When is a DP not a DP?

A post came up in my Facebook feed the other day. It started out with something along the lines of:

“As a brand new DP, what equipment should I buy, then how do I find clients and gain experience”?

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen these kinds of posts and I see many others from “DP’s” that are seeking help with basic skills.

Here’s the thing – the term DP, “Director of Photography” has become totally meaningless. Anybody and everybody with a camera seems to regard themselves as a DP. Once upon a time it took years of experience to work your way up the ladder before you could call yourself a DP, but today owning a camera of some sort appears to be the only qualification required.

There’s two aspects to this.

1: Real, experienced, skilled DP’s no longer want to call themselves DP because the term no longer separates someone with real skills and experience  from someone without either. Real, time served DP’s are almost embarrassed to associate themselves with the new “I’ve got a camera so I’m a DP” DP’s with little or no real world experience.

2: Production companies and employers are somewhat sceptical of anyone that calls themselves a DP because that person could be someone with zero experience or 20 years of experience… who knows!

As a result the term “DP” has really become quite worthless and meaningless which is a great shame.

When I started working as a cameraman in the late 80’s there were several levels of camera operator. There was the basic cameraman, someone that you would normally consider to be a competent camera operator that could focus and expose properly. Compose a shot nicely and shoot a range of different shots that an editor could cut together to tell the story.

Next up was the “Lighting Cameraman”. Typically a lighting cameraman would have had at least a few of years of experience as a professional cameraman and then in addition be capable of self lighting interviews, corporate videos or smaller drama scenes in a pleasing manner using a variety of lights. A lighting cameraman would also have a deeper understanding of contrast ratios, colour balance and the use of filters and gels.

Above this was the “Cinematographer”. A cinematographer would have all of the skills of a lighting cameraman, but would generally be someone working in drama or on narrative based productions rather than factual productions. As a result a cinematographer would normally also have a good understanding of a wide range of different grip and support equipment as well as being familiar with a wider range of types of lights compared to a lighting cameraman. A cinematographer would typically work with a gaffer or electrician when lighting rather than doing it all himself as in the case of a lighting cameraman.

Then comes the Director of Photography. It’s interesting to note that Vittorio Storaro doesn’t like this term because he believes there can be only ever be one director on a shoot, never 2.

A DP or DoP used to mean an extremely skilled and experienced cinematographer that was in charge of a camera crew or camera crews for a larger production. The DP often does not actually operate the cameras, instead the DP instructs and guides the camera operators on what to do. The DP is the “director” of the camera department and as with most supervisory roles the most experienced and skilled person in the camera department.

It’s such a shame that these job titles are now largely meaningless. In my day you had to earn the right to call yourself a lighting cameraman, cinematographer or DP and that took years. It was highly unusual to find cameramen under the age of 20 as you would normally have need to have worked as an assistant first. Most lighting cameramen and cinematographers were in their 30’s because it took time to gain the skills and experience that producers expected.

 

 

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10 thoughts on “When is a DP not a DP?”

  1. Excellent post Alister.

    Like you I came up the ‘old fashioned way’ and have reached the rung of Lighting Cameraman. I do not call myself a cinematographer, even though I am sure I have the skills, because I work mainly (but not exclusively) in non-narrative forms of filmmaking. Nor do I refer to myself as a DoP for the obvious reasons you have outlined.

    This is not about ‘knowing your place’ but having respect for the industry and the hard-one skills of colleagues.

  2. Experience seems to be highly underrated these days. You can’t learn experience, you can’t gain it from books or websites. You have to actually be there, doing it, living it, breathing it. Experience brings with it the ability to deal with new situations, methods or techniques because you will have seen similar before. It saves time as you don’t have to waste time figuring things out. It allows you to remain calm in stressful situations. You cannot teach these things and it takes a lot of time to gain a lot of experience and that makes it a valuable asset that should be held with highest regard. Calling yourself DP does not make you a DP. And as you say, unless you really, really do have the skills and experience calling yourself a DP is disrespectful to those that have put in the time and earned the right to do so.

  3. Alister, you probably won’t get this reference, but in the U.S., you have a kindred spirit named John Kruk. When someone asked how he became such a terrific athlete, he replied, “Lady, I’m not an athlete. I’m a baseball player.”

  4. All of you are correct. I am not a DP, but I am forced to call myself one due to producers expecting me to. I am a lighting cameraman and my only concern is that the client calls me for the next shoot. I don’t care what I need to be labeled or what the next person labels himself. Just as long as the jobs keep coming.

    Good luck to all of you,

  5. Excellent post. Damn Skippy! You are 100% on point. I tell people owning a camera does not make you even a cameraman any more than owning a typewriter makes you a novelist. If you are truly skill you can do almost anything with almost nothing relatively quickly. A cameraman can also be responsible for good sound which can be a whole other skill set. That’s my 2 cents worth. I started in Television in 1980. Never once knew it all. I still learn daily. Things have evolved in ways I couldn’t believe ir imagine in so many areas of Production, Post Production etc. Good read.

  6. Thank you very much for posting this. For a while now, I’ve wondered where I fall on the spectrum. It seems that I would be a lighting cameraman starting to bridge over into cinematographer. Although, this is admittedly a difficult bridge to cross. This problem with everyone calling themselves a DP has actually caused problems for me, due to the fact that most people that I’ve met as of late use the term DP or cinematographer, but are really little more than lighting cameramen at best. I’ve tried gaining knowledge from some people, expecting to be pushed to the next level due to the fact that they use these titles, but then end up quickly realizing that they don’t have much information to give.

  7. 10,000 hours is sorta the accepted time it takes to learn to be competent at anything. Being good takes longer, being great is rare.
    The NSC app needs 15 years before it classes you as skilled.

  8. I cannot agree more. I have worked with some amazing camera persons, who never would claim camera ownership made them a Director of Photography. Only their talent, diligent skill, and many, many hours of productive experience, have done that.

    The first time I paged through “Craigslist,” and saw that camera ownership was a condition of a Camera Job, I didn’t question the sanity of the person to whom this Ad was aimed. He could be starving, or ill, or without a Pro gig, for some other reason. He could have awakened in a foreign trainyard, with no clothes or shoes, his ID stolen, and not even socks or a toothbrush.

    I didn’t question the Advertiser, either. I saw clearly, he was a “Producer” in name only, a scumbag who had no dollars to hire a Camera Professional, nor even to rent a Professional Camera, either.

    I used to be incensed at these Ads, but now I’m not. Time has shown me these projects go nowhere, and never are seen. They don’t win awards, or get anybody new Pro work. They do keep scumbags functioning without funds, however, so still I urge you not to patronize them.

    Best to you,

    Sam

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