top of page

Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a cinematographer for film and TV


March 16, 2023

Sometimes when you’re watching a film or TV show, you can’t help notice what the camera is doing.

Take, for example, the movie “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” which is told through what appears to be one long take — as if the filmmakers hit the “record” button and, two hours later, had their movie. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki an Oscar for that work.

More often, though, the camera’s positioning, movement and focus are inobtrusive. And that’s by design. The point, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut said, is to have the camera work and lighting amplify the emotions the actors bring to the scene. “It’s like you’ve turned it up to 11,” he said.

For example, he pointed to the 2001 teen romance “Crazy/Beautiful.” To underline the actors’ portrayal of the characters falling in love, Hurlbut said, he chose shots that gradually narrowed the space between the two of them until, from the audience’s vantage point, there wasn’t any left.

No one watching the film is going to say, “Oh my God, you see he’s narrowing the gap,” Hurlbut said. “But you’re going to feel that. Being obsessed with those subtleties is what I think the art of cinematography is.”

To work as a cinematographer (or director of photography, as the position is also called), you’ll have to know a lot about cameras, lenses, lights and other technical aspects of the job. But the pros say the work isn’t about technology, it’s about storytelling. Specifically, it’s about helping the audience connect with the story as it’s envisioned by someone else — the director in the case of a film, the showrunner in the case of a TV series.

The Times spoke with current and former cinematographers Goi, Hurlbut, Stephen Lighthill, Shelly Johnson, Kira Kelly, Jasmine Karcey, Charlie Lieberman, Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, Erik Messerschmidt, Arlene Nelson and Checco Varese, as well as Chaim Kantor, interim national executive director of the International Cinematographers Guild, about what it takes to become a successful cinematographer. Here are their insights...

bottom of page