How To Be A Cinematographer: Career, Schools – #Aspiring2ActWriteDirect

Welcome to the latest installment in the #Aspiring2ActWriteDirect series. As with our previous Aspiring Guides for actorsdirectors and filmmakersfilm editorsproducersscreenwritersstuntmen and visual effects artists, we at have gathered tons of useful resources to help launch your successful career in Hollywood.

In this edition, we’ve put together an excellent introductory resource for working your way behind the camera. The cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (DP), is one of the most prestigious jobs in The Industry. Who isn’t familiar with the iconic image of the man hunched intently behind the camera, filming? Well sitting behind the camera and rolling film is just one step in what can be a months-long collaboration with the director, actors, lighting technicians, costume designers, visual effects specialists and anyone else responsible for what ends up on the Silver Screen.

Simply put, cinematography is the process of photographing the action of a movie with a motion picture camera. However, creating a convincing visual world that establishes a film’s tone and gives location, action, dialogue, character development, and even non-verbal communication an understandable context is far from simple. But the reward for a job well done is the creation of images that will remain with a viewer for a lifetime.

brad bird tom cruise M:I4 ghost protocol

Tom Cruise In The Burj Khalifa Preparing To Go Airborne

To that end, DPs not only have to understand how cameras work, but they must also have knowledge of optics, filters, film stock, exposure, composition, lighting, film development, special effects, color composition, scene blocking, sound and a number of other elements. Cinematographers aren’t experts in every field that affects their work, but they must have some familiarity with most of them.

Tom Cruise knows this all too well. He has worked with six Academy Award-winning cinematographers during his 30-year-film career (Robert Richardson, Robert Elswit, Janusz Kaminski, Dion Beebe, John Toll, and Philippe Rousselot), and his filmography is filled with scenes that remain in the mind for years. From Taps to M:I4, every Tom Cruise fan can recall scene after scene that inspires awe to this day.

In fact, imagine the work that went into capturing the unforgettable footage on the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Academy Award for There Will Be Blood) told that his crew had to remove windows on the 156th floor so a camera crane could be mounted on the outside of the building. “Tom is actually climbing this building, and you’ve really never been that high except in an airplane,” he said. “Seeing it on an IMAX screen,  I do believe you’d actually experience vertigo.”

If working through a set of visual puzzles that result in unforgettable images is something you’d like to spend your life pursuing, then cinematography might be the career for you.

Everything that ends up on film passes through the educated eye of the director of photography. We at #TeamTC kept that in mind as we put together this informative starter’s kit for aspiring cinematographers. So read on and find out if you have what it takes to create images that will inspire and astound.

The Role Of  The Cinematographer
In this short clip, some of the industry’s most well-respected cinematographers talk about what it means to step behind the camera.


How To Become A Cinematographer
We’ve separated the guide into distinct sections for easy navigation.

—Cinematography Terms: This brief primer will give you introductory grasp of the trade’s lingo.
—Books: Filled with insightful instruction, helpful diagrams, and film theory and  modern practices, these books will be vital to your development.
—Magazines: These publications contain a mix of historical analysis, in-depth interviews, how-to pieces and reviews of the latest technology.
—Blogs: With daily updates and detailed information on all aspects of cinematography, these blogs have something for the neophyte and the grizzled veteran.
—Forums: Every question you about about cinematography, from the technical to the remedial, can be found in one of these forums. If not, then ask, and someone will likely give you a satisfactory answer.
—Equipment Retailers: Cinemtography is an equipment-heavy job, so knowing where to look, and for what, is vital to your success. These site are used by everyone in the business.
—iPhone Applications: More and more the iPhone is becoming integral to all aspects of living, and it’s no different on a film set. These apps help make life on the camera crew easier and more efficient.
—Podcasts: You can download interviews with the industry’s heavy-hitters talking about the art and craft of capturing memorable scenes on film.
—Film Schools: While many cinematographers earned their education on movie sets, many film schools provide invaluable hands-on experience that prepare you not only for cinematography but for the entire production process.

Familiarizing yourself with the jargon of the field makes negotiating its various terrains much less stressful. Not exhaustive by any means, this list will, however, give you a grounding in cinema talk.

Additional Camera — Often referred to as the B camera, it is used for difficult shots that need extra camera support.

Assistant Camera, or Assistant Camera Operator — Camera care and maintenance fall to this crew member. He also assists the camera operator.

Backlight —The light source is behind the foreground subject, often silhouetting it.

Camera Crew — The production member involved with the camera work.

Camera Operator — Overseen by the DP, this person operates the camera. Sometimes DPs will fill this role. Occasionally directors serve as comera operators.

Cinematographer/Director of Photography — This is the head of the camera and lighting crew who, with the guidance of the director, creates the look and feel of a piece of film. To achieve a desired look, the DP must select the film stock, lenses, and filters and oversee shot composition, film development and film printing.

Close Up — Usually taken from the neck of the actor up, the close up can include the shoulders as well. Not much of the background is visible.

Coverage — Shooting a scene from many different angles so there is flexibility in the editing process

Crane Shoot — Literally a shot from a crane, which can move the camera in a variety of directions.

Dolly Shot — The camera is mounted on a dolly, which allows it to move toward or away from the subject.

Establishing Shot — This is a wide-angle shot that establishes the location of a scene.  This shot is often done from a high angle to give the audience an understanding of where the action will take place.

Extreme Close Up —This shot is so tight that only a part of the actor’s face is visible.

Eye-Level Shot —The camera is at normal eye-level, about 5 to 6 feet above the ground. This is generally the starting point for most shots, unless otherwise stated in the script.

Frame — The portion of the scene that is captured on film. It is what DPs see in their viewfinders.

Filters — A device placed on a lens to determine how the light will be recorded on the film.

Floodlight —A wide, semi-soft light used for general illumination.

Focus Puller —This person does just what the title implies: He adjusts the focus of the camera during filming.

To get a visual sense of what many of the camera angles actually look like, check out this video from Lights Film School (


Hard Light —This is a hard, unflattering light that produces sharp shadows

High-Angle Shot —The camera is positioned above the subject, shooting down on him.

Key Grip —Head of the grip department, which is responsible for camera movement. Key grips oversee dolly grips, crane operators, and special equipment operators.


Lighting Cameraman — The cameraman responsible for the photography of the film. This expression is more common in Britain.

Long Shot —The subject in this shot appears to be a long way from the camera.


Long Take —This is a shot that lasts a long period of time.


Low–Angle Shot —The camera is positioned below the subject, shooting up.


Master Shot —A shot that includes all the actors in the scene at the same time.


Medium Shot —This splits the difference between a close up and a long shot.


Objective-Angle Shot — Used more than any other shot, the objective angle allows the audience to see what is happening in the movie without providing a specific perspective.


Oblique-Angle Shoot —The horizon appears to be tilted with this shot, as if the character is about to fall over


Over-The-Shoulder Shot — This medium or close-up shot is taken over the shoulder of one actor to show the face of the one facing the camera.


Pan Shot — The camera sweeps from one side to the other, taking in the scenery. It can move from left to right or vice versa.


Point-Of-View Shot —Taken from the character’s point of view, this shot shows the audience what the actor is seeing.


Sequence — This is a series of scenes or shots that make up a complete moment in the film.


Scene — The location where the action is taking place.


Shot — A continuous shot by one camera without a break.


Subjective Angle Shot — The camera acts as the eye of the audience, which gives the sense of personal experience. The viewer feels as if he is part of the scene.


Tracking Shot —A shot in which the camera is moving, usually following an object in motion.


Two-Shot — Contains two actors, usually from the waist up, who are related to one another. A three shot or four shot refers to the number of actors in the scene.


Wide Shot —Closer than the master shot but still includes the actors. In a crowd scene, the shot will focus on a specific group.


Comprising an education in themselves, these books are an ideal starting point for your journey into cinematography. They are filled with illustrations, diagrams, theories and technical advice from the industry’s most respected DPs.

Cinematography Book Image

Cinematography: Theory and Practice, Second Edition by Blain Brown
Beautifully illustrated and impressively comprehensive, this book provides its own education through in-depth discussions of equipment, technology, concepts and theories.  It is used in many of the most prestigious film schools.



Reflections: Twenty-One Cinematographers At Work by Benjamin Bergery
The industry’s top cinematographers dissect their work and give in-depth explanations about how they achieved memorable results on film. Examples include Haskell Wexler (In the Heat Of The Night, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) discussing lighting interiors and Vilmos Zsigmond  (Deliverance, The Deer Hunter) giving his perspective on capturing great portraits.


The Five C's of Cinematography

The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V. Mascelli
A recognized classic in the field, the Five C’s contain hundreds of photographs and diagrams and amounts to a complete course in filmmaking. The five C’s in the title are: Camera angles, continuity, cutting, close ups and composition. Although written in the 1960’s, the book is still relevant today. Given its origins, technique is given preference over technology.


Shot In the Dark Image

Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide To Digital Video Lighting On (Almost) No Budget by Jay Holben
Good lighting can give a low-budget film big-budget quality, and Shot in the Dark provides detailed information on how to achieve that effect. Holben provides a wealth of information on everything concerning lighting from temperature, exposure, and light quality to actually building your own light sources.


New Cinematographers Image

New Cinematographers By Alexander Ballinger
Storyboards, lighting diagrams and images from six accomplished cinematographers (Lance Acord, Jean-Yves Escoffer, Darius Khonji, John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey, Harris Savides) who relied on innovation and imagination instead of big budgets provide insight into what makes this profession so compelling. New Cinematographers is written in an accessible style that speaks both to beginners and experienced pros.


The magazine industry may not pull the readership it once commanded, but speciality pubs like these have dedicated readers who come back month after month for the unique and informative content. Each of these magazines also makes many of its articles available online.

American Cinematographer CoverAmerican Cinematographer
This is one of the oldest continuously produced magazines in the entertainment industry—and one of the most highly respected—offering an education in every issue.  Through a mix of in-depth interviews with cinematographers and directors, technical how-to pieces and articles covering the latest technologies, AC provides a comprehensive look into the art and craft of this complex profession.


ICG Magazine Cover

ICG  Magazine
The International Cinematographer’s Guild, which represents the top camera professionals in the world, produces this magazine for its members, but it’s available to the general public as well. Like American Cinematographer, it offers in-depth articles on every facet of the cinematographer’s trade from the informative to the technical.


 FIlm and Digital Times Cover

Film and Digital Times
FD Times bills itself as the journal of art, technique and technology in film, video and digital production, and that’s a dead-on description of what to expect from this tech-heavy publication.



Camera Operator Cover

Camera Operator: Journal of the Society of Camera Operators
Like the other magazines on this list, Camera Operator is filled with historical and technical articles written by working professionals. The most up-to-date technologies and techniques are parsed for a knowledgeable audience.


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HD Video Pro
If High Definition video is your main pursuit, then HD Video Pro covers all the angles in this thriving industry. From features on well-known pros to technical how-to pieces, HD Video Pro provides an engaging and thorough examination into all things HD.



Not confined by print deadlines, blogs produce new content almost daily. The best, like the ones below, have access to the latest products and the most experienced pros.

Pro Video Coalition Emblem
PVC provides a comprehensive look at every aspect of digital video editing. Equipment reviews, forums and how-to articles keep digital filmmakers in the know.


AbelCine This blog is run by the well-know equipment rental house, AbleCine, and is great place to learn about new products. They often feature in-depth reviews on complicated equipment.


Self-Relient FilmsSelf-Reliant Film
Not a cinematography specific blog, but one devoted to DIY filmmaking that contains invaluable advice on the art and craft of making memorable movies.




Fresh DV EmblemFresh DV
Devoted to digital filmmaking, Fresh DV pumps out new content regularly and works hard to keep pace with this quickly changing industry. In-depth gear reviews from seasoned pros give this site a sticky, must-read quality.



Whether you’re an experienced pro or putting your eye to the camera for the first time, we recommend reading through the various forums and websites where pros and the curious congregate to discuss the world of cinematography. The three below will give you more than a mindful to mull over. website This is one of the most popular forums in the profession and is used by many working professionals. If you have a burning question that needs an answer, chances are you can find it here. For those seriously interested in this profession, spending quality time on will provide valuable intel.




Deakins OnlineDeakins Online
The distinguished and world-famous cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC—the Coen brother’s go-to DP—has his own website, and he will occasionally post to the forum and answer questions.  Tons of great information can be found here from experienced pros.

Red User

The forums on this site are filled with passionate film lovers devoted to the use of the super high-resolution Red Camera line.  As would be expected from devotees, the information is dense and far ranging and not for the faint of heart. But if you’re curious about this camera and its offshoots, then log on here for some must-read material.


Keeping pace with the latest gadgets in cinematography, which, truth be told,  proliferate like rabbits, requires constant vigilance. With so many elements comprising the profession, aspiring DPs are always up to their ears in gear—and looking for better and brighter equipment all the time.

The best way to stay on top of the rapidly changing industry is through online sources run by knowledgeable staff.  We’ve included a few here to get you started, but through forums and other discussion groups, you’ll find all the help you need to stay focused.

Film Tools Screen
This is one of the most popular equipment sites online. The pricing is generally as good as you’ll find anywhere, and Film Tools can meet most any DP’s needs.

Bh Photo Video Screen ShotB&H Photo Video
Another one-stop option for DPs, B&H is worth checking for price comparisons and the occasional hard-to-find item.

Expendables Recycler Screen ShotThe Expendables Recycler
As the name implies, this online retailer deals in used expendables such as adhesive tape, batteries, bulkwrap, bulbs, cables ties, gels, rope, zip cords and so on. Prices can be 50% cheaper than traditional retailers.


The iPhone is becoming more and more useful as a filmmaking device. With these apps, the aspiring cinematographer can add a few valuable assets to his on-set tool box. Although they may be more technical than beginners need at the outset, these apps will become useful as you gain experience.

Toland iPhone AppToland ASC Digital Assistant

The American Society of Cinematographers produced this app, and as the most prominent and well-respected group of its kind, you know they put some time into it. At $39.99, the Toland ASC Digital Assistant is comprehensive, featuring a database of cameras and lenses, a depth-of-field calculator, flicker-free warning indicator, an exposure calculator covering camera speed, shutter angle and filter factor and more. It works best on 3Gs and above.




Kodak Cinema ToolsKodak Cinema Tools
iPhones are becoming especially useful on-set for determining depth of field. This DOF calculator is specifically for film (as opposed to digital) and it makes the task simple and accurate. Cinema Tools also comes  with a film footage calculator and a glossary of terms, which can come in handy for those new to the profession. Better yet, it’s free on iTunes.




The interviews contained in these podcasts cover the gamut of cinematography and filmmaking. Whether you’re an aspiring DP or just a fan of film, these podcasts are highly informative.

Conversations in Cinematography
Organized by The American Society of Cinematographers, these interviews often feature major cinematographers talking at length about their craft. Fascinating and informative, “Conversations in Cinematography” offer an education in themselves for aspiring DPs.

American Cinematographer Podcast
The magazine of the same name is responsible for these podcasts. The format tends to be more structured than the ASC productions, and the subject matter includes other aspects of filming beyond cinematography. Highly informative and worth a place on your iPhone.



Included here are the most prestigious film schools in the country, and yet, strictly speaking, you don’t need a formal education to work in film. Many of the most successful cinematographers never set foot in a university film class; their education was gained through hands-on experience. The advantage to film school, though, is the comprehensive film education you’ll receive. When you graduate from one of these programs, you’ll be prepared for all aspects of filmmaking.


American Film Institute
Gaining acceptance at AFI is no cakewalk, even if you have the considerable tuition. But it is one of the most prestigious film schools in the country, and it offers students the chance to focus on the craft of cinematography in the two-year Master of Fine arts program. AFI prides itself on producing work which “emphasizes narrative visual story and personal experience.”
Tuition: $38,416
Degrees: MFA, certificate of completion
Alumni: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), David Lynch (Blue Velvet), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)

University of Southern California
USC’ School of Cinematic Arts is unrivaled in reputation, and for good reason: it’s the wealthiest film school in the world and provides  students with unique access to the industry. Cinematographers will not only develop highly competent practical know-how,  but they will gain a thorough understanding of all aspects of filmmaking.
Tuition: $42,000
Degrees: B.A., M.A., MFA and Ph.D.
Alumni: George Lucas (Star Wars), Ron Howard (The Cinderella Man), Jon Landau (Avatar)

New York University Tisch School of the Arts
One of the best flim school options not located in California, NYU’s Tisch School offers intensive, hands-on experience in all areas of film, including cinematography, and has great access to notable film personalities who lecture and provide wise council to aspiring filmmakers.
Tuition: $45,674
Degree: B.A., BFA, MFA, MPS, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in moving-image archiving and preservation as well as performance studies or cinema studies
Alumni: Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men), Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense)

University of California Los Angeles
UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television may not boast the reputation of USC’s equivalent program, but at almost a third of the cost, prospective cinematographers still get a top-notch education at a well-respected film school. Because it’s so affordable, the program attracts lots of attention and is therefore tough to get into.
Tuition: B.A.: $12,842 (California resident), $35,720 (non-resident); MFA: $22,208 (California resident), $34,453 (non-resident); M.A. or Ph.D.: $13,549 (California resident), $28,651 (non-resident)
Degrees: B.A., M.A., MFA and Ph.D.
Alumni: Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Alexander Payne (Sideways)

California Institute of the Arts
CalArts’ School of Film/Video prides itself on promoting the study of most major filmmaking approaches including dramatic narrative, documentary, experimental live-action, character-based animation, experimental animation, multimedia, and installation.  Along the way, cinematographers will gain amble hands-on experience across all the mentioned genres.
Tuition: $37,684
Degrees: BFA, MFA in film, video and experimental animation; MFA in film directing; BFA in character animation
Alumni: Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), John Lasseter (chief creative officer, Pixar)

Film school ain’t cheap. In fact, cost is one of the biggest deterrents to pursuing a career in film. But there are affordable (relatively) options that still provide quality educations that prepare you for the rigours of The Industry.  The three below might be just what you’re looking for if money is short but your passion is high.

University of North Carolina School of the Arts
TUITION $4,716 for residents; $17,665 for non-residents
DEGREES BFA in animation, art direction, cinematography, directing, editing and sound, producing and screenwriting. MFA in film music composition.
NOTABLE ALUMNI David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down), Jody Hill (Observe and Report)

University of Texas at Austin Department of Radio-Televison-Film
TUITION $4,832 for Texas residents; $15,995 for non-residents; $4,371 for full-time graduate Texas residents; $8,228 for graduate non-residents
DEGREES B.S. in radio-television-film, MFA in film and media production, MFA in screenwriting
NOTABLE ALUMNI Robert Rodriguez (Machete), Matthew McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer), Bruce Hendricks (former president of physical production at Walt Disney Studios)

Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts
TUITION $6,600 for in-state undergraduates; $24,120 for out-of-state; $21,735 for in-state graduate production; $38,092 for out-of-state)
DEGREES BFA in production, animation, digital arts; MFA in production, writing; non-degree through the Torchlight Program

Okay,  that’s a wrap film fans. Should you find yourself drawn to a career in entertainment, don’t forget to check out our guides for actorsdirectors and filmmakersfilm editorsproducersscreenwritersstuntmen and visual effects artists.

We hope you found our resource guide informative and inspiring. If you’re an aspiring cinematographer with useful information to add this guide, we welcome suggestions, updates and professional guidance that can make the task of breaking into a camera crew more attainable. You can comment in the section below or connect with the TOMCRUISE.COM team on TwitterFacebookWhoSayOrkutGreeSina WeiboGoogle+ and Tencent Weibo. Plus, get all the latest news and insider information when you sign up for the official newsletter today!