Tag Archives: cinematographer

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.