Cinematography Studies Degree Program Information

Cinematographers can learn through on-the-job training or academic programs offered at the associate, bachelor's and master's level. These programs typically include theoretical and applied training courses.

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Essential Information

Cinematography combines technical acumen with the artistic process. Associate degree programs (2 years) in cinematography provide training in practical skills, such as sound and lighting design, while bachelor's programs (4 years) prepare students for work as assistant film directors or entry-level photography directors. Graduates of master's degree programs (2 years) in cinematography may become film and video directors.

A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in film is considered the terminal arts degree for students interested in pursuing some facet of filmmaking. Regardless of level, nearly all film production programs culminate in an independent filmmaking project and/or thesis.

Undergraduate programs require a high school diploma or equivalent and may have GPA or standardized test score requirements. Graduate programs require a bachelor's degree, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, possible writing samples, and a portfolio.

Some film program specializations at the bachelor's level may include directing, editing, screenwriting, and acting, as well as cinematography.

Associate of Science in Film Production

Associate of Science in Film Production programs at community colleges teach students the basics of editing, directing, writing and cinematography but rarely offer specializations. Students in this program learn how to load film and frame a shot that meets a director's specifications and enhances the emotion of a scene. A film project is usually required for completion of the degree. Associate degree programs typically focus on practical filmmaking techniques. Some classes may include:

  • Sound design
  • Film and video editing
  • Basic film and video camera operation
  • Lighting
  • Set construction
  • Screenwriting

Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film

The most important component of the application is a short film or other artistic work. Students will create a thesis film during the final year of a bachelor's program. Short films allow students to gain practical filmmaking experience. Coursework emphasizes lighting techniques that enhance the emotion and mood of a series of shots. Film history, film genres and film theory are required courses in addition to classes that focus on the technical aspects of filmmaking, such as:

  • Directing
  • Film and video editing
  • Lighting methods for film
  • Cinematography
  • Documentary film
  • Film grammar

Master of Fine Arts in Film

Applicants to a graduate program in cinematography must have an undergraduate degree in any field, submit letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, possible writing samples, and a portfolio. Many MFA programs request that prospective students submit a short film. The film will need to demonstrate an understanding of filmmaking and the creative process.

The first year of a master's program in film is devoted to camera operation, editing, writing and directing. Students will have the opportunity to write, shoot and direct film projects. In the second year, students receive training in film and digital camera operation, film lighting techniques and digital cinematography. A cinematography specialization allows a student to combine technical filmmaking tools, such as the camera and lighting equipment, to impact the quality, tone and emotional impact of a moving image. Classes cover all of the technical aspects of cinematography but also include topics such as film theory and film history. The goal of the MFA in Film curriculum is to produce graduates who are well rounded.

  • Lighting for motion pictures or television
  • Digital cinematography
  • Directing and cinematography
  • Post-production techniques
  • Film criticism
  • Makeup for film and television

Popular Career Options

Career options for graduates of an associate degree program in film production are limited. Graduates of a BFA program in filmmaking must be prepared to work in lower-level production jobs and work their way up into positions of more responsibility and artistic endeavor, such as a director of photography. There are many production jobs that require very little formal training, including:

  • Grip
  • Gaffer
  • Focus puller
  • Camera operator
  • Assistant director

Job Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS, the projected employment of film and video editors and camera operators is expected to increase by about 11% from 2014-2024. The BLS stated that the rapid expansion of new forms of entertainment, such as Internet broadcasts and digital movies, will increase the need for camera operators. As of May 2015, the annual median salary of these professionals was $42,530.

Aspiring cinematographers can seek experiential training, as well as degree programs, at the associate's, bachelor's, and master's level. These programs can prepare students for various aspects of filmmaking, with many cinematographers starting within lower-level technical aspects of production and working their way up to the position of director of photography.

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