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Breaking into the Industry: Strategies for Starting a Career as a Cinematographer


Are you in love with the cinema? Do you sort of eat, pray, love, and sleep cinema? Do you love watching commercial advertising films on television and on Youtube or Facebook? Do you feel fascinated by the films such as Baahubali and Bajirao Mastani which keep viewers almost glued to the screen with stunning visuals, the play of lighting, colors of the ambiance, and so on? Are you fond of photography too? Do you own or use a good DSLR camera? Do you already know about various lenses, filters, exposure, focus, etc.? Or are you looking to learn photography seriously and video photography too? Or are you already shooting HD videos using your iPhone or a good android phone? Want to look into a career in cinema so that you do something which you love?

A cinematographer works along with directors and camera operators to give films, and other visual mediums like TV shows, videos, films, documentaries, etc their own unique style. As a Cinematographer you would be dealing with a lot of technical aspects of the images such as making sure the lighting is perfect for a shot, what kind of lenses would be needed, how would the composition of a shot take place, how much of exposure would be adequate for the shot, types of filters that would be used, among many others aspects.  Also called Directors of Photography, Cinematographers are responsible for supervising and guiding the camera, lighting, and grip crew on the set of a movie, commercial advertisement film, television series, web series, and other similar audio-visual productions.

Why become a Cinematographer?

Cinematographers, also commonly referred to as DOP (Director of Photography), are responsible for all the camera and light works in feature films, documentary films, television series, web series, and other online/TV shows, commercial advertisements, and other films (on television, which are called TVCs and also for other mediums like the internet), and similar other audio-visual productions.

In many cases, except in a few cases where the production requires extensive visual and special effects such as in the film Avenger: Endgame, Star Trek, and Ready Player One, Cinematographers are responsible for all that is visual in a film and other productions mentioned above. They are the masters of the art of telling the story of a cinema and other similar productions.

Even though in these kinds of high-end special effect-dependent movies (as mentioned in the above paragraph), the Supervisor/Director of Visual/Special Effects (VFX/SFX), play the most critical part, Cinematographers are also responsible for many aspects of the visual effects which require capturing of actors’ actions in camera. 

For example, in movies like Gravity and Avatar, actors perform in an ambiance and background which is different from what you see in the movie. In this case, actors’ performances are first filmed by the Cinematographers’ camerapersons inside the studio and then digital VFX/SFX adds the ambiance and background. A lot many mechanical props are used to shoot these films and create visual effects. Cinematographers have an important role in these cases.

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Camera work is the first step in making a film and other productions

Cinematographers are masters of the art of visual storytelling. They play the most important role in the first step of the production process which is capturing the visual images and/or actors’ performances in camera. They work along with the Directors, Actors, Camerapersons, Light Assistants, Sound Recordists, and the entire production team to bring the script of a film or other production to life.

A Cinematographer helps the Director of a film or other production in achieving the visual look and feel of the film or other productions. She helps the Director to execute the visual ideas and visual specifications that the script of a film or other production enumerates. Mostly, the Director of a film or other production has in her mind the visual imagery apart from what is written in the script. Cinematographers help a Director in this – in realizing the visual imagery that the Director has in her mind. 

What’s the real deal as a Cinematographer?

Understanding cinema and the audio-visual medium – is the real deal. You don’t love the cinema? You are not passionate about it? Well, then, this is not a career for you.

For a Cinematographer, understanding the cinematic language is the real deal. As a Cinematographer, your key role will be to bring the Director’s vision to life. This means much more than just camera work and light work. The real deal is in the composition of a frame (a visual shot or scene in a cinema or other audio-visual production). The real deal is the lighting of a scene or capturing the scene in natural light. The real deal is not where you place the camera and roll, but the real deal is where you place the camera to make the script alive.

The Cinematographer manages everything that affects what the camera is able to capture (i.e. composition, lenses, exposure of the lenses, lighting, filters, and camera movements) and is the head of the camera and lighting crews on set. She also selects the cameras, lenses, and filters to be used on a shoot.

Creativity is paramount, you can make or break a film

As a Cinematographer, you would be a part of several creative decisions for a film or other productions, extending from pre-production and production to post-production stages. Pre-production is a stage when all the preparation for the shooting of a film is done. Production is capturing visual images and actors’ performances using cameras. Also in high-end VFX/SFX-dependent movies, a lot of the stuff you see on the screen is done during production. Post-production involves adding/creating/modifying VFX/SFX, CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), sound effects, sound design, and editing.

Following is a brief description of how a cinematographer is involved in all three stages of filmmaking along with other crew members:

So when does Pre-production begin? 

As soon as the project for a film or other production is greenlit or approved, the first stage i.e. Pre-production begins. In pre-production, every step of creating the film is carefully designed and planned and therefore a Cinematographer plays a key role. The film is pre-visualized by the Director and storyboarded with the help of Illustrators and Concept Artists (the famous Director Satyajit Ray used to do illustrations himself; many other great Directors do that). 

At this stage, the script is broken down into individual scenes with storyboards, and all the locations, cast members, costumes, props, and special and visual effects are identified. The pre-production stage involves discussions of the creative ideas and efforts of the Storyboard Artist who creates the visual images to assist the Director and the Cinematographer to communicate the story and ideas. Storyboards are created by the use of several storyboarding software such as FrameForge 3D, Storyboarder, Moviestorm, PowerProduction, Canva, etc. as well as taking still photographs to copy what will be shot on the set.

What happens at the Production stage? 

After planning and deciding the visual layout of the film, live actions (performances of the actors) are shot on the production stage. At this stage, more crew members like the prop master, script supervisor, assistant directors, photographers, and picture and sound editors are involved. The Cinematographer decides on the best combination of cameras, filters, and lenses, as well as where the cameras will be placed, what the lighting should be, and when the scene will be shot. They also focus on the following key elements:

Camera movement. A Camera movement can heighten the emotion and suspense in a scene.ACinematographer’sduty is to have everything in the frames help tell the story of the film. Lighting, framing, and movement – all are tools of this process. 

Composition: The Cinematographer and the Director discuss what they think the shot should look like, how and what should be in a frame and what angles and shots can create a story more compelling and meaningful. 

Lighting: While there is are separate lighting persons, Cinematography demands this knowledge. After all, the cinematography is what we see on-screen, and how well or horribly the scene is lit is a huge aspect of the craft.

When post-production finally begins?

The entire process of filmmaking has become more innovative and interesting because of which movies like Star Wars, Ready Player One, and Avatar were possible to make. We all have always wondered how a movie like Avatar could be made with special effects and so much detailing that we almost believed it was all true; that the world shown in the movie was in itself real. All thanks to Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) and Visual effects technology. These have made it possible for the actors to play any character in any location. Technologies have made it easy for Cinematographers to capture actors’ performances in any setting or location.

So what exactly is CGI and VFX technology?

The term CGI is most commonly used to refer to 3D motion graphics which are used for creating scenes or special effects in films and television. From 2D computer imagery to all the way to fully Computer-Generated feature films (like Avatar) has been one of the most noteworthy technological changes in the film industry. This evolution has made producers, directors, and cinematographers take a giant leap into more complex and tech-centered feature films. CGI animation takes numerous steps in order to go from a simple idea to a complete animation which includes: script, storyboard, layout, animation, and the final revision. The work in this entire process requires a lot of team planning and coordination and may take up to several long hours of working on just one shot. Toy Story is an example of a full-length feature film created by only using CGI and computer graphics. 

Hollywood movies like Titanic which made everyone believe that the sea in which Titanic was shot was true. In reality, it was a pool.  A Bollywood film like Baahubali which made us go gaga over the entire cinematic experience was all a part of the VFX techniques. 

VFX or visual effects are computer generated and are popularly used in the making of films. In the shooting of any scene using VFX or CGI technology, the Directors, Cinematographers, and Actors first shoot the scene before a green or blue color screen. Then the desired background is placed using computer software. This technique is used to remove a background from the subject of a video. This technique is called Chroma keying or Chroma key compositing. 

With the help of VFX software, these blue or green backgrounds are replaced with the ones the director wishes to see. This visual effect technique helps the directors and DPs to load up any imaginable environment or location and create a world unimaginable to shoot in. A movie like Gravity which has exceptionally stunning shots was made only possible with the help of the VFX Technique. 

Usually, post-production only starts when principal photography ends i.e. when the Cinematographer and the Director’s creative side of the work are done. The bulk of post-production consists of reviewing the footage and assembling the movie – editing.

What does a Cinematographer do?

As a Cinematographer you would be involved in the following key roles and responsibilities:

  • You would compose and frame each shot in a film, applying the technical aspects of light, lenses, film, filters, and camera settings to achieve the effects sought by directors.
  • You should be knowing about the handling of various equipment such as cameras, lenses, adapters, tripods, monopods, lights, reflectors, V-flats, Steadicams, sliders, batteries, etc.
  • You will be handling different types of cameras such as Sony CineAlta (F) Series, Blackmagic Cinema Camera, RED ONE, Arriflex D-20, D-21 and Alexa, Panavision Genesis, Silicon Imaging SI-2K, Thomson Viper, Vision Research Phantom, IMAX 3D camera based on two Vision Research Phantom cores, Weisscam HS-1 and HS-2, GS Vitec noX, and the Fusion Camera System. These days Apple iPhones are also being also used to shoot low-budget movies.
  • You will be using different types of lenses such as Zoom lenses allow you to zoom in or zoom out or wide-angle with just the push of a button; Prime lenses perform only a single function; Telephoto lenses capture tight shots as close-ups and wide-angle lenses provide a longer depth of field. 
  • As a Cinematographer, you will apply many digital technologies in making a film or other audio-visual production such as Autonomous Drone Cameras, 3D Printing, 4K 3D Cameras (to film movies for VR playing.), Algorithmic Video Editing, dual cameras virtual reality, etc. 
  • You would study and research scripts to determine how they should be brought to life.
  • You would establish the creative direction for shoots.
  • You would adjust the positions and controls of cameras, printers, and related equipment to change focus, exposure, and lighting.
  • You would plan details such as framing, composition, camera movement, sound, and actor movement for each shot or scene.
  • You would confer with directors, sound and lighting technicians, electricians, and other crew members to discuss assignments and determine filming sequences, desired effects, camera movements, and lighting requirements.
  • You would supervise and coordinate the work of the camera, lighting, design, and sound crew members.
  • You would observe sets or locations for potential problems and determine filming and lighting requirements
  • You would assemble studio sets and select and arrange cameras, film stock, audio, or lighting equipment to be used during filming.
  • You would view films to resolve problems of exposure control, subject and camera movement, changes in subject distance, and related variables.
  • You would design lighting setups/lighting grids for studio shoots.
  • You would work with the director on shoot days to achieve the perfect shots and takes.
  • You would be In charge of working with graphic designers to storyboard for original scripts.

How to become a Cinematographer – Eligibility Criteria 

As this is a creative field, along with education, or one can say that more than formal education, what you require is your passion for this field and your aspiration for good work. To become a Cinematographer, first thing that you need is to be in love with cinema and audio-visual media. You should just love watching all kinds of films – feature films, documentary films, commercial films, and web series. Along with that, you should start learning photography as early during school as possible, or at least after your higher or senior secondary examination. 

You should take professional training in Photography along with any Bachelor’s degree program you take up. Having a good grip on Photography is vitally important to be able to become a Cinematographer later. Then, start learning Videography – either self-learning or taking up professional training.  

It is also vitally important to develop your own portfolio of still photographs and videos once you are adequately trained in the art and techniques of photography and videography. You may try your hands at making videos or short films with a high-end mobile phone in HD mode. You should be having good ideas about editing images. All these will help you in getting admission to a good professional program as well as in getting a work opportunity.

As for formal education, you can do a Bachelor’s / Master’s degree / Diploma / Professional program in any of the following fields (remember that a professional degree or diploma program in all of these below-mentioned fields may not be available both at Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, but depending upon your interests, training, and opportunities, you can build a good career in Cinematography either after a Bachelor’s level qualification or after a Master’s level qualification):

  • Cinema
  • Cinematography
  • Film and Television Studies
  • Filmmaking
  • Journalism & Mass Communication
  • Mass Communication
  • Mass Media Studies
  • Photography

But also remember that, even if you do not study for a professional qualification in any of the above fields, nothing can stop you from becoming a Cinematographer if you are passionate about cinema and have developed the required skills and knowledge in photography and videography, along with a few years of experience in assisting a Cinematographer or a Director of Photography.

Educational Fees

The cost of becoming a cinematographer in India can vary depending on a number of factors such as the type of education or training you pursue, the institution you choose, and the resources you need to invest in your career.

Here are some potential costs associated with becoming a cinematographer in India:

  1. Education and training: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in cinematography or a related field from a reputable institution can cost anywhere between INR 2-10 lakhs. Alternatively, you may choose to attend specialized training programs or workshops that can range from INR 20,000 to INR 1 lakh per session.
  2. Equipment and technology: Cinematographers need to have access to the latest equipment and technology in order to create high-quality films. This can include cameras, lenses, lighting equipment, and editing software. Depending on your needs, this can cost anywhere from a few thousand rupees to several lakhs.
  3. Networking and marketing: Building a successful career as a cinematographer requires networking and marketing efforts to find new clients and projects. This may involve costs such as attending film festivals, renting studio space, and creating marketing materials like a website or demo reel.

Job Opportunities

Initially, you would start your career as Junior Camera Operator or as a Second Assistant Cameraperson to the Head of Photography or Cinematographer of a film/ television series/ web series / commercial film/ other similar audio-visual production. You may find job opportunities in:

Film Production companies such as: Balaji Motion Pictures, Red Chillies Entertainment, Dharma Productions, Eros International, Viacom18 Motion Pictures, etc.

Television Commercial Production companies such as Flying Saucer, Little Red Car Films, Nirvana Films, Corcoise Films, Equinox Films, MAD films, etc. 

Television series and Web series production companies such as Bennett, Coleman & Co. (The Times of India Group), Zee Telefilms, Television Eighteen India, Sony Entertainment Television, Dice Media, Buzzfeed, The Viral Fever, AIB, East India Comedy, etc.

It is also not impossible to start as an independent filmmaker or videographer using your own camera and other equipment. You may begin by making videos for YouTube or other similar mediums or even making short films. If you are good at your art and you know all the required technologies, it is not impossible to land an opportunity to assist a Cinematographer or a Director of Photography.

Salary of a Cinematographer 

By all probabilities, you will have to begin your career as a 2nd Assistant Cameraperson or if you have notable experience before joining the profession, as a 1st Assistant Cameraperson. There are people who are making money from YouTube or similar platforms like Dailymotion, Vimeo, or Twitch, but then for making even a decent amount of money, you need to have fantastic content. It is very competitive out there.

Earning as a 2nd Assistant Cameraperson

As a 2nd Assistant, you may have to start with a low salary, which will just be enough to cover your basic expenses. However, there are associations for the crew that sets a minimum pay. Here are some examples of how much you can make:

As a 2nd Assistant in a low-budget regional movie, you could be paid about a lakh – so assuming that you get one movie a year, you will make 8/8.5K a month. Some associations of film crews ask production houses to pay on a daily shift basis. One shift generally lasts for 8 -10 hours. A big-budget Bollywood / Tollywood movie will fetch you about 2 lakhs for the project (with a defined number of days/hours for the movie). So in that case, you will earn an average of about Rs. 18,000 a month.

As a 2nd Assistant in a commercial film or other similar productions, you will be paid on an hourly/ daily basis. Assuming that you are getting work on at least 15 days in a month, you may make about Rs. 12-20,000 a month.

So, overall, assuming you take up several projects in a year, your average earning per month could be between Rs. 8,000 – 20,000 or even more a month.

Earning as a 1stAssistant Cameraperson

A 1stAssistant in a big-budget Bollywood / Tollywood movie might be paid 5-6 lakh for the project (with a defined number of days/hours of work). So, assuming that you are doing only 1 movie a year, you will be earning anything between Rs. 40,000-50,000 a month. But then you can do other projects too. 

However, a 1stAssistant in a low-budget regional movie might be paid 2-3 lakh for the project (with a defined number of days/hours of work). So, assuming that you are doing only 1 movie a year, you will be earning anything between Rs. 18,000-25,000 a month. But then you can do other projects too.

So, overall, assuming you take up several projects in a year, your average earning per month could be between Rs. 20,000 – 50,000 or even more a month.

Earning as an experienced Cameraperson

Experienced Camerapersons could be paid 12-30 lakh for a movie which is a big budget. Working on low-budget movies, commercial films, and other projects may fetch you anything between 2 lakh – 5 lakhs (per project with defined days/hours of work). Assuming that you are taking up several projects in a year, you may in all make about Rs. 50,000 – 2,50,000 a month.

Earning as a Cinematographer/ Director of Photography

A DOP of a low-budget regional film can make a few 4-5 lakhs. So on average 35/42,000 a month assuming she makes only one movie in a year. But it is obvious that she would make more from commercials films, web series, television shows, etc. In general, if you become known for good work among the film fraternity, you will be making not less than a lakh a month and about Rs. 20-25 lakh in a year on the higher side.

At the top end, famous DOPs working for a big-budget Bollywood / Tollywood film may take 5-8 crore for a movie (they may also work on a basic pay plus profit sharing). Assuming they do only one movie in a year, they make an average monthly earning of about 42 lakhs. But as a matter of fact, famous DOPs work on quite a few commercial projects, web series, etc. So, in all, they may make even a crore a month on average. 

So, overall, you will be making Rs. 1,00,000 – 42,00,000 or even more a month on an average (excluding the astronomical figure of one crore or more – which is obviously rarest of rare for a famous DOP).

Career Progression in the Cinematography profession

As this is a creative career, although there is a conventional career progression path as the one given below if you are super talented and have a great portfolio, you can bypass the conventional path.

Initially, you start as an intern/trainee. Then you will move as:

Second Assistant Camera – First Assistant Camera – Camera Operator/Cameraperson – Director of Photography/ Cinematographer

In many cases, you start as a Second Assistant Cameraperson straightaway.

Indian media and entertainment (M&E) industry’s growth was estimated at a CAGR (Compounded Annual Growth Rate) of 10.90 percent from FY17-18 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 13.10 percent to reach Rs2,660.20 billion by the year 2023 from Rs1,436.00 billion in FY18. The Indian M&E industry is on the cusp of a strong phase of growth, backed by rising consumer demand and improving advertising revenues. The industry has been largely driven by increasing digitization and higher internet usage over the last decade. The Internet has almost become mainstream media for entertainment for most people. According to IBEF, the television and AGV segments are expected to lead industry growth and offer immense growth opportunities in digital technologies. The Indian film industry, on the other hand, continues to be the harbinger of development and employment opportunities. With the increasing growth in video audience and consumption, the Indian market provides an opportunity for content owners to showcase their content and harvest additional revenues. Therefore demand for this career will be on the rise in the upcoming years.

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