So You Wanna Be A DP?
The Ten Things To Do Before Becoming a Professional Cinematographer
Maybe you’re about to enter your senior year of high school, and the list of film programs is narrowing each day...
Maybe you’re starting film school in the fall, and feel both nervous and excited for the opportunities ahead...
Perhaps you’re in your 30s and looking for a career change, convincing yourself that it’s time to take a chance. Whichever category you fit in (even if it’s one we didn’t mention), one things unites you all: a fascination with the visual image.
You may have started in still photography or been filming movies from the start, but you have an unending passion for capturing the world through a very specific and creative lens. You also want to contribute that to a story, so the emotional journey of the script will be just as effective in pictures as it is in words.
You wanna be a DP.
So how do you get there? Film school is actually just the start. It’s what you do once you’re in (or what you do if you’re not in) that really matters.
If you want to be battle-tested and ready for the true life of a professional DP in the industry, follow these ten steps. Inspired by professional cinematographer and cinematography teacher Jeshua González, the ten rules described here are best followed in order and make up what we consider to be the absolute essentials in any DP’s self-education.
#1 — Learn The Lingo
It’s not the first step you were expecting, but don’t be fooled. This is the foundation upon which you build your legacy as a DP both in film school and after. Before you walk the walk of a cinematographer, you’ve got to talk the talk (and actually know what you’re talking about!).
Start by reading some theory books. Getting grounded in the abstract principles of lighting and motion will actually give you a great head-start in understanding technique. Think theory is just for philosophers? Theory is a cinematographer’s best friend, because doing this job well requires bringing an abstract or theoretical vision and making it translate into concrete reality. Without a theoretical underpinning to the creation of any given image, you have nothing to go on when it’s crunch time on set! Many working DPs don’t even know much of the technical know-how behind the cameras they’re using, but rely on theory and experience with images alone.
What to read if you really want to start from scratch? Try The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video by Tom Schroeppel.
You can guess what it covers just from the title. Tom Schroeppel goes over all of the essential vocabulary, starting with the deceptively simple (‘What is a camera?’, ‘What are lenses?’) and working his way up. This is one of the best books to start with, either as a refresher course or to test your basic knowledge and skills with the film camera.
Ready for something a little more advanced? Read The Visual Story: Creating The Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media by Bruce Block.
This book gives you theory again, but at a more advanced level. Read this book to learn how to answer the questions “What do images mean?” and “Why choose this composition?” as if they were second nature. There are plenty of helpful illustration to guide you through each concept along the way.
Still hungry for more? Subscribe to the American Society of Cinematographers magazine.
This highly-regarded industry publication is best for getting the most hands-on and relevant interviews with Hollywood’s top DPs. They go deep into process in these feature articles, so just start reading. This is where you’ll really get your DP lingo tested. Don’t know what “strike the baby” or “kill the blonde” means on a film set? Reading this magazine on a regular basis will help teach you. Combine this with a regular dosage of working on student film sets, and you’ll be talking in film production shorthand in no time.
#2 — Build A Visual Culture
There are many reasons to become a DP. Not watching movies shouldn’t be one of them. You’ve got to go see as many different kinds of movies out there as you can. Because once you’ve mastered the theory and the lingo, you can start applying what you have learned to movies that have proved successful with audiences either critically or commercially.
Do you mostly like watching the Transformers and Fast & The Furious franchises? Or are you only into Marvel movies? Branch out and marathon Oscar winners! Find an art film you never would have watched otherwise. It works the other way too. You only like sticking to the avant-garde or films that offer more mood than story? Put in a Pixar film or watch a superhero franchise and learn how Hollywood cinematography helps tell even the most mainstream storylines. There’s so much to learn about lighting and camera techniques by just watching movies.
But building a visual culture isn’t just about movies. The best DPs mine painting, photography and all forms of visual media for inspiration and for overt references in their films. You can also get as much from looking to the future as you can looking to the past. Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the most acclaimed cinematographers of his time, has an active Instagram account and occasionally promotes other work he finds on the social media platform.
Want to start building a visual culture that really expands your palette? Visit your local art museum.
Every major city’s got one. In New York? Go to MoMA. In LA? Go to The Getty. Just about any art museum, big or small, offered by a metropolitan area will have something visual to offer. When you arrive, look for the contemporary wing and start with the photography and film exhibits. Walk through the art you’re most familiar with, then work your way back in time. This will quickly give you a sense of art periods and their influence on what we now consider beautiful or pleasing to the eye.
#3 — Getting An Eye
You’ve gone through the basics, picked up the lingo and opened yourself to new forms of art…so now it’s time to start acting upon your art rather than just reacting to the art you’ve been watching. Take all you’ve learned and absorbed in steps #1 and #2, and focus specifically on the filmic medium. As a DP, your language is images, and your images are made of frames, so get familiar with all the different framing choices out there. Try something in 16:9. Then go 2.35:1 to feel the difference. Maybe even try 4:3. You wouldn’t be the first modern DP to do it. Getting an eye for the camera and its lenses means experimenting, playing around. You’ll never know how a certain shot can be framed until you try it.
How to Get An Eye for Cinema Without Breaking The Bank? Consider purchasing a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.
For just over $1,200 (a steal when compared to the professional-grade comparisons), you can own a next-generation 4k camera with over 13 stops and professional audio ports. You can make a really solid indie feature entirely on this! For a budding DP’s purposes though, this would be the perfect companion to take just about anywhere. Take pictures and video wherever you go, learning how to get an eye for frames on one of the best movie-making cameras in its class.
#4 — Find Community That Discusses Cinema
Creating a world with cinema never happens in a vacuum. Neither should one’s formative training years. This is where being enrolled in a film school already gives you a solid community. It’s not uncommon for film students to bounce ideas off of their colleagues and teachers, gaining inspiration and energy for the creative work through just talking things out. This goes for watching movies too. Step #4 works in a perfect pairing with #2, as building a visual culture is always more fun with friends. The more you learn to trust and rely on a cinema-loving community, the more you can test those DP muscles and really start to see what you’re made of without a fear of failure.
Don’t go to film school but still crave that sense of community? Sign up for Shane’s Inner Circle.
This is an in-depth, subscription-only masterclass on cinematography. Part forum, part video series, professional Hollywood DP Shane Hurlbut, ASC breaks down the process in a way that is accessible without leaving a single stone unturned. For example, he’s got a 3-hour video course about how to use just one lighting setup. That’s how thorough Shane’s course is. Plus, you get the fortune of being involved in online chats with other professional DPs who are members of the site. The annual membership isn’t exactly cheap, but if you want to do this for a living and aren’t in film school, this will be one of the most important trainings you can buy.
#5 — Talk Movies + Art Everywhere You Go
Here’s the part where you annoy all of your friends and family. But you wouldn’t be signing up for all those long, grueling hours ahead on set if you didn’t love this line of work. So be unashamed in your movie/art-loving self. Express your passion. Constantly find new people to talk movies and the arts with, because they will teach you new angles from which to understand the possibilities of being a DP. Never go to a movie with the intention of turning your brain off. Instead, look for the DP’s intentions behind each frame and how it connects back to the larger story being told. Ask yourself if they were successful in doing what you believe it was they set out to do.
Looking for new film and art lovers to talk to? Volunteer at a film society in your area.
Just like with art museums, there’s usually a film society or an art theater community somewhere in every major city. Richard Linklater got his start there. You can look for film groups on campus outside of a film program for a perspective on what it’s like to talk movies purely as a spectator and not a maker. These groups usually program amazing films often not found anywhere else (even film schools). Only the hardcore film fan tread these waters…which you should be if you want to be a full-time professional DP.
#6 — Practice Pre-Production
We all know the writer and producers are most involved in the pre-production process. But as a DP, you have a bigger part to play than you may realize. Producers on projects big and small want to see proposals from all of the above-the-line staff, including, that’s right, the DP.
Get into the habit of providing references and inspirations (from other movies or visual art) in a portfolio format, so that the producers and director will know the specific type of look you are going for (and how much that look will cost). Rely on any research you do for the small student projects that you start your career with. Getting used to creating visual outlines and shot breakdowns for your assignments now will not only show your preparedness, they’ll also help you keep a real tonal consistency throughout the film.
If you’re close collaborators with your director, then work out some storyboards and shot examples together before arriving to set. That way, there is a clear, confident sense of what both parties are trying to accomplish.
Want an easy way to make your portfolio of influences, inspirations and storyboard ideas? Buy some storyboarding software.
Even if you are the furthest thing from a storyboard artist, just about any basic storyboard and portfolio software can you help you create a template that’s simple and clear enough for all to understand.
We recommend starting out with a free trial of Studiobinder. It’s a powerful, comprehensive software solution to anyone trying to run a major film set or company, but for a DP’s purposes, it works as an easy storyboard applicator. Simply upload screenshots from any piece of art with a mood or shot selection similar to your project. The software is intuitive, and producers will have no trouble understanding your vision.
If you’re looking for something portable and cheap (like $15 cheap), try the Cinemek Storyboard Composer.
Built for ios, Storyboard Composer lets you upload images from either sample shots or test footage, add silhouette stand-in characters, and create dolly, track or zoom functions for each image. Add some captions, and you can tell a full cinematic story from your phone.
#7 — Renting Equipment
If you’re already in film school, this part’s easy. Renting top-of-the-line camera and electrical equipment is often just a campus length away for you. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should take it for granted. Seriously.
Take every single opportunity to rent out the RED, Alexa or whatever else your school provides. Hands-on experience is an invaluable teacher. When it comes to being a great DP, running test shoots with cameras you are both familiar and unfamiliar with will be life-savers come production time.
Test shoots aren’t just a chance to get to know your crew better, or test out some f-stops (though these are all helpful); they are also meant to help you better understand what you need in a camera for any given production. For example, the industry-standard cinema cameras come with heavy I/O files and can be a real pain during post-production conversion. If it’s a social media campaign or local commercial gig that doesn’t necessarily need a 4k conversion, then maybe a DSLR would be more appropriate
“Is your camera going to shoot scenes primarily at night? What format or aspect ratio are you and your director going for? Does this camera have a high enough latitude for what I’ll be shooting?” Now is the time to ask every question and explore every possible answer.
If you’re not already in film school, this step may feel the most challenging. But don’t take the easy way out and assume you're safe to skip this step. Rely on that instant community you’ve hopefully made on your own, get everyone to pool together their money, and really invest in testing cameras, lenses and other crucial lighting equipment for your next project. Take heart in the fact that no real DP owns a RED or an ALEXA. You’re lucky if you find them with a DSLR. The cost new or used is always too expensive, and the depreciation value is steep.
Interested in how to rent cameras without school affiliation? Find an indie-friendly camera rental house.
While the most famous DPs can get top-dollar rental houses covered by a studio or producer, your budding DP status may need to settle for a rental house that can meet your budgetary needs. Do your research and find one in your area that’s best for you.
When you and your filmmaking friends do decide to pitch in that money for a camera test or rental, make sure to consult logs on the camera from past DPs who used it. These will be invaluable to you, as you can better understand the strengths and weaknesses of a given camera straight from another DP. If you’re unsure how to access these logs, ask your rental house of choice before renting.
#8 — Screening Your Work
What is a DP to do when a film's near completion? Assuming you’ve done everything you were supposed to in steps #1–7 and it all worked out on set, you should be ready and eager to have your work seen before a real audience. While a DP is never the sole person responsible for getting a test screening together, student film projects and other low-key shoots may need your assistance to get the best representation of viewers in seats.
The most honest and appropriate compliments and criticisms will come from an audience of great variety. Find a wide demographic. Cover many different nationalities. Force together an audience with different belief systems. Get your mom to sit down beside a complete stranger for the filming so it’s not just a ‘proud-for-her-child’ fest. You want real criticism here. The point of a screening for a DP is not to be told how great a shot looked or didn’t look, but whether the story was properly communicated and whether the audience felt what they were supposed to in a given shot or scene.
Want to set up a test screening of your work, even if you’re a DP? Rent or ask for a screening space!
Remember steps #4 and #5? Now that you’ve (hopefully) found places to go where others are watching and talking about films, you can have a good chance of getting work screened at a place that knows how to project films well, whether they be on 35mm or DCP. Your first choice too large or charging too much? Have it anywhere built for a communal space. Ask a local church. Check out a public library’s private events area. Whatever it takes to get butts in seats.
Another word of advice? Skip the Q & A or the opportunity for verbal responses. You just want simple scoring cards and comment boxes. Anything by word of mouth travels, and it will be too easy to influence people’s actual thoughts and perspectives on a film.
#9 — Be On Set
This may seem like a ‘duh!’ step, but it’s amazing how many DPs spend the majority of their time thinking up the perfect career instead of getting their hands dirty. Being on set means trying anything and everything you can. You’ll never know how your 1st or 2nd Assistant Camera workers feel (or how one wishes to be treated) if you don’t step in their shoes at least once.
We’re not asking you to try and become specialists in other fields, but it is important to have at least a broad awareness (if not a broad understanding) of film set life. As a DP, the majority of your working life will be enduring those 16 hour days in the hottest of deserts, in frozen tundras, on coastal beaches and narrow alleyways, or on a studio lot. The truth is, the more you live on set, the more you’ll learn to love it. Let being on set become second nature to you, so that when it comes time to go professional, you won’t be phased by the long hours or the short tempers.
How to get on sets? Chase freelance opportunities.
Film set experience is another thing film schools offer, but if you’re not plugged into a program, still do yourself a favor and start on the periphery of the campus walls. Check Facebook for local groups run by nearby film schools. They are always advertising for cast and crew outside of the university to help on projects. They may be pro-bono, but experience is experience, right?
If you want to actually get paid, consider sites like Upwork or Mandy, that help connect you with people looking for skilled workers at your position. If you’re really looking to get an edge on the competition, find someone who knows someone who knows someone who has access to private industry-only classified publications.
#10 — Network
If you’ve done #1–#9 with the utmost dedication, then you are more than likely ready to handle the creative, technical and financial challenges of being a career DP. Yet, all those things aside, there’s that aspect of the film industry that never goes away, no matter how cliché it may seem: it’s about who you know as much as it is about what you know.
Going to film school could do wonders for you in this department, though not all programs are created equal. It happens that some graduating classes are just more talented and hard-working than others. You cannot account for these intangibles when starting at a film program, but you can do your best to become everyone’s favorite DP on campus. Most people think of networking as being a schmoozer just shy of door-to-door salesmanship, but it can also be as simple as doing good work and doing it on time. If the above cliché was true, so is this one: your actions as a DP will always speak louder than words.
Love giving ideas in a small room or to a friend but get scared to pitch yourself to a room? Look for a public speaking course.
It may look like the most “irrelevant” advice we give, at least in relation to the film industry specifically. But it’s been proven that public speaking is one of the most important all-around skills one can perform. It’s also considered one of the quickest and effective ways to boost confidence. While the idea of the shy, reclusive artist gets perpetuated on film and television, the reality is that the cinematographers you actually know about are willing to get out there and speak for interviews, industry galas, workshops, lectures and more.
As you will learn in time, one of the greatest gifts of being a professional DP is having the time and ability to share that gift with future generations who started with a consumer camera and a dream, just like you.