon150249 — On Feb 07, 2011

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

By anon123562 — On Nov 02, 2010

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

By anon94958 — On Jul 11, 2010

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

By anon88176 — On Jun 03, 2010

Thanks for the article. It's very helpful.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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