Engaging CultureMedia Production

How to Select a Great Director of Photography

I see a great number of independent movies, reality pilots, short films, and other video work from people around the world. But in the vast majority of cases, there’s one overwhelming shortcoming with the project: It just doesn’t look very good. The truth is – even in the era of inexpensive high definition and 4K cameras – the Director of Photography matters more than the equipment. If you’re a producer, director, or investor, you need to make sure the person behind the camera knows what he or she is doing. So in the interest of a more visually compelling world, here’s a handful of criteria I use to find the right DP or camera operator for my projects:

1) A great DP understands current visual styles. I watch way too many films, commercials, and short videos that look like they were shot a decade or two ago. Particularly in commercials, styles change as quickly as the culture changes. A good DP knows what’s hot right now, and a great DP knows what will be hot next year. Certainly great technique is classic, but shooting styles related to color, lighting, and camera movement change, and a great DP will understand those changes.

2. A great DP uses the right equipment for the job. We recently did a number of short films for The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Because they would be updated in a short time, Brad Knull, our DP suggested we shoot the interviews on a DSLR to save time and money. But when it came time to shoot the archive of historic manuscripts and ancient artifacts, he suggested 4K, since that would be high resolution footage we’d use again and again. It’s a similar story shooting in extreme locations, or in tight spaces. Each situation calls for different equipment. In the old days, we didn’t have much choice when it came to cameras, but today, there’s a lot of options. A great DP knows those options and when to use them.

3. A great DP is interested in the story. If your DP hasn’t asked to read the script, or inquired about the story, it might be an indicator that he or she isn’t the best choice. I want my DP to help me tell the story by his or her choice of lenses, lighting styles, and camera movement. It’s not just about single shots edited together, it’s about the visual thread that goes through those shots and ties them all together.

4. A great DP knows how to tell a story. Being interested in the story isn’t enough. I want a storytelling partner in my DP. I want his or her suggestions and ideas. This is why when I look at a DP’s reel, I’m not looking for a montage of different shots edited to a popular rock song. I’m interested in seeing complete projects, because that’s the way to know if they understand how stories work.

5. A great DP is a leader of the crew. On a set, more people than the camera crew look to the DP for leadership and support. The costume designer wants to know how the clothing will look on camera, the effects team must work closely with the DP, and the make-up artist needs a DP’s feedback. A bad DP can create conflict, fight with the director, and build enormous division within the crew. But a great DP knows when to creatively lead, and when to defer to the director or producer. That balance can make the difference between a great project and a miserable experience.

For your next project, take the time to find a great Director of Photography. Your investment in the search will more than pay off during production.

I’d love to hear about your experiences as a Director working with a DP, or as a DP working with Directors.

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7 Comments

  1. All very valid points, none of which can be minimized. As a DP who also directs (or a director who also DPs) and has to hire DPs to work with me from time to time, I’d add a couple of thoughts:

    1. Get a DP who can work FAST without compromising the images. The faster the DP, the more setups you can do in a day, or the more time he/she has to tweak the lighting to make it look even more special. This is one of THE most important things for me, because I also work fast. (Crews and clients love it too!)

    2. Get a DP who knows the latest support equipment and how/when to use them: LED and remote phosphor lighting, gimbal rigs, various types of dollies and track, drones, etc. Depending on the size of your shoot he/she may need to be well-versed in all manner of grip equipment– how to set it up and use it. (RELATED: if a DP doesn’t ask about how the end product will be viewed– projected in a dark theater, broadcast TV, Blu-Ray, web. etc.– you have the wrong person. And if the DP doesn’t ask about how it will be handled in post-production– what NLE, what’s the workflow, preferred record codec, color grading, etc.– you have the wrong person. HUGE, COSTLY mistakes are made when a DP doesn’t think beyond the, “I like THIS camera!” paradigm and ignores the down-range effects of such choices.)

    3. Get a DP who has done the kind of shoot you are doing. A feature film has a very different pace from a reality show or doc and uses different tools and different-sized crews. Episodic TV is faster-paced than a feature. Commercials typically have more time to do a little bit. A great sports shooter might not have great lighting chops. Does he/she need to be the camera operator as well? A terrific DP used to working on a stage with a Chapman dolly, operator and dolly grip might be useless as a handheld operator.

    4. Get a DP who shares the director’s vision of how it needs to look and feel. Make sure the demo reel has the kind of footage you’ll be looking to capture. Not all surprises are good surprises…

    5. Talk with other directors and crew who’ve worked with your prospective DP. Demo reels only tell part of the story.

    6. Get a DP who is not a tyrant, who is humble and fun to be around.
    Life is too short!

    I could go on, but did I mention life is too short?

  2. As a director I sometimes get caught up in the “big picture” and I’ve found that having a capable DP insures the images I see in editing are right in the “details”. A good DP will be looking at shadows or the lack of shadows. They will say things like, “I need to bring that window down 2 stops” or “Punch up that corner over there”. I love that kind of talk. Anyway, DPs have an eye for the small things in the scene that you as a director might not be looking at because of your interaction with the talent, producers, craft services, etc. On top of this, if you can find a great lighting director to go with your DP then your life will be complete and you can sleep better at night knowing all is well with the world.

  3. We should also remember that a good DP is more than just a lighting guy. He should incorporate all aspects of visual imagery and story creation. This would include:

    1) Lighting and Grip Needs
    2) When to shoot a particular scene. (Day, Night, Magic Hour, Day for Night, etc.)
    3) Lensing. (Wide angle, Primes, Zooms, Long Lenses, Snorkel Lenses, etc.)
    4) Camera Motion. (Do we need a Dolly, Jib, Movi, Hand held, Wheel chair, Steadi-Cam, etc.)
    5) Filters and effect filters. (Many are doing this in Post Production now, but nothing beats a good polarizer.)
    6) What type of camera works best for this project. The choices are mind numbing. (HD, 4K, 5K, 6K, 8K, Red Camera, Sony, Ikegami, Arri, GoPro, Panasonic, Canon, Large Format Sensors, Crop Sensors, 2/3″ sensors, ENG Camera, DSLR camera, etc.) Then what Codec do you shoot it in based on the distribution plans. (Web Streaming, Broadcast, DVD, Theatrical, etc.) We could do a whole seminar on #6 alone.
    7) Consulting on set construction and how a program will be shot once created.
    8) For location production a good DP should be involved in where a scene is blocked or created. Helping find the most creative angles.

    Just my two cents worth…but always remember, while the director is King, the DP is emperor! 🙂

  4. In my opinion a great DP is collaborative, time conscious and focused but not serious. Open to suggestion and on top of the current technology to deliver a deliberate look to tell the specific story or sequence.

    People skills are oddly lacking in leadership positrons in this business I have experienced as a people business. So I think people skills are on the top of the list too.

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