How to Become a Cinematographer

Cinematographer Key Stats
Avg. Salary / year $58,490
Avg. Pay / hour $28.12
Education 4+ Years
Job Outlook 5%

A cinematographer makes choices in the lighting, camera angles, and other aesthetic elements that make up a frame, when a motion picture, or movie, is being filmed.

In many instances, the role of cinematographer and cameraman, are filled by the one person.

To succeed as a cinematographer you’ll need to be creative, have a strong interest in cinema and the arts, as well as education in design, photography, and cinematography.

A cinematographer is sometimes referred to as a director of photography.

Education Requirements to Become a Cinematographer

Most cinematographers have a college degree with a major in film, or attend a film technical school.

Either choice is a good way of beginning your career.

It goes without saying, that to become a good cinematographer you will need to watch a lot of movies.

Being well versed and having a good knowledge of music and art will also come in handy, as your career progresses you will begin to learn just how interrelated these disciplines are.

One of the most important prerequisites to become a cinematographer is experience, however you don’t need to go to college or film school to get it though.

Invest in a camera and start making your own films, you can even promote them through the internet if you like.

Read books about cinematography, and learn about technical side of the job as well.

If there are production companies nearby, try and gain some work experience there while you are at high school and college.

If you can get in with a big company, that’s fantastic, but don’t overlook the small companies either.

There are also other businesses around that will just specialize in certain areas, such as lighting, it’s worth trying to get some experience here.

Industry contacts are important to become a cinematographer, and it’s never too early to start making them.

In a competitive field, you will be hired based on your reputation, so it’s important to get to building it early on.

Try and meet as many people in the industry as you can, and tell them that you plan to be a cinematographer.

Once you have had more experience at college or film school, make a reel of your best shots on a DVD you can give to anyone that you meet.

Cinematographer Job Description

  • Working on a film set
  • Working with technical filming equipment
  • Making choices as to composition and camera angles
  • Making choices as to the lighting of a shot
  • Making choices as to film type, exposure, and filtration
  • Ensuring the aesthetic quality of a film shot
  • Ensuring a film shot is true to the style of a film
  • Coordinate with camera operators
  • Operating a camera
  • Operating lighting equipment
  • Working closely with a film director

The role of a cinematographer is twofold.

The first part of this job is technical, the cinematographer must make choices about lighting an equipment to ensure the shot is clear, and concise.

This involves choices of lens, lighting, film types, as well as angles and compositions.

They must also coordinate with the director of the film, to make sure the aesthetics of the shot will complement the scene, and the greater ideology of the film.

A successful cinematographer needs to have a strong technical knowledge, as well as being creatively gifted.

Cinematographer Salary and Career Path

Most cinematographers will start with entry level jobs that have a greater technical element to them.

Working as crew is often how most get their start.

After this, with a bit of time and experience you can expect to move onto bigger and better jobs.

From here, the sky is the limit.

You may even find yourself nominated for an Academy Award one day!

The salary for cinematographers is very varied.

When just starting out, you will probably not get paid much at all.

However, the top cinematographers make millions.

There is no average salary for a cinematographer, as you will get paid for days on set.

An entry level cinematographer would make between $200 and $400 a day.

The best in the business can take home as much as $10,000 a day.

A career in cinematography is an interesting and challenging one.

If you love film and have a creative personality, then you may want to become a cinematographer.

Getting as much experience as you can early on is important.

While you may have to work for a meager amount for a while, be sure to keep the end result in mind, stay positive, and work hard.

BLSThe below information is based on the 2021 BLS national averages.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

National Average Salary


Average Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
District of Columbia$80,290
New Hampshire$98,790
New Jersey$70,200
New Mexico$70,400
New York$109,190
North Carolina$53,830
Rhode Island$53,290
South Carolina$33,060
South Dakota$39,960
Puerto Rico$41,370

The top earning state in the field is New York, where the average salary is $109,190.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

New York - $109,190
New Hampshire - $98,790
California - $82,010
District of Columbia - $80,290
Connecticut - $76,160
* Salary information based on the May 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Film and Video Editors, OCC Code 27-4032, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a cinematographer?

Cinematographers, also known as directors of photography, are responsible for overseeing the camera and light crews who work on a film or TV production.

They need both an artistic eye and technical skills in order to make the best choices when shooting a film.

Directors of photography choose the lenses that will be used, the filters, lighting techniques, frame rates, image contrast, and camera movements in order to create a specific visual experience.

Cinematographers work very closely with directors to build the movie’s visual aesthetics.

They are involved throughout the entire production period.

Cinematographers usually start by analyzing the scenario and discussing with the director different creative ideas.

The next step is to choose the equipment, and supervise the technical execution of each shot.

In the post-production stage, cinematographers work together with directors and editors to make sure the visual esthetics of the film is spot on.

How much does a cinematographer make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, directors and producers, in general, can earn anywhere between less than $35,000 and more than $160,000 a year.

How much a cinematographer makes depends on their level of experience and the projects they work on.

How much does it cost to become a cinematographer?

Most cinematographers have a degree in film or cinema.

A bachelor’s degree program in the field usually covers topics such as film history, editing, cinematography, and the technical aspects of the film-making process.

A four-year undergraduate program in film/cinema studies will cost you around $200,000 but costs vary widely depending on the school you choose.

However, holding a degree in the field isn’t necessary; the most important thing is to have a passion for film, an artistic eye and to know how to use film-making equipment.

You can start off your career by finding employment as a camera assistant and work your way up.

What is the demand for cinematographers?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for producers and directors, in general, is projected to grow 5 percent from 2018 to 2028.

This is explained, in part, by the strong demand for movies and television shows.

Cinematographers will also be needed to work on projects produced by streaming services and internet-only platforms.

How long does it take to become a cinematographer?

Although there are no formal educational requirements for this profession, a four-year bachelor’s degree program in film or cinema will help you learn about cinematography.

You will also need a passion for film and the willingness to learn the technical aspects of shooting a movie.

Getting a job as a camera assistant allows you to gain experience; you will have the opportunity of learning hands-on about film-making and you will have the chance to network with industry professionals.

Regardless of the path you choose, it may take several years until you are ready to work as a cinematographer.

Jamie Willis
Career Specialist at BecomeopediaHi, my name is Jamie Willis, and I have been helping students find their perfect internships and education paths for the last ten years. It is a passion of mine, and there really is nothing better than seeing students of mine succeed with further studies.

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