How to Hire the Best Cinematographer For Your Film

The cinematographer, also known as the director or photography (DP) is one of the three key people responsible for the look of the movie. With the production designer crafting the look of the environment, and the director responsible for the actor’s performances in that environment, the cinematographer photographs the action, creating a look through light and the lens. That makes hiring the best available cinematographer the smartest decision you can make for your film.

A good cinematographer’s skills are robust:

  • Understand the story and how to ensure each scene has proper coverage
  • Understand the technicalities of lighting and the lens
  • Know how to create emotion through lighting, lens choice, camera movement, and color grading
  • Know how to lead the crew
  • Know how to balance the director’s wishes against the realities of the production – especially if it is a first time or inexperienced director
  • Know what it takes to shoot each scene to make sure the production ends up on time and on budget

These skills and experiences develop over time; through working with different directors on different projects.  Each genre, budget, location, and project type – from commercial to feature film – has its own challenges, and it only through working through these on set that the DP will truly gain experience.

It used to be that many film school graduates began their careers by working in a camera rental facility sweeping floors, driving trucks and trying to make connections with cinematographers as they came in to rent cameras for real productions. If they were successful in making a good contact, they may get a job as a 2nd AC on a feature. The 2nd AC is in charge of loading the film, maintaining camera logs and marking each shot with the clapboard.  After working on a few dozen features as a 2nd AC, he would be able to move his way up to a 1st AC. Responsible for pulling focus, setting up, maintaining and moving the camera, the 1st AC will work in this capacity for several dozen films until he graduates to the camera operator position. After years of working in the camera department, the camera operator may be offered the DP position on a small project.

The second, more common route was through the electric department, from electrician to gaffer to DP.  It’s easier to find a camera operator who knows a particular camera than it is to find a person skilled at lighting, and because lighting is the cornerstone of good cinematography, the best DPs are masters of light.  Yes, knowing the camera is important, but a good DP knows the physics of the lens, understands the dynamic range of the camera’s imaging sensor, and the color curves. As far as the actual operation of the camera itself, he relies on the camera operator and 1st AC to build, set-up, and manage the camera.

Today, with the affordability of high-quality digital camera systems, many aspiring DP’s purchase their own gear and begin a career as a DP, bypassing the traditional Hollywood system. Although these young DPs may know how to produce a quality image, their lack of experience in the production process can be detrimental to you and the movie. Remember a good DP needs two basic skills – a keen photographic eye and the experience to successfully guide the production to completion. Recent film school grads often lack the real-world experience of constructing a long-term production from concept to completion – and you don’t want your film to be their training ground.

When it comes time to hire the DP, consider the following tips to help you find the best, most qualified person:

  • Contact your local film commission, post an ad on or any crew web site, and ask for online links to web sites and demo reels. When you begin looking at DP reels, look at:
    • Are the shots well framed and motivated by the story?
    • Is there a strong visual continuity from shot to shot? Even though this responsibility ultimately lies with the director, if the shots don’t work, then ask why the DP didn’t help the director improve the quality of coverage.
    • Does the lighting have a style that positively contributes to the story? Does the picture look professional? Are there any shots that are over- or underexposed?
    • How does the camera move? Are camera movements necessary and do they contribute to the story, or are they frivolous?
    • Does the cinematography pull you into the story?
  • Meet with prospective DPs to see if your styles are compatible. Look at her demo reel and talk to her about her approach to lighting a scene. Discuss your story and see if it resonates with her. Much like auditioning an actor, your quest to find a cinematographer lies not only in your comfort level with her craft, attitude, and professionalism, but also in her ability to work with you to fulfill your vision.
  • Once you choose your DP, sit down with him and show him scenes from movies that you like the look of. Gather various examples of styles, camera movements, and lighting that you’d like to see in your movie and listen as the DP explains how to approach these styles. You both should be on the same page as to the style and look of the movie, enabling the DP to determine the equipment needed for the production. Discuss:
    • Camera movement: Are you looking for static setups? Tableau shots? Handheld, documentary-style shots? Dolly or crane moves? Steadicam? Long takes? Short takes? How are you looking for the camera to interact with the environment and the set?
    • Lighting: Are you looking for flat (1960s Technicolor), colorful (Amélie), black and white (Schindler’s List), monochromatic (Minority Report) or tinted lighting (The Matrix)?
    • Style: Do you want a documentary (Babel, Traffic), poetic (Amélie), or dramatic (Titanic) style?
    • Editing: How will the movie be cut together? Are you using long shots? Quick, rapid MTV-style cuts?
    • While discussing these elements, an experienced DP will be able to help you balance your vision with the realities of production, scheduling, and equipment availability. Listen to him… he will be your greatest asset on set.
  • Contact other directors with whom each DP worked.  Ask about his demeanor on set, how he addressed challenging situations, and how the crew felt.
  • Contact editors of the DP’s projects to see how well his footage cut together in the editing room. You don’t want to exhaust your resources and money on set only to find that you don’t have proper coverage in the editing room.

The key to a successful collaboration with the DP is open communication of ideas, thoughts, and technical tehniques. Never hesitate to ask questions and always understand the complexities of achieving your vision – always tell the DP what you want and trust him to figure how to do it.

Surviving Long Shooting Days on Set

We’ve all been on productions that seem to never end. 12-hour days turn into 14-hours, which turn into-16 hours. The shoot runs late into the night with no signs of ending, and everyone on the cast and crew is exhausted. Driving your crew into the ground is not only counter productive, it’s also dangerous.

Many non-union directors spend months – if not years – developing a project.  For them it’s a massive commitment of time and money, all enveloped by the pressure that that project could make or break their career. To the crew, it’s just another gig.  Many of the crew members came from a previous project and are going to begin work on another one, so constant late nights, bad food, or unhealthy working conditions take their toll very quickly.

As a producer, its important to maintain basic safeguards to ensure crew safety not only on set, but to and from it as well.  If you if you know you are going to be shooting late, consider the following practices to ensure a safe set.

  • Hire a wrap crew – If you’re shooting long hours, consider bringing in a second crew to help wrap up, restore the location, strike the set, and pack production equipment so that the main crew can leave on time. While this may seem like a luxury for larger budget projects, you can approach colleges and trade schools for production assistants and Interns who may be willing to invest their time.
  • Limit the length of each shooting day – Avoid shooting over 12 hours per day. The law of diminishing returns states that the longer the work day, the lower the quality of work.  When you start shooting past 12 hours, actors and crew get tired, morale drops, accidents happen, and overall productivity drops. You may “make your day,” but how good is the material you shot?
  • Ensure 12-hour turn around – Turnaround time is the time allotted from the end of a production day to the next day’s call time. Twelve hours is the recommended time to allow cast and crew the chance to drive home, sleep and prepare for the next day.  Many professional crew members expect 12-hour turnaround and may be hesitant to join a production is turnaround is any less.
  • Get hotel rooms – If shooting runs late and/or the location is too far for a reasonable commute, consider booking hotel rooms for the cast and crew.  it’s better to spend the money on cheap accommodations than risk an accident.
  • Second meal – Always provide a second meal for the cast and crew at the 12-hour mark in a production. The meal will not only help give everyone a boost, but follows industry-standard guidelines for meal breaks every 6 hours.
  • Show Dailies – Bring in dailies (the footage already shot) to show the cast and crew to help motivate them, especially if you have long shooting days. When people can see the fruits of their efforts, it always helps boots morale and re-ignite the excitement on set.
  • Pay overtime – If you can’t afford to pay overtime, show a gesture of appreciation like giving everyone a coffee gift card, especially if they are working for free or at a discounted rate. Small tokens of your appreciation are a great way to thank the cast and crew!

Overall, safety is the most important concern.  A tired crew won’t give you their best work, and will be a danger to themselves and others.  Always treat the people working with you well, and they will give the best they can to your and your production.