What Does a Director of Photography Do?

You may recognize some big names in this group but what does a director of photography actually do? Let's jump into all the different responsibilities.

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Director of Photography

 

The director of photography (sometimes known as the “DP” or the Cinematographer) is one of the most coveted roles on set. If you’re a director or a producer, finding a rock-solid director of photography is your first step when hiring a crew.

But, what does a director of photography actually do?

 

Caption: Video via EFTI School of Photo and Cinema

 

The Art of Recording Motion

 

Directors of photography are also called “cinematographers”. The word “cinematography” comes from two Greek roots:

“Kinema” – which means motion.

“Graphein” – which means to record.

Put them together and you get a word that means “The art of recording motion”.

Therefore, directors of photography are experts in the field of recording motion. Everything involved in that process – from the cameras to the lenses to the lights, fall under their purview.

They’re technical experts. They’re ingenious, visionary artists.

But most importantly, they’re middle management.

How much control the director of photography has depends on their relationship with the director. Some directors have a notoriously strong hand in the look of their film and the technical background to back it up.

Others might know what they want, but will be relying on the director of photography to make their visions into reality. A good working relationship is vital, though.

Starting from the earliest stages of pre-production, where the director of photography will go over the script with the director to determine the story and how the visual aesthetic will help tell that story. They’ll accompany the director on location shoots and rehearsals, and may even help draw storyboards.

But it’s when production starts that things get interesting.

Lights

Unless it’s a VERY small shoot, the director of photography will not be personally hanging any lights – that’s the job of the head electrician (called the gaffer) and his team. The director of photography is responsible for hiring the gaffer.

The gaffer is responsible for hiring the other electricians. A good director of photography is as much manager as they are technician and artist.

The director of photography studies the script and communicates with the director about what kind of feel he wants from the scene. He translates that into a lighting set-up and relays those instructions to the electric crew.

He might, for example, construct a low-key light setup to help a director give a scene a more melancholy, introspective mood.

Camera

Taking the same marked-up script and conversations with the director, the director of photography goes to two other crews.

The first is the camera crew, lead by the camera operator. They select the technical aspects necessary to achieve the director’s vision. A wide-angle lens to give a sense of space. A soft focus for an emotional close-up. Slow-motion so you can see every second.

They also set-up the framing and, if necessary, movement. This is where the second crew comes in.

The grip crew, led by the key grip, builds the rigs the camera crew hangs their lights from, but they also build the rigs used to move the camera. Want a seamless dolly over rough terrain? These are your guys.

Action

This isn’t to say that the director photography merely gives out directions and walks away. They’re often heavily involved with the process – testing out different lighting set-ups, tweaking things from their monitors during rehearsal, and basically never resting until everything is JUST right.

Take a look at Quentin Tarantino’s director of photography Robert Richardson. His attention to detail is legendary.

Caption: Image courtesy of The Film Stage

Being a good cinematographer means having an eye for details and an understanding of how every aspect of cinematography – lights, cameras, and movement – affects the film.

Cut!

The director of photography is one of the most important people on the set. After all, without lights and camera, you’re not really making a movie. You’re just putting on a play for an oddly small audience.

Do you have any questions about directors of photography? Any cinematography topics you’d like us to talk about? Let us know, and be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and Google+.

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