In a larger film or TV production, the people running the show include the director, the producer and the director of photography. In the most general sense, directors of photography carry out the vision of the director. Directors of photography, or "DoPs" or "DPs," are cinematography experts who have typically worked their way up through the ranks through extensive education, experience or a mix of both.
What They Do
While the director may have extensive knowledge of lighting and film techniques, the director of photography turns ideas into reality -- with the help of the crew. Before the shooting starts, she'll select the cameras, film, lenses and other equipment that will give the film its distinct look. When shooting begins, the DoP doesn't often use the cameras herself, but will leave that up to her camera operators. She'll also work closely with the gaffer team, responsible for electrical and lighting, to create the right lighting for each scene.
While it's not an absolute requirement, many cinematographers start out by going to film school at an established university. In film school, you'll get extensive education in cinematography topics including lighting, composition, lenses, film and film stocks, as well as learning about other aspects of filmmaking such as directing, producing, screenwriting, sound and editing. The more prestigious film schools will also put students in contact with prominent filmmakers who come to lecture or teach classes -- which means you'll have opportunities to network.
The other way to become a director of photography is through the long road, by paying your dues. Even if you go to film school, you'll likely start in an entry-level role. Entry-level positions on film productions include production assistant, camera operator and second assistant camera positions. In these roles, you'll typically assist the more experienced crew members with whom you work. You may clean cameras or operate cameras, but generally, the focusing, lighting and other details will be handled by other crew members. Since an extensive knowledge of lighting is key in a DoP role, you might also start out as an assistant to the gaffer. When you just start out, you might begin working on commercials, short films or independent productions before moving up to TV shows or films.
While you work in these entry-level positions, make your career aspirations known, but at the same time, keep your head down and do good work; that's the way to gain respect and move up the ranks in the film industry. Since they're the manager of sorts for many important crews in a production, DoPs who are personable, easy to work with and confident will be most successful. DoPs -- and cinematographers in general -- also must stay on top of the latest gadgets, tools of the trade and techniques. That can include reading magazines, trade publications and websites such as Cinematography.com as well as attending conferences and becoming a member of film organizations such as the American Society of Cinematographers, an elite organization open by invitation only. But the ASC does offer educational tools to help aspiring members gain knowledge.