September 8, 2014 at 4:47PM, Edited September 9, 10:00PM


How do you make a living out of cinematography?

I've always had this question and im happy I can ask it in a big film production community. How do you guys make a living out of cinematography?

Do you guys have a "normal" job, and do cinematography as hobby?
Do you shoot weddings & social events?
Do you shoot commercials?

I recently left my job to dedicate full time to "create". To have plenty of time to work on my own projects. But, it's not all sunshine and rainbows, we live on a capitalist society where the world moves with money, so we all need some to live. Therefore, I ask myself this questions every morning: How can I make a living out of film making?

I'd aprecciate your answers / honest thoughts about this.


Hi Tommy - well I am at least for now living proof that you can find a way. Just over a year ago I left my full time job working at a high school doing TV and theatre to run my own company. Left the bi monthly paycheck and the great benefits... but I haven't looked back since. The main thing I have to recommend is trying to get yourself established in the community so you have clients when you jump ship. For me - its doing commercials and other advertising work - but doing it my way. And that is with the eyes of a filmmaker. I have to say that until you're out there all the time on shoots you need to make sure you can do many things. Work as a grip, AC - can you shoot and produce your own work? Do you have your own gear? The only thing that has gotten me by is the ability to be a one man band when needed - or be a part of a larger team when the project allows.

Id also say to get in with the local film community - here in DC we have meetings of local groups and events that the film office puts on. Its a great way to find people who are doing work and need people to join their team.

I guess the thing that I've had to remember - even though I have over 10 years of professional work experience, when it comes to the film world, I am just as new as kid getting out of college - and so sometimes I have to either do something because it might be good for my growth (even though it might be below my age) - or choose not to do something because at the end of the day I still need to pay the bills.

All the best!!

September 8, 2014 at 7:11PM

Scott Selman
Content Creator | Filmmaker | Producer

Thanks for the reply Scott, much aprecciate it.

Tommy Plesky

September 8, 2014 at 9:41PM

I survive by keeping costs for myself very low (a penny saved is a penny earned) and by being often a one man band / do it everything guy. Shooting weddings, corporate videos, events, etc... and also coming in and helping others similarly from anything to second shooter, to sound, to camera assistant, and more.

September 9, 2014 at 12:18AM

David Peterson
Wedding Cinematographer

But don't you feel that you sell yourself to the commercial side sometimes then?

Tommy Plesky

September 9, 2014 at 10:28AM

For around 2 years I did a lot of work for free. I started before college ended, while working at the same time. You can imagine how stressful that was. Then it transitioned into working + creating. I purposely stayed at a job where I could just show up and not bring the work home, thus I could focus on my creative work. I somehow luck sacked into a salary job shooting documentary work, but without all the stuff mentioned above, I would have never been qualified to get that lucky.

I think to make your living off of your passion is very dependent on where you live as well. In smaller cities, you can't keep the flow of work steady. Obviously larger cities have more competition, but that just makes you want to get better!

September 9, 2014 at 1:19AM

Alex Smith

"I think to make your living off of your passion is very dependent on where you live as well. In smaller cities, you can't keep the flow of work steady. Obviously larger cities have more competition, but that just makes you want to get better!" 100% on this.

Tommy Plesky

September 9, 2014 at 10:29AM

Not necessarily true on the "living in a large city". The internet has changed that. We have never lived in a big city and have been making a steady living for 4-5 years now.

Agree on everything else you said though :)

Luke Neumann

September 9, 2014 at 7:06PM

Not necessarily true on the "living in a large city". The internet has changed that. We have never lived in a big city and have been making a steady living for 4-5 years now.

Agree on everything else you said though :)

Luke Neumann

September 9, 2014 at 7:06PM

Not necessarily true on the "living in a large city". The internet has changed that. We have never lived in a big city and have been making a steady living for 4-5 years now.

Agree on everything else you said though :)

Luke Neumann

September 9, 2014 at 7:06PM, Edited September 9, 7:06PM

I started working as an office pa/researcher and then assistant editor and shot on the side - very small projects and weddings too - I was doing 70 hours of work a week - that's the untraditional path. An easier way is to move up from lighting or grip or camera department and then into operator then DP - that's more learning and mentorship program - my way it was exciting but I don't know if I recommend it for everyone - it definitely gave me a different approach and unconvential but it's been a time-honored practice of hundreds of years - but anyway there's no good way to do it, but usually you are going to be working a lot just to pay the bills and then eventually you can do it full time. But no path is easy. I still wish I went to film school - I always wonder how I would have been different - guys I work with who went to film school especially AFI and technical schools always seem to know really well what they are doing with lighting and the whole atmosphere. I'm just an anthropology major and just trying to figure it all out still.

September 9, 2014 at 5:52PM

Ed David
Director of Photography

I feel the same way. When I first started, everyone was hating on film schools, but when a shoot get technical - I always wish I'd gone.

Bobby Christian

September 11, 2014 at 3:36PM

I have to agree with Alex, the quickest road to success in any creative industry is to work your ass off for free whenever you can. Just make sure you are savvy about the free work that you do chose to do and don't go for the jobs that are just trying to take advantage of you. If it's not going to pay off in one way or another (good contacts, potential paid work in future, learning from someone with more experience, a fun adventure etc) then don't bother ;)

You won't have to do it forever but for now it will get you meeting all the right people and honing your craft. Then you will realise there is a huge community all around you and suddenly you are a part of it.

Also, one thing I wasn't aware of that eventually dawned on me when I went freelance was that previously, people hadn't been offering me work simply because they just assumed I was busy with my day job. Hopefully now that you have left your job, this will already have started opening other opportunities which may not have come your way before.

Other than that, I know it sounds ridiculous but one of the biggest influences in myself leaving my old job to work in film was Neil Gaimans address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012.

I have been following that advice ever since and I now make a decent living doing what I love. I wish you all the luck in the world in doing the same dude :)


September 9, 2014 at 5:57PM


Kraig, thank you so much bro. Watched the video, what a nice way to start my day.

Tommy Plesky

September 10, 2014 at 8:10AM

Making clients happy has been the number one thing that keeps me in business - even if I think their ideas aren't very good or I don't like the end result, having the reputation of getting the job done to someone's specifications has landed me continuous work. I started with one client and went from there. I did 2 or 3 months unpaid just to get practice, and I still volunteer my time on projects that have no budget but are appealing to me.

Try to let go of the ego as much as possible - some clients will ask you to reedit what you've made them into a pile of garbage, and others will be happy with whatever you do.

Just don't show other people the garbage ones :)

September 10, 2014 at 7:43AM

Daniel McLeod

"Just don't show other people the garbage ones :)" Haha thanks for the tip Daniel, very much aprecciate it.

Tommy Plesky

September 10, 2014 at 8:11AM

There are two ways: either start your own business or join a pro crew. If you want the first then you don't need experience, you don't even need to be good, you just need to be able to develop a network of clients. I've seen guys who really didn't know that much with very successful production companies based on who they knew and their ability to network. They fake it til they make it and pick up skills along the way.

If you want the latter coming up through the ranks of commercial and film crews then you will need to choose a path. Grip & Electric or Camera department. If you want to be a grip, best boy, gaffer then read the gaffer's handbook then find a DP or Gaffer and tell them you want to PA for them. If you want to be an AC or Cam Op then find an AC or DP and ask if you can be a camera PA for them. The real production world values loyalty and trust highly, show those traits even above competence, always have a great positive attitude. And never speak to actors, directors, or producers, only the guy above you in the chain. Lastly read America Cinematographer Magazine, it will show you how real films are made. There are more gem cinematography techniques in three copies of that magazine than most of the internet.

September 10, 2014 at 9:00AM, Edited September 10, 9:00AM

Indie Guy

"And never speak to actors, directors, or producers, only the guy above you in the chain."
This one is key. I usually don't hire the PA folks who hand out business cards ever again. It's bad etiquette and warrants a ban from set.

Elias Ressegatti

November 19, 2014 at 6:42AM

My Day Job is A television Job but my Small company is Mostly Film Based. Now i Prefer Film than TV. I Can Make a living from Cinematography, however at this point i keep my day job so i can get as much gear as i can get then i can leave my day job as soon as possible. To get a client base, do some free gigs to build your portfolio and reel then i think paid jobs will come at you soon after... ah mean thats how i started and im reaping the benefits.

September 10, 2014 at 10:04AM

Wentworth Kelly
DP/Colorist/Drone Op

Make sure you have a secure job before venturing into cinematography. At most have good savings before letting go of your job. I'm considered very new in this as well, i was in your shoes early this year. I make no cost short movies as my ultimate passion is films and to become a filmmaker. However thr sad reality is that money is a very important medium to live in this world. So through connections, i entered the wedding field as a videographer and learned photography as well(since this field demands more photographers). I use this money to upgrade my gear little by little.

From all the advices i got,
-The best thing to do is to build a profile for yourself. If someone mentions your name-what comes to mind? At the very least, people should know what you do and that you do it good.
-Follow you're imagination and creativity. Don't let others tell you how to do what you do, i mean this field is all about making creativity a reality.
-Get a job/part time job to sustain a living. It would be awesome if its a job that gives you time to work on you're own projects.
-Even if you are good, start small-short movies/commercials. Until people recognize you as a Tarantino or Nolan, they wouldn't trust you're work enough to spend quality time. Make things short but powerful; make them have an idea, "This guy should make feature length movies". It isn't easy to reach here, its a rapidly moving world-if you're able to grab attention and make them crave for more; that's when you know you're good.
-Always watch other films and take them as role models but not the directors. I've read dozens of interviews from renowed directors, DOP, editors,etc,etc. They make film making sound easy. Making a film is easy but becoming someone in the industry isn't. They were lucky to be born back in the days where not every Tom, Dick and Harry owns a DSLR.
-Trust in you're instincts with a little caution.
-Start of with jobs related to you're field for free. People won't pay unless you have proof of what you're capable of. Don't do things for yourself, but do it for others.
-Then get jobs related to you're field that pays. Money is important, this isn't Bikini Bottom.
-Join competitions for film making and try to get a following. At least a small group of people that know what you're capable of and wants more of you.
-Lastly, EXPERIENCE is golden. Get a job(even if it doesn't pay) on an actual film set. See and learn what they do, imitate them in you're own projects. Project yourself as a professional even if you're not there yet.
-CONNECTIONS is everything. Make friends, communicate with others. Who knows the guy you just had a drink with has a friend who has a friend who has a friend who's father's neighbor is searching for an assistant director.

September 10, 2014 at 1:08PM

Santosh Thayaparan
Director, Story Writer,DOP,Editor,Photographer

Woah, these are really helpful tips, will definitely keep all of this in mind, thanks a lot Santosh!

Tommy Plesky

September 10, 2014 at 5:24PM

My income is pretty simple:

Directing commercials and videos
DP / aerial video drone pilot / camera op for other productions
Licensing footage
Shuttling humans across the boarder in a crappy white van for angry drug lords

September 10, 2014 at 11:04PM

Wes Coughlin

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