How to Find a Top-Notch Cinematographer for your Project: a Guide for Independent Filmmakers

In this post I will describe how to choose the perfect cinematographer for you, how to attract interest from a large number of cinematographers and how to convince a super-talented cinematographer to work for very little when you don’t have much money for your project.

I will also share some thoughts on the relationship between the director and the cinematographer.

There are many different types of director out there and many different types of cinematographer. This post is about my way of being a director and of relating to the cinematographer, and should get you started in developing your own methods.

Why you need a cinematographer

In my post on learning camerawork I explained the importance of acquiring high-level camerawork skills and described five practical exercises that can make you an expert in lenses and camerawork if you invest enough time in the process. You may therefore have got the impression that I think directors should also act as their own cinematographers.

That is in fact not the case — I believe that the best filmmakers know a lot about cinematography, lighting and lenses, but also hire a cinematographer as their top ally while shooting a project, for the simple reason that you cannot do your absolute best as a director if you are also your own cinematographer — there is simply too much to do, and, ironically, in this way you are less likely to achieve your vision.

It goes without saying that a good cinematographer will also make a contribution of his/her own, particularly with regard to the lighting. I love working with cinematographers!

To achieve your vision, in my opinion you need the following two elements in place, among others:

* a detailed, practical and deep understanding of all aspects of cinematography;

* a cinematographer whom you trust and who really understands you, and who is 100% happy with your work method.

My work method is very simple: before I start shooting, I have a pretty clear idea of what all the shots will look like, approximately what focal length I will use, and exactly what the camera will be doing (in addition, of course, to what the actors will be doing, what the background will look like, exactly what colors will be used, the lighting, and everything else). There is always scope for improvisation, but the more prepared you are, the better equipped you will be to seize opportunities as they arise.

When setting up the shot, I block the scene with the actors while using my director’s viewfinder to select the exact focal length. When I am happy with the blocking and the framing, I tell the cinematographer what lens I want, exactly where to put the camera and a myriad of other issues, such as how fast to tilt, what the movement (if any) should be like, and so on. We then do a camera rehearsal, make adjustments, shoot, make small adjustments, and shoot again, making small changes until I have exactly what I want. During the take I carefully observe the video monitor, and after the take I review the shot to see what needs to be changed.

When I review a take repeatedly, the crew knows that it is probably the “one” and I’m double- and triple-checking before moving on to the next setup. The shot already exists in my head — it’s just a question of actually doing it and having it “in the can.” At the same time, I am always open to last-minute ideas — this is a very important topic and I covered it in my post on pre-production.

If you combine this level of preparation and technical knowledge with a super-talented cinematographer, I guarantee you that you will get very close to your vision in the finished product, until eventually you are nailing your vision accurately — and even improving on it — on every project.

On my very first film, I did not just direct — I was also the cinematographer. I do not regret it, because it taught me a lot about cinematography and it makes a big difference to how I communicate with my cinematographer. However, it was only a success as a result of the hundreds of hours I spent practising with my camcorder. Learning to be an outstanding filmmaker is a developmental process — you need to practice, practice, practice! There is no shortcut and no magic pill. If you act as your own cinematographer on your first and maybe second projects, it will really give you a baptism of fire and will teach you an enormous amount. It’s going to be tough and it is inevitably a bit of a compromise, but you will learn so much that you will truly be qualified to work with a cinematographer on subsequent projects. However, this advice does not apply to everyone — for most people it is probably better to work with a good cinematographer from the very beginning, after of course having learned a lot about lenses and camerawork.

Practical tips on finding the perfect cinematographer for you

I have personally used this method and found a wonderful cinematographer who is perfect for me (and also now a good friend).

These days there is a bonanza of underemployed cinematographers out there, and while this state of affairs is lamentable, it gives filmmakers unprecedented opportunities to work with talented Directors of Photography – but you need to have your act together as a director, or they will be justifiably unwilling to work with you.

1) Write an ad and post it on Craigslist or whichever website is the best equivalent in your country.

2) Describe who you are and what you are doing. If there is little or no money for the cinematographer, explain how you will offer value. The best way to do this is to make it clear that you have decent skills and previous projects to prove it. If you have already proved that you are a truly talented filmmaker, you would be surprised at how many top-notch cinematographers will be willing to work with you for next to nothing — it happened to me and it was a success story for all involved.

3) Make it absolutely clear what type of director you are and how you like to work. In my ad I made it clear that I am a highly camera-savvy director who understand lenses and cameras and knows exactly what he wants. Cinematographers who prefer non-technical directors need not apply.

4) If your ad is detailed and professional and there is clearly something to be gained by the respondents, you will receive numerous responses. On the basis of my experience, I can tell you that about 90% of the respondents really have no business selling themselves as cinematographers — not for ambitious work, that is.

5) The good news is that it only takes about 20 seconds on a cinematographer’s website to see whether he/she is the real deal or not. (This will also show you what it feels like to be the one going through many reels — a very instructive experience!) Of course once you have short-listed some candidates you will be looking at their reels in great detail and more than once, but the initial selection is easy to make.

6) Short-list the strongest candidates, send them a link to your reel and wait for a response.

7) Set up meetings with the cinematographers who are interested, have a chat, and then choose. The choice will be obvious once you meet them in person.

Using this procedure, I was able to find a wonderful cinematographer who had a lot of experience, exceptional intelligence, an outstanding reel and a great personality. We hit it off immediately and shooting the project together was fun, and I got exactly what I wanted. He loves directors who really know their stuff and I love cinematographers who get along with knowledgeable directors. The working relationship was flawless and the finished product made everyone happy. A classic success story!

If you do not already have a decent directing reel, you will probably not be able to secure the services of a first-class cinematographer, unless of course you can pay the full rate or have some other selling point. Having directed your first project, you now have a reel and the only way is up!

I will conclude by saying that you are not surrendering any creative control by working with a cinematographer — on the contrary, the more you know about cinematography, the more detailed your vision will be, the more you will be able to make the most out of your cinematographer and the closer the finished product will be to your initial conception.

A cinematographer is essential if you want truly outstanding results, even if you know enough to be a cinematographer yourself (which I think you should). But the really important thing is to find a cinematographer who truly likes and accepts your way of working. Some cinematographers hate working with directors who know about camerawork, and obviously you will have to avoid them — unless you don’t want to have anything to do with camerawork and are willing to delegate it entirely, in which case you’re reading the wrong website.

Conclusion

To convince a talented and experienced cinematographer to work on your project for little or no money, you need to become the kind of director with whom established cinematographers are interested in developing a long-term working relationship. That means that you must fulfill the following requirements:

– have a decent director’s reel, to prove that you have some talent;

– have strong interpersonal and communication skills;

– come across as someone who has a decent chance of actually getting somewhere in life.

In other words, experienced artists are willing to make sacrifices in order to invest in a potentially beneficial relationship, so as a penniless filmmaker who wants to move up to working with experienced professionals, you must make yourself worthy of that investment.

I hope you found this useful!

5 thoughts on “How to Find a Top-Notch Cinematographer for your Project: a Guide for Independent Filmmakers

  1. Srikanth Raj Bitling says:

    Thank you so much Ed. Knowing that I had the same idea as above is very much encouraging when it comes from you. Please keep posting!! Good day.

  2. I am very excited to start, I already did ‘ A Bigfoot lives in my backyard’ off of a video camera my son bought at a 2nd hand store, its so funny, we made a lot of mistakes,1st his blue jeans bottom cuffs were showing so we fixed that,2nd ,my dogs knew him so we just made it where he was they’r friends,by the 4th shooting it was perfect, I want to put it on Youtube,but , my brother says that it would get a lot of peoples attention and some hurt feelings about their belief in ‘Bigfoot’ what to do? but, is’nt that what directors do? Its about pulling people into the story?

  3. James Strong says:

    I absolutely loved reading this article! I have produced/directed 13 features, and now working on my present picture using a cinematographer for the first time in my film career, and I’m quite surprised at how knowledgeable I’ve become over the years. For the most part, he is more of my third eye.

    I’m TV host Jamie Strong/Film Maker and Author of The Wellington Ratio.
    Contact: jamiestrongshow@yahoo.com

  4. A friend of mine is thinking about hiring a cinematographer for a project, but wasn’t sure how to find one. I really like that you say to look on their website, and figure out if you can find information about them. It would be nice to learn more about them from their website, and maybe even see some of their work in the process.

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