What is a cinematographer and what do they do?

What is a cinematographer and what do they do?

Cinematographers are a vital piece of the filmmaking puzzle, but often, the question “what is a cinematographer and what do they do?” is asked. Fear not, in this article; we will answer this for you.

We will look into the definition of a cinematographer and breakdown their key responsibilities in detail, and link relevant articles to each aspect to ensure you get the most out of it!

Let’s delve a bit deeper.

What is a cinematographer?

A cinematographer or a director of photography (DOP) is the head of the lighting and camera crew. They are responsible for giving artistic direction on anything to do with the image of the tv show or film.

The cinematographer will also make technical calls when it comes to the imagery of the film. This includes the choice of camera, lenses, filters, etc. This has to be in accordance and agreement, usually with the director.

However, many directors allow free rein and let the cinematographer select what they feel will best capture the movie.

READ MORE: The top 12 cinematography tips you MUST know as a filmmaker

What does a cinematographer do?


Cinematographers are responsible for several vital elements of the production process, most notably the camera and lighting crews.

They make the technical and creative choices for the film in regards to the camera and lighting.

The cinematographer liaises closely with the director and they are involved in most of the production cycle. This is to ensure they understand the direction of the film and can offer their expertise throughout.

As they’re involved in most of the film’s production cycle, they can advise the crew and collaborate to make the best possible decisions to capture incredible footage.

The key aspects and decisions the cinematographer is typically involved in are:

  • Shot composition
  • Shot size/angle
  • The lens type
  • Camera setup and placement
  • Shot and camera movement
  • Lighting
  • Focus

Right, let’s have a closer look at these key cinematography responsibilities.

Shot composition

The shot composition is how the items and people are arranged within the frame of the shot. This is done to help portray and convey something important in the film.

For example, if you want to add to the idea your protagonist is struggling with money, you will want to dress the scene inside their house to match that.

It adds depth to the character as well as the scene.

Camera angles


Here is where you decide how much of the scene is actually seen in the shot (excuse the pun). For instance, maybe you are shooting the initial shot for your film and establishing the location. For this, you’d look at using a wide-shot (an establishing shot) to show where it’s taking place.

You may be looking to portray your protagonist’s angst as they’re held up at gunpoint with seconds to answer a question before their heads are blown off. A close-up or an extreme close-up will help portray the characters feeling to the audience with nuance.

Read below our in depth article on the essential camera angles you should use to tell your story.

Read our guide to framing: 6 essential camera angles to tell your story

The lens type

What is a cinematographer and what do they do?

Another crucial element that the cinematographer is tasked with is choosing the right lens. Each lens creates a completely different picture, so the correct lens must be chosen to portray the film correctly.

This also includes relates to the distance of the shot as well as the distortion of the shot. For instance, if you are looking to shoot an extreme close-up in one of the scenes to portray emotion, you will want to use a lens that has a detail-focused zoom to ensure you capture every single skin cell.

Ok, well, that’s a little over the top, but you get where we are going with it. Basically, ensure the lens is the one that matches the atmosphere of the scene and complements the movie’s overall feel.

Camera setup and placement

The camera setup and placement are essential. It helps reveal behaviour and define some of their characters. Whether it’s placed behind the character or in front of the character, it will engage the audience differently.

Shot and camera movement

The camera movement helps to convey the emotion in the scene and can be used to heighten the scene’s atmosphere, especially if you need to create suspense. Moving the camera around with the character can add depth and perspective to the scene.

For example, if the protagonist is walking into somewhere to confront their nemesis. The camera movement’s speed and angle can help portray the intensity and speed at which the characters travel.

Or, having the camera static can bring an objective feel to the shot.


The cinematographer decides on the lighting setup and will map it out in pre production to work out what’s best for each scene.

They will decide on the times each scene will be shot to utilise the natural light. The cinematographer’s light setup will enable the story to be brought to life and create cinematic shots to wow your audience.

Read More: 9 essential film lighting techniques every filmmaker should know



Another part of the cinematographer’s role in the production is to set the focus and ensure it’s set correctly to emphasize an important part of the story.

It can be used in a manner of ways to create atmosphere and emphasis in individual scenes.

We hope this article was helpful to you. If so let us know down in the comments and also tell us what you want to hear more of. Here are a few of our favourite articles to continue reading:

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Jay Neill

Jay Neill is the founder, owner, and managing editor of iFilmThings and believes everyone should have access to the film resources they need to plan their filmmaking project, which is why he’s dedicated iFilmThings to helping all filmmakers.

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