What is a Cinematographer?
A Cinematographer is also known as a Director of Photography (DP, DoP). These terms can generally be used interchangeably because a Cinematographer and DP both have the same responsibilities on set. However, a Director of Photography is almost always the head of the camera department and you’ll see this more often in film credits.
The most simple definition I’ve ever read about the responsibilities of a DP is this:
“A lighting cameraperson.”
This is great! But it’s a little too simple because it can create some confusion. I’d like to clear up one myth about cinematographers: Cinematographers and DPs are always camera operators.
In fact, they are not. On larger sets, where roles are more divided, this is something the camera operator does. The Cinematographer will lead the camera operators in photographing the movie to maintain continuity in style, lighting, and composition, but he/she may not operate. There will also be different types of camera rigs, each with there own operators – for example, Steadicam operator, a helicopter operator, jib/techno-crane operator, motion controlled operator…the list goes on.
Alright, so some DPs operate and some do not. If this is the case, what is a Cinematographer?
Richard Crudo, past ASC President, wrote a fabulous, more extensive definition in an American Cinematographer magazine article. Here are the most crucial parts, from my perspective:
“Our real job is to get inside the head of a director and render his or her vision of the story in concrete terms. Cinematographers turn thoughts, ideas and emotions into something physically palpable. We do this by embracing collaboration with our directors, not by unilaterally imposing our view. Under the best of circumstances, this creative relationship starts in prep and continues through the end of post.
Our primary tools are light, composition, movement, and supervision of the final look in the lab or digital-mastering suite, and our efforts are in the service of what we feel is appropriate of the material.”*
If you are interested in the responsibilities of a cinematographer from the American Cinematographer Manual, you can view the complete list here: Responsibilities of a cinematographer
Also, a cinematographer is not a Director. From the definition above, a DP works collaboratively with the Director to help bring the his/her vision to the screen.
The DP, being the head of the camera and lighting crews, has several team members he/she leads:
Camera Operator(s) (may or may not be the DP)
First Assistant Camera
Second Assistant Camera
DIT / Media Manager
Unions and Groups
There is a very distinct group known as the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). You may have seen these initials following the Director of Photography’s name on movie credits. Members of this elite group of Cinematographers become so through invitation only and are reguarded as being the best of the best in the field.
Union membership is available and sometimes required to work on larger productions. For cinematographers, it’s the Local 600 through IATSE. To read more about it or apply for membership, click here: IATSE Local 600
To learn more about cinematography, I recommend the links below.
*Crudo, Richard. “President’s Desk” American Cinematographer Magazine 86 Sept. 2005: 10
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