October 3, 2015 at 1:26PM

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A career as a cinematographer?

Dear fellow filmmakers, I would really like to pursue a career in film as a DoP but I am still somehow at a beginner's level. I have my 5dmk3, lenses and some other basic equipment which works fine for me for making some money while being a student but I would like to focus only on cinematography. I don't see directing or writing as my strengths so I think I have found what I am actually better at and it's camera work and lighting. I would be happy if I start finding jobs as a DoP or at least camera assistant on bigger projects, make contacts and gradually get better known and needed. However, I'd like to ask the DoPs here how they managed to develop career-wise? What were the first steps you took and what advice you would give me? I was thinking about making a decent showreel, however the problem I am facing is that, I would like to include a lot of nicely lit shots - I have the light setups in my head, but unfortunately I do not own the proper lights to do that. So I am thinking about investing some money in the purchase of decent lights. I am looking forward to hearing your opinion about it. In case you think I should invest in lights - please let me know what products you believe I should buy - LEDs, fluorescent panels, fresnels or maybe combination - possibly at a reasonable price.

25 Comments

The best way to make a small fortune in being a DP is to start with a large fortune. Pretty easy to get started, go to work in the movie industry, pretty hard to get a chance and be financially successful. For me, I just make films, let the chips where they lay.

October 4, 2015 at 11:16PM

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Work with young directors or film students who need a DP for their short films. You probably won't get paid but you'll gain experience and hopefully some good shots to build your reel.
I would not spend money on buying lights. Better rent what you need for a certain project.

October 5, 2015 at 5:16AM

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Jonathan Lind
Director of Photography
241

That's what I'm trying to do at the moment - a bit more networking and asking around and looking for anyone that might need a DP for a project even if there's low/no pay.. However, I am often being asked if I own any lights and when I say they need to be hired this happens to put people off somehow. Maybe because they think this pushes costs too much or for some other reason. To me it makes more sense renting but I guess at the level of low budget or even no budget filmmaking this does not sound too good to people.

October 6, 2015 at 6:28AM

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Martin Vesselinov
Director of Photography
8

Of course it's a benefit if someone can bring equipment into the production but that someone expects you to bring a complete light package for free sounds insane to me. One could spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment and will still not own everything needed for every scene... Sorry, but I get angry at people that look at what kind of equipment someone owns instead of looking at talent.
I know it's difficult in the beginning when you're trying to get your feet wet. But the biggest advice I can give you is to always focus on content and not on equipment.

October 7, 2015 at 5:08PM

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Jonathan Lind
Director of Photography
241

I'm sorry but if I followed your advice I would probably never work again. In the age we live in having gear is more than half the battle. I have seen it time and time again, inexperienced people taking gigs because they have their own gear.

Proving talent, vision, and experience Is very tough because they are abstract concepts. Have a red package ready to go and not much more explaining needed really. Some people skip school and just buy a red (much more affordable) and I have seen great success with much lower loans comparably.

Everyone thinks the camera does it all today and we need to stop fighting this and use it to our advantage.

October 8, 2015 at 6:05AM

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I agree with you to some degree, NinjaMonkey. While I think having nice equipment helps, in my personal experiencer, every paid project I've ever got gotten in the past asked to see my work, not my list of equipment. Putting together a decent video reel is so important, and I didn't even realize this. I thought my equipment could carry me most of the way, but it didn't.

I do have some very nice equipment to boot. Black magic Cameras, an entire range of primes from 16mm - 135mm Macro lenses. Sennheiser sound equipment. It was enough to get a couple jobs, but most of the time they didn't even ask for that, and just wanted to see my work.

October 9, 2015 at 11:14AM

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If a producer can save $1K a day because some dude has a Red package, they will most likely go with them. Even if their reel is not quite as strong as others, seen it happen time after time.

Plus if you have a Red, that means your getting on much bigger productions than a black magic can get you on, equaling in a better overall reel.

October 9, 2015 at 1:31PM, Edited October 9, 1:31PM

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Find a day job where you can earn enough to live and support your projects. Shoot as much as you possibly can by yourself and with others. Try to buy as little equipment as possible. Dollar saved is dollar earned. Better spend money on production. Rent is a better option. Keep things simple. Learn how to use available light.
Hate to say this, but now all content providers are in deep shit and situation is only getting worse. Making career in cinematography is like winning a lottery. Do it for love, then maybe one day miracle will happen.

October 5, 2015 at 8:53AM

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Vladimir Pcholkin
BeekeeperStories
20

Thanks for the answer, Vladimir. Although it does not sound too optimistic, it makes sense. However, I would really like to push myself as much as I can while I'm still in my early 20s - I'm 22 now. And I see some hope, for example a week ago I met a DoP, just graduated film school, and now he's called almost every other day to shoot commercials, corporates, etc. And in the UK, pay is pretty high for this sort of work. I am not expecting to earn millions from cinematography, but I would like to at least get to the level of being able to support myself (and my "future" family at some point) with it. Because I am passionate about it, I am motivated to work my a*s off and accomplish something with this.

October 6, 2015 at 6:39AM

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Martin Vesselinov
Director of Photography
8

Vladimir and Jonathan gave some great tips. And nowadays, lighting is becoming more and more about subtracting light as opposed to adding it, and shaping what you get.
It's all about being 'street smart' when you're working on low/no budget - especially starting out. Shoot gritty scripts; ones where less perfect lighting actually works with the story you're telling, and then focus your energy on framing, movements and overall image quality. Work with your limitations, not against them.

October 5, 2015 at 10:05AM, Edited October 5, 10:05AM

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Tobias N
1114

Good point about available light and also taking it away rather than adding. Especially when shooting outdoors having a negative fill or something to slightly diffuse the sun is often enough. Plan your shots according to the sun's path and make sure to shoot when the light is perfect. Using available light indoors it is mostly about good location scouting and placing the actors right.

October 5, 2015 at 10:42AM

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Jonathan Lind
Director of Photography
241

What ever you use for lighting, always try and color match what is already there. A sure sign of an inexperienced filmmaker is seeing skin-tones that change with every shot, or seeing rooms that are lit with yellow light on one end, green light in another section, and then blue light by any window. It really looks bad when you cut from a wide shot that is one color to a close-up that has a completely different color. ( this is the visual equivalent to hearing crappy audio in a low budget film )

October 5, 2015 at 12:41PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32099

Where could I check some complete fundamentals on lighting for filming, 'good guy'?
Could you recommend some bibliography or links?

Thank you.

October 6, 2015 at 4:22AM

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"Lighting for Cinematography" by David Landau is a really good book and is a good starting point with lots of easy to follow examples. The lighting forum at cinematography.com is an excellent resource as well.

October 12, 2015 at 10:46PM

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Andrew Klein
Camera Department
133

Your reply made me think about "on her majesties secret service": the opening sequence is a color and light nightmare where not only the edit is off: the close ups are lit diffrently than the totals...
Not as extreme as you mentioned, but a sign that it may happen at every level if we don't pay attention.

October 10, 2015 at 4:46PM, Edited October 10, 4:46PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8814

In addition to the other comments, I've always felt that you are what you do. I would just start or continue shooting films, whether that's finding directors who already have a script, or making your own films. Just never stop shooting and always improve your reel. Soon enough the free work that you do will be seen as valuable to someone else. Until you're able to support yourself just as a DP, you'll probably have to get a day job to support your projects/gear for a while.

October 6, 2015 at 9:41AM

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Ryan Atkins
Cinematographer/Editor/Colorist
169

Although I don't think you are what you do, I do think everyone should at least try to follow their highest excitement :-)
And yes: never stop learning and growing :-)

October 10, 2015 at 4:49PM, Edited October 10, 4:49PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8814

How much set experience do you have? If its only a little I would try to get some set experience by doing PA work in the department you want to work in, which for you would be camera and grip. Heard this great little nugget on set the other day. PA stands for Pay Attention. When you have the opportunity to PA be the best damn PA you can be, get there early, be super helpful, leave late, always be humble. People will remember you and want you around which in turn will get you on set more often and in a position to get into the department you really want to be in. Oh and dont buy lights, rent or borrow for now. When you buy you almost never have what others want/need.

October 6, 2015 at 10:16PM

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Wally Argueta
Video Editor / Colorist
81

>>>Where could I check some complete fundamentals on lighting for filming

The best basic lighting book I can recommend is the one written by the creator of Lowell Lights, Ross Lowell's "Matter's of Light and Depth".

http://lowel.tiffen.com/book.html

Ross covers the fundamentals on how to light just about anything, and he keeps it relatively simple.

Beyond this book, I recommend taking any film or tv scene where you like the lighting, and try and duplicate the look with your own gear. It's a lot harder than you might think, but it really helps to show you what works and what doesn't. Do this enough times and you can start previsualizing things in your head, and then make then happen with your own gear. Like anything, practice makes perfect, so you want to practice as often as you can.

October 7, 2015 at 8:59AM, Edited October 7, 8:59AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32099

Much appreciated, Guy.

October 7, 2015 at 11:05AM

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These studio video lights kit costs under $200 http://www.amazon.com/CowboyStudio-Continuous-Lighting-Kit-Boom/dp/B001T... To be a DP you have to know how to light, having your own lights allows you to practice and see the results of your practice and the cost is affordable. I use these lights, but you need some sandbags which can be gallon milk cartons filled with sand or water to weigh the stands down.

October 7, 2015 at 10:56PM

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A DP usually makes around $10,000 to $20,000 a week on a 15 week shoot but I read somewhere that Roger Deakins earns around $30,000+ per week which is a very comfortable amount but that's probably it as he is at the absolute TOP end of the spectrum.

All information taken from this article:
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/hollywood-salaries-revealed-who-m...

October 8, 2015 at 10:53PM, Edited October 8, 10:53PM

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Matt Nunn
Amateur
523

As most successful DPs (or any other creative for that matter) will tell you, you will start off by making little to no money... And then if you get to the big leagues of course you can make 10,000 dollars a week. But that is for the years you started out not making money and gaining experience.

Just work as much as you can afford. Eventually you will land better paying jobs and it just keeps rolling.

October 10, 2015 at 9:07AM

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Viktor Ragnemar
Director/Cinematographer
1157

Check out this podcast by Suki Medencevic ASC, it was very informative on what it takes to be a DP - http://www.indiefilmhustle.com/cinematography-suki-medencevic-asc/

October 10, 2015 at 9:43AM

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Alex Ferrari
Director / Producer
894

Learn as much as you can about stills photography. After that, pick up the latest ASC manual and Harry C. Box's The Gaffer's Handbook. All three should give you a good idea on the foundations of cinematography and enough insight to try filming.

October 11, 2015 at 5:34PM, Edited October 11, 5:38PM

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Mooey
217

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