Confessions of a Low-Budget Female Cinematographer

"Confession: I'm a female DP and I don't look at that as a handicap," says cinematographer Cailin Yatsko to No Film School.

And while the Feds try to sort out Hollywood's continued insistence that talent and gender are inexorably linked, the rest of us in the independent world are focusing on the how to overcome a real handicap: telling great stories on a low-budget.

Working within minuscule budgets on films like the Icelandic dystopia Days of Gray (trailer below) Cailin has figured out that low-budgets can elicit great creativity. To kick off her new low-budget foray with Days of Gray director Ani Simon-Kennedy for the BUREAU of Creative Works, Cailin compiled five pieces of advice for No Film Schoolers of either gender about cinematography on a low-budget set.

Work inside your limits and embrace it!

Let's face it, camera gear can be one of the most costly aspects of shooting a film... but your cinematography is more than a camera. Choose gear that is right for the job and what you need, not the new gadgets you're itching to get your hands on or the ones that you have a personal preference toward. The technology should serve the storytelling -- always.

Plan ahead, even if you end up burning the plan

There's that saying that "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," and it applies to filmmaking. Take the time, make a shot list, draw a storyboard, do a tech scout with your director. Even if you plan to run-and-gun, the more preparation you have, the more you can be open to improv with an actor, a sudden location change, or knowing when to speed up production and cut a shot or two. So make a plan, but be open to those happy accidents when lightning strikes.

Standing ovation for art direction

A big part of what a cinematographer does starts with the bones: location. If you're working within a 4-walled, white box then your job has just gotten pretty rough. Production designers are going to make your life easier, so get in there and work with them! Discuss practicals, color palette, window coverings... all the things that affect the light and tone of the set. They're creating the world for you to shoot in and, if they do their job right, you're elevating something on-screen that's amazing to begin with.

Find a balance between personal taste and story

Be open to shooting in ways that you may not necessarily gravitate toward on an aesthetic level. You may want to shoot in one specific style, but you have to give a story what it needs; and sometimes that means trying a new technique or opening yourself up to experimentation.

That pesky celluloid ceiling

Confession: I'm a female DP and I don't look at that as a handicap. In fact, it's been an odd sort of leg up in setting myself apart. What's important is getting a variety of perspectives on and off screen so that we can tell more stories that haven't been seen and heard yet. The more diversity behind the camera, the more diversity of storytelling.

To the ladies... Don't let your gender or anything at all hold you back from doing what you love. Work hard, know your shit, and find people to work with who you enjoy being around and who value your talent regardless of gender. Forget the female thing.

To the guys... Find a DP who connects with your story. Maybe it's a woman, maybe it's a man, but take the time to find that best fit. There are a ton of talented female cinematographers out there and it's time to allow them into the boy's club. (I promise we can carry heavy things, too.)

Thanks, Cailin!

To help the current BUREAU Kickstarter campaign, Cailin is offering a hands-on presentation along with filmmaking partner Ani Simon-Kennedy on navigating the art of filmmaking, cinematography, and busting through the celluloid ceiling. If know of a New York-based organization that would love to get these two to come speak in person, spread the word!

Do you have more low-budget advice for DP's? Where do you want to see the conversation go in regards to gender and the celluloid ceiling?     

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Your Comment


great list and nice angle!

especially liked #4 about finding balance between personal taste and story. I've had many discussions with other filmmakers who had issues on set with a DoP that had a set mind about how X or Y should be done.

In that regard, the (great) advice you gave to 'the guys' really applies to every filmmakers.

Thanks for the write up!

October 14, 2015 at 6:32AM

Nathalie Sejean
Story Fabricator

It's amazing how many untalented people make excuses for not succeeding.

This was refreshing.

October 14, 2015 at 6:42AM

cee dee

Excellent advice for all, and very well-stated in so few words.

Loved the trailer, and looking forward to checking out the entire film (as well as Cailin's other work).

October 14, 2015 at 8:18AM, Edited October 14, 8:18AM

Tony Virili
Digital Mercenary

I am so very glad to see a female not using her gender as a performance excuse (I am not implying that she has performance deficiency!)
I loved the article Miss/Mrs. Anderson-Moore!

Contemporary feminist extremism is the very reason I have positioned a cyanide capsule behind my furthermost back, right molar... Just needed to get that off my chest.

October 14, 2015 at 1:43PM, Edited October 14, 1:43PM

Connor Day
Director of Photography

Really enjoyed this article, good work on the trailer!

October 14, 2015 at 5:32PM, Edited October 14, 5:32PM

Oliver Milne

Good advice,

"And while the FBI tries to sort out Hollywood's continued insistence that talent and gender are inexorably linked"

Overseas reader - did I miss something about the FBI in the news? (tried to google) not the point of the article, but I'm curious now.

October 15, 2015 at 4:31PM


I meant to link to the story up there! The Feds are investigating via the FEOC

November 6, 2015 at 10:00AM, Edited November 6, 10:00AM

Oakley Anderson-Moore

Really agree with number 2 on all things in life. Planning makes throwing out the plan doable.

But yeah, so glad to hear from female cinematographers, or women in field at all. Will pass stuff like this onto my daughters when they grow up.

October 18, 2015 at 9:11PM

Sean Voysey
Creative Director

Thank you for the tips Cailin! The images for Days of Gray are beautiful, if you don't mind me asking what camera and lens package are you using? The colorist did a amazing job with the tones, where you involved in the process of that as well?

November 1, 2015 at 7:31PM, Edited November 1, 7:33PM

Theo Lavizzo
Writer / Visual Story Teller

Thank you, Theo! Days of Gray was shot on the Arri Alexa Plus with a range of Zeiss Super Speed MII lenses. We had a fantastic colorist in Iceland who I worked with to get the film's look.

November 10, 2015 at 10:44AM

Cailin Yatsko

Kodak film helping women filmmakers and students!!
thank you..!

November 10, 2015 at 7:53AM

Stephanie Mahalis
graduate film student