Cinematographer Career Information and Employment Outlook

Cinematographers require some formal education. Learn about the training, job duties and experience requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

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It would be an honor just to be nominated for an award as a cinematographer, but first you need to find a way to break into this highly competitive industry. Experience is essential to both starting and growing a career as a cinematographer. A degree alone is rarely enough; you'll need a great portfolio of work and may have to start with low-budget or commercial projects to build expertise and credibility.

Essential Information

Cinematographers, sometimes referred to as directors of photography, are skilled in the operation of the camera and lighting equipment used to produce movies, television shows and other film projects. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts strong competition for jobs in this field over the next few years. Cinematographers often complete formal education programs on the bachelor's or master's levels, but they will also need to gain experience through internships and working on smaller film projects. Joining a trade union will also help with acquiring work.

Required Education Bachelor's or master's degree in cinematography is common
Other Recommendations Experience and union membership may boost job opportunities
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 2% for camera operators (television, video and motion pictures)
Median Salary (2015)* $49,080 for camera operators (television, video and motion pictures)

Source: * U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Find schools that offer these popular programs

  • Cinematography and Film Production
  • Film and Cinema Studies
  • Photography

Career Information for Cinematographers

Cinematographers interpret the visions of directors by choosing the appropriate film stock, lighting, framing and lenses for filming a scene. Additional duties of cinematographers might include transporting equipment, storing prepared footage and overseeing the work of other camera operators.

The surest route to employment as a cinematographer is experience in the entertainment industry. Aspiring cinematographers might seek internships on major film or television sets, or they might get their foot in the door by filming instructional videos, commercials or public access television. An undergraduate or graduate degree in cinematography, combined with a strong student portfolio, could also lead to a career in this field. Additionally, joining a union, like the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, might better a prospective cinematographer's employment prospects.

Salary Information

According to the BLS, earnings of camera operators vary significantly with experience, location and employment specifics (www.bls.gov). The median annual salary of camera operators was $49,080 in May 2015; however, cinematographers on major motion picture and television projects can earn 6-figure incomes. The largest employer of cinematographers in 2015 was the motion picture and video industry.

Employment Outlook

Employment of camera operators was forecast to increase 2% from 2014-2024, according to the BLS. States with the highest number of jobs for camera operators in 2015 in California, New York and Texas. However, there was substantial competition for cinematographer jobs.

Opportunities for Advancement

Accomplished cinematographers often become directors or producers in the film, television or video industries. They also might start their own production companies. Additionally, cinematographers working on major studio or independent films are eligible for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Hollywood Foreign Press and other film-related organizations.

This is a challenging field to enter, with stiff competition for few jobs. However, some opportunities for high salaries and awards do exist, which can make the hard work of gaining experience and seeking out connections worthwhile. Education, internships, union membership, and of course strong skills can help you on your way.

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