Choosing a Director of Photography

by Michael Neel & Greg Ansin

The Director of Photography (DP) is in charge of the camera and what is shot with it. The DP will work closely with the director to make sure they are getting the shots from the storyboards. The DP works directly with the lighting crew to make sure they stay on schedule.

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On the set of “Fall Apart”.

Choosing the right DP can give your film atmosphere and feeling – it subtly helps tell the audience how to feel about what they are watching.

Interview a bunch of DPs. Watch their work. Ask them about their favorite cinematographers. Talk with them about the films that have your favorite cinematography. You are trying to find someone who likes the same kind of camerawork you do.

Speak with other filmmakers who have worked with the DP, if possible. The DP is one of the big people on the set (along with Producer, Director, and Sound) and it is very important that you can work with them. One important thing to ask other filmmakers who have employed a DP is how fast they work on set. Cinematography involves a lot of set-up and can slow production to a halt if you don’t choose the right person.

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The camera used on Drive-In Horrorshow, Arri SR II.

Once you have selected your DP, discuss how you want the film to look. A great way to do this is to have your DP watch films with camerawork you like and ask the DP to emulate them. The DP should be able to figure out how to use lenses & lighting design to achieve this effect.

A word of caution: be very wary of extravagant camera moves (i.e. Dolly shots, crane shots, jib arms, etc). These look amazing and can give your film a polished look, but they add a lot of set up time. Your time is very precious, and every minute on set is valuable. If you want to move the camera, ask the DP if they can hand-hold camera moves. Hand held camera moves can be jumpy (which can be a great effect), but they don’t have to be: many cameras have image stabilizers, and a good DP should also be able to use lenses to make the movement smoother.

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