Cinematographers obviously play a vital role in making a film, but what decisions do they make on a daily basis? The cinematographer’s primary goal is to capture the director’s vision. Using lighting, camera, and composition techniques, a DP translates that vision into images. This post goes over the common considerations with explanations from working professionals. Let’s jump in so we can answer that age-old question: what does a cinematographer do?
Cinematographer Job Description
What does a DoP do?
The DoP or director of photography is used interchangeably with cinematographer.
Cinematography is the art and craft of making motion pictures by capturing a story visually. A series of shots that form a cohesive narrative, all shot by the cinematographer.
Let’s get into the day-to-day tasks of a cinematographer.
What does a cinematographer do?
A cinematographer or director of photography (shortened to DP or DoP) is the crew chief that presides over the camera and light crews on a film or video production. They usually get involved throughout the production lifecycle. And they liaise closely with the director to create the images you see on-screen.
CINEMATOGRAPHY ELEMENTS THEY CONSIDER:
- Camera placement
- Camera movement
- Shot composition
- Shot size
- Aspect ratio
The best way to answer the question of "what does a cinematographer do" is to hear it straight from the horse's mouth. Below is a Hollywood Reporter roundtable with some of today's best working DP's.
Role of cinematographer in movies
When cinematographers are on set shooting, they work with the director to make the actual product, the movie. But how do they do that? Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Roger Deakins offers some priceless tips on his approach:
We've heard from working cinematographers about how they work. Now, let’s briefly go over a cinematographer's key considerations.
Where a cinematographer places the camera matters. For example, it can reveal character behavior or their emotional state. The closeness between the subject and the camera can help engage or distance the audience.
Camera movement can heighten the emotion and suspense in a scene. And moving the camera with the characters can add a subjective perspective. Keeping the camera static, on the other hand, will create a more objective POV.
Composition refers to the way elements of a scene are arranged in the frame to convey an intended message.
For example, one visual element that must be arranged is your actors. Watch our video below on blocking actors, part of our Filmmaking Techniques masterclass series.
How much of the scene is actually seen? Are we in a close-up watching a subject’s face? Should we focus the audience's attention with an extreme close-up on a subject’s attire?
An extreme wide shot can place a subject in a vulnerable position. A medium shot can make the audience feel part of the conversation. Know what the best shot size is for that particular moment is an essential skill for any cinematographer.
A cinematographer understands the concept of aspect ratio. That is, the width x height of the frame they’re shooting in. Wider frames are better for landscapes and action, while taller frames highlight performance. For a cinematographer, visuals become the language, and aspect ratio is a huge part of that.
Part of a cinematographer’s job is to play with focus to emphasize different aspects of the story. An example of this might be a character POV going in and out of focus when they're drunk.
Different lenses can create drastically different images. Choosing the right lens for the right moment is a critical job of the directory of photography. Watch DP Tom Sigel discuss some the specific lens choices he made in films like Three Kings, Drive, and Bohemian Rhapsody.
A cinematographer understands lighting. They determine the type of light each shot demands before they shoot.
A cinematographer will most likely have a sun tracking app so they can figure out how the sun will affect their day. There are a ton of film lighting techniques to make your shots more cinematic and it takes a trained cinematographer to know how.
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Now that we’ve answered what does a cinematographer do, what’s next? Well, as mentioned above, there is a lot to consider. But luckily, cinematographers don’t have to keep it all in their heads.
So, how do they plan these decisions and execute on their vision?
THE DP TOOLBOX
Use shot lists and storyboards
One tool that’s helpful for DP’s (and directors) are shot lists and storyboards. Usually, the cinematographer and director work together to lay out their masterplan for the project.You can learn more about how to make storyboards, but we laid out an example below to give you the general idea.
Choose types of shots, write shot descriptions, and even select your desired aspect ratio. You can also view your frames in a shot list.
With software, it's easier to collaborate with department heads on all of these decisions. As long as they're invited to the project, you can leave comments in real time, and adjust shots accordingly.
The best cinematographers
Who's your favorite DP? Is Roger Deakins overrated or does he truly deserve the top spot? We're ranked our Top 27 cinematographers working today, including a breakdown of their styles, their filmographies, quotes, roundtable discussions, and clips from their best work. Don't start this next post unless you've got hours to spare!