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What is a Director of Photography?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A director of photography (DP) is someone who supervises the filming of movies, commercials, television series, or any other sort of filmed production. It is common to see this term and “cinematographer” used interchangeably, although this usage is not acceptable in all regions, as sometimes these jobs are actually quite distinct from each other. Essentially, the person is responsible for the look and feel of a piece on film.

Three things are necessary to become a good director of photography: training, experience, and a good eye. Many people interested in careers in cinematography go to film school, where they learn about the mechanics of the work and have an opportunity to participate in internships on set to get a feel for the work. Then, they work their way up through the ranks on set, often working in a variety of positions to learn more about the business, before finally gaining this position, in which case a good artistic eye becomes crucial.

On set, the DP supervises the camera and lighting crews, and he or she will work closely with the set designers, costumers, and makeup artists. Often, both this person and the director have final say over which cuts will be included in the finished piece, and the two work closely together to achieve the desired look. He or she will use lighting, filters, and a variety of camera techniques to shoot a scene in accordance with the wishes of the director.

A director of photography may also be involved in post-production, working with the sound and color artists to develop and reproduce the film. He or she often works closely with the editing staff as well, creating a consistent look throughout a scene, even if it was shot over the course of hours or days.

The relationship between a DP and a director can vary. A really talented professional may require minimal direction, as he or she instinctively understands what is needed. Other directors prefer more control, and they may go as far as to specify particular settings on the camera, especially with those who are new and unfamiliar to them, to ensure that the piece turns out as they envision.

Some DPs become quite famous for producing distinctive, high quality work with incredible artistic vision, and they may be offered awards or invited to join elite societies. For people interested in cinematography careers, a chance to work or train with these leading lights in the field is a great honor.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon954426 — On Jun 01, 2014

William H. Clothier was the best of them all, and John Wayne's favorite one.

By anon338827 — On Jun 17, 2013

A good example of a blog that discusses what a Director of Photography does is Jeremy Osbern's blog on cinematography.

By anon333897 — On May 08, 2013

How is a DP different than a production designer?

By Apple2fan — On Jun 30, 2012

Would James Cameron be considered a director of photography?

By anon122266 — On Oct 27, 2010

Do you have books that you can recommend that could help us?

By anon109805 — On Sep 09, 2010

Joel Ransom did quite well with the Band of Brothers series, actually.

By anon105788 — On Aug 22, 2010

I've seen some good cinematography over the years and if it takes a "freemasonry" crowd to accomplish it then so be it. I don't want to join them -- just enjoy their work.

By anon37029 — On Jul 16, 2009

.."may be offered awards or invited to join elite societies.." .."a chance to work or train with these leading lights in the field is a great honor"...." good artistic eye".. whats this about a secret society, leading lights and artistic EYE? sounds like a bunch of freemasonry

By anon34499 — On Jun 23, 2009

Who are some really good Director's of Photography?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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