July 2, 2016

Here's How Much Money You Can Expect to Make as a Cinematographer

It's easy to talk about the art, the passion, and even the hardships—but what about the money?

Some DPs get into making movies expecting zero fame, recognition, or financial gain. However, those who decide to make their passion a career definitely expect to get paid for their work. But how much can a cinematographer expect?

In the video below, Matt Workman of Cinematography Database provides a very informative breakdown of typical day rates of a DP at different levels of production, based on LA and NYC commercial standards.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFuvZL0MN3A

Workman describes four tiers or levels of production: solo, indie, industry, and high-end. Solo DPs will get paid $0 to about $500/day for a project, while a DP who doesn't work with a production studio may make up to $1,500/day for their work on, say, a music video. Once you get into the industry and work for a production company that has a consistent flow of projects, DPs could be looking at making about $3,500/day. Finally, if you're one of the lucky (and very, very talented) few who actually reach the high-end level of production and work on Hollywood movies and huge projects (i.e. the Super Bowl or the Olympics), Workman says you can make upwards of $20,000/day for your work.

Clearly, there is going to be a lot of variation depending on a wide array of factors such as location, type of work, and experience level. If you live in larger cities and/or film industry hubs, like LA or New York, you can expect to earn more than a DP working in Pie Town, New Mexico.

If you want to make cinematography your career, the best thing you can do is get some money, buy some equipment, and start putting yourself out there. Work for free if you have to (you will have to). Start getting some experience under your belt so you're ready when your next opportunity comes knocking.     

Your Comment

34 Comments

Thanks for this information. It helps to have some sort of a baseline to work with. I'm guessing that these rates would go up if you were using your own camera package. But at the same time on smaller budget productions, like solo & indie, that may vary.

July 3, 2016 at 8:05AM, Edited July 3, 8:05AM

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Derek Armitage
Filmmaker & Vlogger
638

This definitely doesn't take into account equipment rentals. That is typically a separate business. In the Solo/Indie world is can be considered part of your rate, but ideally they are separate negotiations. Agents don't negotiate gear rentals in most cases for example

July 3, 2016 at 11:33AM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Not entirely true. Tiers 3 & 4 sure... But here in LA those 1 & 2 prices would often be for a DP providing a basic camera package included in their day rate. Maybe it's different where you work, but in my market we're highly saturated with owner-operators and new film-school DP's so that's the way it is. I'm very fortunate to have gotten my start before it reached this point.

July 4, 2016 at 12:52AM

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J.M. Anderson
Director of Photography
479

JM. I got my "start" when the HDSLRs hit, so our generation disrupted the DPs who didn't transition to digital fast enough. We quickly moved up to Red One MX and eventually the Alexa, so we had some buffer between us and the absolute new people. You are right that now people graduate college and own Alexa Mini's and Red Weapons and don't much charge for the rentals.

July 4, 2016 at 7:19AM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Yup, I was a bit late one starting 7 years ago. The DSLR wave hit shortly after and now good luck making anything. I invested so much in learning this craft, but I fear it will never pay off the way I thought. I pray I can get a free PA gig one day with hard work and dedication.

July 7, 2016 at 11:05AM

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Here in Germany as well... if you want these level one or two rates, you will probably have to bring your gear.
Rates for dps or camera operators have basically not gone up in the last 20-25 years, but our money is only worth half now...
I am glad I have a steady job working for a big company in their (rather small) video department. Not getting rich, but I get paid every month without hunting for jobs.

July 10, 2016 at 6:50PM

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So hard to charge anything nowadays, way too much skilled competition willing to work for free.

July 3, 2016 at 9:32AM

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This is a break down of commercials/content rates. No professional production company wants to hire for someone who will work for free, unless it's clearly a spec project which is fine. Cinematographers who can lead a production to will command a decent rate.

July 3, 2016 at 11:35AM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

So many companies in LA are looking for free work, rarely do any offer pay for DP work. Must be nice where you are located.

July 3, 2016 at 12:43PM

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I was based in NYC for the last 10 years. But I've worked in LA and I have a lot of DP friends in LA who I can assure you do not work for free. There will always be people at the beginner level who will need "free" labor to get started. But there is a lot of content being produced these days by Vice, Vox, etc. who need skilled DPs and are willing to pay at least scale or higher. It's not easy, but it's possible to work for those companies. Keep at it <3

July 3, 2016 at 1:47PM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Thanks for the advice. I only have 7 years of experience, so I understand completely and expect to work for free at least a few more.

Main problem I have is the competition in LA willing to work for so little. I send off endless amounts of applications to jobs, never hearing back. LA has so many great DPs, many willing to work for very cheap rates. The DSLR wave has hit rates hard from what I see, but that may just be my view from the bottom.

Even to work for free on decent student sets is a long line. Not sure what to do really, I am giving it 20 years and hope by then I can make a living.

July 3, 2016 at 3:14PM

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I feel you, I know what it's like to be where you are right now. The goal is to attract director's to your personal brand. Being a cinematographer is not like "applying" for a job, it doesn't work like that. Not in most cases anyway. I'll be talking about this on my new YT series. Hope you'll watch <3

July 3, 2016 at 3:23PM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

I will definetly be looking for it, thanks for the advice again.

If you don't mind me asking, do you remember a certain moment that was your big "break." Or did sucess happen slowly over time?

July 3, 2016 at 3:42PM

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When I was in college I had been shooting "Solo" music videos for a year or two. So I had a reel. I networked hard on MySpace.com and a director and I met and he liked my work. He flew me from NY to LA to shoot $50k music video. This was the biggest project I had ever done and it started me on my path to being a full time professional DP - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FadzGGJiLTg

July 3, 2016 at 10:43PM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Pretty cool, interesting that most people with success can remember that one moment everything changed.

That must have been amazing to shoot that video and get flown out.

July 4, 2016 at 12:29AM

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Companies do not look for free work; amateurs do.

And amateurs are the ones wiling to do it. Professionals (and their results) cost money, and any legitimate enterprise knows that and will plan accordingly.

July 9, 2016 at 7:55AM, Edited July 9, 7:55AM

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David Gurney
DP
1984

Again, your comment is only true in regards to the top two tiers listed. For Solo and Indie projects, Ninjamonkey is right on the money. No DP that "commands" any rate would be competing for a $500/day job. In contrast no production paying $500/day is going to be backed by a professional production company. The people competing for these spots and a lot of the Indie work are most definitely swimming in the same pool as some of the DP's willing to work for free to build their reels.

July 4, 2016 at 12:58AM

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J.M. Anderson
Director of Photography
479

I wish I made $500 a day...I am lucky to get $150 bringing 3 cameras, lighting and sound.

July 4, 2016 at 1:42AM, Edited July 4, 1:44AM

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Ninja, is it your goal to be a cinematographer? A project that would expect the DP to bring 3 cameras, lighting, and sound might not be the right project for you. Can you link me your Instagram account?

July 4, 2016 at 7:21AM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Matt, yup that is my main goal but I also have to eat. Many productions I am hired for require the DP to run multiple camera alone as well as record audio.

Here is a link to my Vimeo - https://vimeo.com/frankahernandez

Instagram mostly dedicated to my wedding business - ninjamonkeymedia

www.ninjamonkeymedia.com

July 4, 2016 at 9:56AM, Edited July 4, 10:23AM

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So Frank, I see two separate things going on with you.

1. You run a Wedding Video business.
2. You have freelance DP work.

Those things are completely different endeavors. I would keep your wedding work separate from your cinematography work.

You need FrankHernandezDP.com and you should only put up your best commercials, music videos, and narrative work. No wedding work.

If you want to get to point where people hire you just for DP work, they won't want to see your wedding work.

Just my opinion, but I work with a lot DPs at all levels every day.

Cheers,

Matt

July 4, 2016 at 12:51PM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Matt,

I have already been doing this. My website www.ninjamonkeymedia.com is only my DP work, I have another website for wedding work.

I know it looks bad to have weddings on my Vimeo, but I have to do weddings to make money. I want to have two seperate vimeos, but that is not an option right now.

have not found another way around filming weddings to eat because brides are still willing to pay for a DP. This has changed a lot this last year, the wedding business is feeling cheap A7S shooters hitting it hard. My bookings last year dropped by 50% while I put out some of my best work. Most of my commercial/film work was done for free, so much competition out there it's really scary and depressing for me. I figure eventually I need to get a real job, but I'm giving it 20 years like I mentioned.

July 4, 2016 at 12:56PM, Edited July 4, 1:12PM

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This is just my advice on it, you know your market.

You should use yourname.com unless you are a production company. I found your website a bit confusing to find the relevant work. You should have an Instagram account that is your name and it should only be "cinematography" or photos about your brand.

Keep shooting weddings to make money, but if you really want to be taken seriously as a cinematographer, you don't want to cross promote the two.

Best of luck sir <3

July 4, 2016 at 1:32PM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Thanks for the advice again, you are completely right. I am known as a wedding guy and it's tough to break out of that mold, a mold I only started to pay for film school.

If I could go back I probably would have only shot films and turned down everything else. Cross promoting and having too many types of work is really hurting me in LA. People want to see someone specialized.

July 4, 2016 at 2:53PM, Edited July 4, 2:54PM

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NinjaMonkey,

You could hide your wedding work from Vimeo.com. It's in the privacy settings. So the only place people would see your wedding work is embedded on your wedding website. Just a thought.

July 4, 2016 at 11:20PM

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Ron Dawson
Frame.io Blog Editor & Host of "Radio Film School"
257

...Pie Town, New Mexico. Man that is a random name drop. Nice scenery though, as with a lot of NM

July 4, 2016 at 3:16AM

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Very informative, I agree with this. It also have relevance for Germany...

July 6, 2016 at 3:56AM

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Johannes Ziegler
Steadicam Operator & Director of Photography
81

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the great article and video. Very, very useful.

After watching it, I figured out I fall into the Indie category. Doing some network promo spots, paid sports docs, but still lots of silly no budget projects for portfolio; and I still have to do my other job to completely pay the bills which is Motion Graphics.

I have kind of a different circumstance than most DPs as I kind of live in two worlds - DP and MoGraph (less and less); and I even direct and write a bit as well.

My question to you is: Am I juggling too many things?

On my website, I have both my DP work and my MoGraph work. I’ve been told that I should separate the two; however, a decent number of my DP jobs now come from MoGraph companies that I’ve worked for in the past, so I’m not sure if separating them will hurt me or help me. My goal is to ultimately DP and create original live action content (not MoGraph), but at this point I’m in both worlds. What do you think? Should I keep both talents on public display on my URL?

I guess I’m truly a jack-of-all trades and master of none, but that’s kind of how I came up (art school) and I guess I’m decent at a number of things which I often do professionally - pitches, concepts, pre-production, design the look, DP, post and I even regularly draw storyboards for entire projects.

Does that hurt me in the greater scheme of things? Should I just focus on DP work and forget the rest? I’m pretty certain doing different things has caused conflict and slowed down my DP progress which is my favorite aspect of production.

I guess ultimately, it’s been a real struggle for me as I feel like I have decent work but still not able to breakdown that live-action door which is frustrating. I’m not great at networking which might be an issues as well, LOL.

Here’s my live action reel

http://www.builtbyugene.com/html_pages/html_index/index_reelliveaction.html

My URL with all my work on it

http://www.builtbyugene.com/index.html

Thanks for any insight,

Gene

July 6, 2016 at 4:50AM

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Gene Sung
DP / Director
739

Hey Gene,

Your MoGraph and video work are both really nice. I work for serveral very talented directors who are designers first.

Watch this commercial I shot recently, it's obviously an exercise in design.
https://vimeo.com/170778388

If you want to get hired on bigger projects as a DP, you need a site and Instagram account that is exclusively your DP work. No motion graphics. Think of it as fun new start.

If your reputation as a MoGraph artist helps you network in the beginning, that is great. However, it won't likely help you as you progress. It will confuse your future directors/clients and make it harder for them to understand you and to ultimate chose you over someone who appear to be more specialized.

You maybe the exception, but all of the industry DPs I'm friends with have specific curated web sites and IGs for their DP work. You can still have your MoGraph site/company and take that work. But separate 100% of your DP work from it.

Just my point of view.

Cheers,

Matt

July 6, 2016 at 4:09PM, Edited July 6, 4:09PM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
255

Hi Matt,

Thanks a bunch for getting back. I'm going to take your advice and switch up my website in the next week or so. Going to make it DP work only and have a separate "/MoGraph" part that is invisible unless I pass out the link which is strictly for bill paying jobs.

Have a great day.

July 6, 2016 at 6:52PM

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Gene Sung
DP / Director
739

So, just to inject a bit of reality, here is the current IATSE local 600 International Cinematographers Guild union scale rate card:

Features & half-hour film episodic/-hour episodic

DP studio 824.96/801.36 location 1057.60/1026.74
Operator 510.32/495.44 653.85/634.78
1AC/Tech 372.80/431.76 477.65/553.19
2AC 343.84/333.84 440.55/427.73

All rates are minimum call 8 hour day studio; 9.5 hour day distant location.

Nothing prevents a member from negotiating HIGHER rates ADDITIONAL kit rental.

(I 'm a member of ICG, SOC, SMPTE & NATAS.)

July 8, 2016 at 7:17PM

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Steven Cohen, SOC
Camera Operator
91

Thanks for this Steven. If you don't mind me asking, what was your path to getting into your first union?

July 9, 2016 at 12:21AM, Edited July 9, 12:21AM

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First joined Association of Film Craftsmen-NABET local 15, NYC back (way back) in the day as a 1AC. Only requirement was to pass a written test and a practical test at the rental house. Seven years later, I finally got a sponsor (required in those days) and applied to Cinematographer's Guild IATSE LOCAL 644, NYC, also as a 1AC. Had to once again take a written,then a practical test. By the late 80's, early 90's, AFC-NABET (which I was no longer a member of) was absorbed into the IA. Also in the late 90's, early 00's, the three IA camera locals 644,659, and 666 were merged into IATSE Local 600-ICG. I upgraded my card from 1AC to Operator in the early 00's and was accepted into SOC. Now I shoot for whoever calls first.

July 14, 2016 at 10:40PM

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Steven Cohen, SOC
Camera Operator
91

Sounds like it has been a challenging but rewarding road. Thanks for sharing this. I have been trying to qualify for a union, I think the editors guild local 700 will be where I end up. I shot and edited a feature documentary showing at festivals, I just need to come up with the $4K dues. I also edited 2 other features, just the luck of the draw I think I'm a better shooter but need to go where the opportunity leads me.

As a union member, do jobs just come to you by referral or is there a special jobs board only Union members have access to? Everything I see on staffmeup is all non-Union.

July 15, 2016 at 2:44AM

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