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What is a Director of Photography?

A Director of Photography, or DP, is the visual storyteller behind a film's look, orchestrating camera movements, lighting, and composition to bring a director's vision to life. They are the artist whose lens captures the essence of a story. How does a DP's unique perspective shape the movies we love? Join us as we explore the magic behind the camera.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A director of photography (DP) is someone who supervises the filming of movies, commercials, television series, or any other sort of filmed production. It is common to see this term and “cinematographer” used interchangeably, although this usage is not acceptable in all regions, as sometimes these jobs are actually quite distinct from each other. Essentially, the person is responsible for the look and feel of a piece on film.

Three things are necessary to become a good director of photography: training, experience, and a good eye. Many people interested in careers in cinematography go to film school, where they learn about the mechanics of the work and have an opportunity to participate in internships on set to get a feel for the work. Then, they work their way up through the ranks on set, often working in a variety of positions to learn more about the business, before finally gaining this position, in which case a good artistic eye becomes crucial.

A film's director of photography usually selects the camera positions when a scene is being planned.
A film's director of photography usually selects the camera positions when a scene is being planned.

On set, the DP supervises the camera and lighting crews, and he or she will work closely with the set designers, costumers, and makeup artists. Often, both this person and the director have final say over which cuts will be included in the finished piece, and the two work closely together to achieve the desired look. He or she will use lighting, filters, and a variety of camera techniques to shoot a scene in accordance with the wishes of the director.

A director of photography supervises a project's filming.
A director of photography supervises a project's filming.

A director of photography may also be involved in post-production, working with the sound and color artists to develop and reproduce the film. He or she often works closely with the editing staff as well, creating a consistent look throughout a scene, even if it was shot over the course of hours or days.

The relationship between a DP and a director can vary. A really talented professional may require minimal direction, as he or she instinctively understands what is needed. Other directors prefer more control, and they may go as far as to specify particular settings on the camera, especially with those who are new and unfamiliar to them, to ensure that the piece turns out as they envision.

Working on a lighting crew is a popular way to gain experience for director of photography positions.
Working on a lighting crew is a popular way to gain experience for director of photography positions.

Some DPs become quite famous for producing distinctive, high quality work with incredible artistic vision, and they may be offered awards or invited to join elite societies. For people interested in cinematography careers, a chance to work or train with these leading lights in the field is a great honor.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the primary role of a Director of Photography in film production?

Directors of photography are responsible for creating the look and feel of each shot in a film.
Directors of photography are responsible for creating the look and feel of each shot in a film.

The Director of Photography (DP), also known as the cinematographer, is chiefly responsible for the visual elements of a film. They oversee the camera crew, lighting design, and the overall aesthetic of each shot to align with the director's vision. The DP makes critical decisions on camera angles, lens choices, composition, and lighting to tell the story visually and set the mood, according to the American Society of Cinematographers.

How does a Director of Photography collaborate with other departments on set?

A director of photography may oversee the work of a number of cameramen.
A director of photography may oversee the work of a number of cameramen.

A Director of Photography works closely with the director to understand the storytelling goals and visual style. They also collaborate with the production designer to ensure that the set and lighting complement each other, and with the costume designer to ensure wardrobe choices work well on camera. The DP coordinates with the gaffer and key grip to execute complex lighting and camera movements, creating a cohesive look for the film.

What kind of training or background is typical for a Director of Photography?

A director of photography might work with makeup artists to make sure an actor's look translates well onto film.
A director of photography might work with makeup artists to make sure an actor's look translates well onto film.

Directors of Photography often have a background in film studies, photography, or a related field, with many holding a degree from a film school. They usually gain experience by working their way up through the camera department, starting as camera assistants or operators. This hands-on experience is crucial, as it provides a deep understanding of camera equipment, lighting techniques, and set dynamics. Continuous learning and staying updated with technological advancements in cinematography are also essential.

Can a Director of Photography have a signature style, and how does it influence a film?

Yes, many Directors of Photography develop a signature style over time, which can be seen in their use of light, color, framing, and camera movement. This unique visual approach can significantly influence a film's look and feel, contributing to the director's storytelling. For instance, Roger Deakins, known for his work on films like "Blade Runner 2049," is celebrated for his masterful use of light and composition, which adds depth and emotion to the narrative.

What technological skills should a Director of Photography possess?

A Director of Photography should be proficient in the latest camera technologies, lighting equipment, and post-production processes. They need to understand digital cameras' technical aspects, such as sensor sizes, resolution, and color science. Knowledge of industry-standard software for color grading and editing is also important. Additionally, DPs must be adept at using complex rigging systems for camera movement and be familiar with the visual effects integration process.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon954426

William H. Clothier was the best of them all, and John Wayne's favorite one.

anon338827

A good example of a blog that discusses what a Director of Photography does is Jeremy Osbern's blog on cinematography.

anon333897

How is a DP different than a production designer?

Apple2fan

Would James Cameron be considered a director of photography?

anon122266

Do you have books that you can recommend that could help us?

anon109805

Joel Ransom did quite well with the Band of Brothers series, actually.

anon105788

I've seen some good cinematography over the years and if it takes a "freemasonry" crowd to accomplish it then so be it. I don't want to join them -- just enjoy their work.

anon37029

.."may be offered awards or invited to join elite societies.." .."a chance to work or train with these leading lights in the field is a great honor"...." good artistic eye".. whats this about a secret society, leading lights and artistic EYE? sounds like a bunch of freemasonry

anon34499

Who are some really good Director's of Photography?

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    • A film's director of photography usually selects the camera positions when a scene is being planned.
      By: DeshaCAM
      A film's director of photography usually selects the camera positions when a scene is being planned.
    • A director of photography supervises a project's filming.
      By: imageegami
      A director of photography supervises a project's filming.
    • Working on a lighting crew is a popular way to gain experience for director of photography positions.
      By: Sergey Lavrentev
      Working on a lighting crew is a popular way to gain experience for director of photography positions.
    • Directors of photography are responsible for creating the look and feel of each shot in a film.
      By: hppd
      Directors of photography are responsible for creating the look and feel of each shot in a film.
    • A director of photography may oversee the work of a number of cameramen.
      By: Haider Y. Abdulla
      A director of photography may oversee the work of a number of cameramen.
    • A director of photography might work with makeup artists to make sure an actor's look translates well onto film.
      By: Felix Mizioznikov
      A director of photography might work with makeup artists to make sure an actor's look translates well onto film.