Cinematographer Careers: Salary Information & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a cinematography career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a cinematographer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Cinematographer Career

Cinematography is a field that appeals to a broad range of interests; for example, those who like physical challenges and working with technology may find it rewarding, but it's also appealing to creative-minded individuals who think conceptually. Those considering a career in this field should reflect on the potential pluses and negatives.

Pros of a Cinematographer Career
Showcases strengths for both creative and technical thinkers*
Median salary of approximately $48,000*
22% of professionals are self-employed*
Chance to specialize in animation, special effects, news, etc.*
Potential for travel for on-location shoots*

Cons of a Cinematographer Career
About six percent job growth estimated from 2012-2022*
Long or irregular hours*
Potential for physical labor, such as hauling equipment*
Camera operators should stay updated on the latest technology in the field**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net Online.

Career Information

Someone who works in cinematography focuses on framing, lighting and shooting movies. These individuals, known as cinematographers or directors of photography, may work in a studio, on a set or on location in various local or exotic destinations. They work closely with the director to ensure that the vision of the film is being fulfilled. They may specialize in a certain area or genre, such as horror, animation or 3-D. Other potential areas of expertise are sound processing, storyboarding and applying special effects (such as using green screens and computer-generated imagery - CGI).

Job Description

This role involves knowing about photography, lighting, sound and how all of the pieces of a film come together. You need to know about lenses, mikes, camera stands and other equipment. You should also have an aesthetic eye and an understanding of how camera angles can help explain a scene. Because cinematographers often oversee a team of camera operators and relay messages from the film's director, communication is vital to the job.

Salary Information and Job Outlook

The BLS reported as of May 2014 that camera operators for motion pictures, who are associated with cinematography, earned a median salary of approximately $48,000. The top ten percent earned about $95,000 or more annually, but those in the top level typically faced steep competition. Another beneficial area of expertise is new media, such as mobile and website cinematography, since studios are constantly experimenting with modern formats for creating and relaying motion pictures. Overall, the BLS predicted that this professional field should see slower-than-average growth from 2012-2022.

Education and Training Requirements

According to the BLS, camera operators should have at least a bachelor's degree; however, O*Net Online reports that 59% have only an associate's degree or less as of 2011 ( Those who pursue a degree don't need to specifically major in cinematography, but should look for classes in camera operations, film production and digital media editing. Individuals learn about camera parts, camera movement, lighting essentials and the filmmaking process.

Experience can be just as important as education in this field. While enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs, students commonly gain hands-on training either at their campus's studio or through internship experiences. Individuals typically begin their careers by assisting others who are more experienced in the field. They learn teamwork, self-motivation, critical thinking and artistic integrity.

What Employers Are Looking for

Although job postings specifically geared toward film cinematographers are rare, relevant listings available online as of April 2012 seek camera operators with previous experience and related video editing or producing skills. Some may be exclusively seeking digital filmmakers. For example:

  • A Maryland-based audiovisual retailer seeks someone with a background in photography or journalism with five years of experience in filming and editing content. They must also understand the pre- and post-production processes.
  • An advertising company in Texas seeks a camera operator who can handle projects ranging from a 30-second commercial to a 2-hour corporate video. This candidate must be able to also write, produce and direct films; editing skills are welcome.
  • A Los Angeles production company is seeking a freelance cinematographer to shoot a low-budget horror film. Candidates should submit examples of previous work.
  • An indie film company in New York is seeking someone familiar with digital-format filming to shoot a low-budget feature film.

How to Stand Out in the Field

One way that individuals can get ahead is by networking. Many colleges with cinema arts programs recommend building a strong team of social and professional contacts so that you may work with these people in the future and also remain top-of-mind for them when they need a cinematographer. But experience is often the most important element for prospective employers. Novice cinematographers may work as camera operators, production assistants, gaffes or grips in order to gain exposure to sets and learn about the process of filmmaking. You may wish to build a stronger portfolio by volunteering to work on peer projects or film events for family and friends.

Some films may only employ union members; those who belong to the International Cinematographers Guild may stand out in this regard. This union is a subsection of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and eligibility requirements vary by location. Another way to gain recognition is to submit your name to the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund, which keeps an Industry Experience Roster of professionals with a certain amount of clout in their craft.

Alternate Career Paths

A job that's related to cinematography but requires less physical strain and may see greater growth in the future is film editing. Instead of overseeing a camera crew, these individuals work with the reel that's already been shot. They must have computer skills for editing video, and the BLS states that editors often eventually specialize in one type of software. They need at least a bachelor's degree and several years of experience as an editing room assistant or assistant editor, according to the BLS. The same source notes that there may be as much as five percent growth from 2010-2020, but that these professionals earn about less per year than film camera operators as of 2011 ($53,000 median annual salary).

Those looking to get their foot in the door in a related field that requires less education and training may wish to start out as camera operators. Cinematographers can get started as camera operators before learning advanced information and skills. Camera operators aren't confined to the motion picture industry; they may work on news broadcasts, commercials or mixed-media projects. They may need to haul heavy equipment and spend long hours on their feet. The median annual income as of 2011 for all camera operators, including those in television and broadcasting, was about $40,000, per the BLS.

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