110 things I’ve learned in 10 years as a DP

What I wish I’d known a decade ago when I started

A few weeks ago I realised it’s been ten years since my first time working on a film set. In that time I’ve definitely made progress up the cinematography ladder — by my estimation, having started at 0 and with the likes of Kaminski at 100, I’m hovering at a solid 3.2 (rising to 4 momentarily any time Larry Fong likes something on my Instagram).

So it’s early days. Nonetheless, if I’ve got a lot to learn now, I was genuinely clueless a decade ago. Only through the generosity and openness shown by other DPs sharing their knowledge and experience — in person, in books, magazine articles and internet posts — have I made it this far.

To mark this… decennial (I had to look that up), it seemed like it would be fun to note down a few of things I really wish I’d known when I started out. Plus who doesn’t love a listicle? (Number 73 will shock you…)

I can’t promise that any of the below will be useful to you, or that’ll you’ll even agree with it — it’s all just my opinion — but in the spirit of the people who’ve helped me I present the following.


To: me (22)

From: me (32)

Re: things you should know

  1. A DP’s most important skill is previsualisation — the difference between taking pictures and making pictures
  2. A DP’s most important asset is the directors who’ll hire them — expand and protect that group
  3. There will be many days with no work. Don’t waste them on worrying about it
  4. Your credits list and reputation are far more crucial to getting work than your reel
  5. Ensure your CV and online presence are as well-presented as your work
  6. There’s a fine line between seeming excited to work with someone and desperate
  7. Don’t assume having an agent will result in a sudden increase in job offers — the work will mostly come from your existing contacts and reputation. The agent helps your legitimacy, with negotiations, paperwork and provides advice
  8. Runners have a way of becoming producers and directors — be nice and stay in touch
  9. You will mostly be offered work that’s similar to your existing credits. Dress for the job you want
  10. Sometimes turning down work can be the best decision in the long term
  11. It’s usually better to be the DP they wished they could have afforded than the one who undercut everyone else
  12. Once you’ve given a discount on your rate it’s almost impossible to walk it back for future work
  13. It’s good to have experience in the other roles on set before stepping up to DP, but nothing beats time spent as a DP — even on no-budget productions. You don’t learn how to play piano by being the page-turner, regardless of how close to the action they sit
  14. You can be the most talented cinematographer in the world but if you’re no good at interviews you won’t get off the starting blocks
  15. In both operating and lighting, avoid the tendency to do something just because you can. “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”
  16. The best operating often results from not operating — let the dolly or crane do the work laterally and avoid panning or tilting
  17. Learn to operate on wheels — this gives you one operating technique that can be used across every type of camera mount
  18. Handheld rarely looks good if you try and add shakiness to what comes naturally
  19. The reason many ADs think handheld is faster is because you stop concentrating as much on the lighting when there’s a heavy camera on your shoulder — avoid the “6pm handheld scramble”
  20. Better to have a camera build where the Easyrig isn’t necessary in the first place
  21. Consider the average size of modern televisions when planning shot sizes
  22. The close-up loses much of its impact if repeated in every scene
  23. Resist the urge to sneak back and forth on a slider throughout a shot for no reason. See note 15.
  24. When tight to eyelines get the subject framed nicely before you worry about positioning the dirty character
  25. Many interesting angles are available to those who don’t always stick slavishly to eyelines
  26. Beware the psychological pressure not to improve the shot simply because it involves changing how the camera is rigged. Operating with a remote head out of view of the camera helps
  27. Always find a pre-frame reference in the back of the shot so you don’t have to ask the actor to stand in before each take
  28. Respect your focus puller by doing your utmost to keep the camera at the same point over the course of each take, or warning them if it’s likely to change. This is an easy way to gauge an operator’s experience
  29. Much of the work of improving your composition can be done by altering the actors’ marks on the floor before touching the camera. Ask them if the new marks are okay before the take
  30. Position yourself on the dolly so you end up comfortable for the longest part of the move — this is rarely the start
  31. If equipment is starting to get dangerously close to your framelines there is probably a better way to achieve the same lighting look or camera move that gives you a greater margin
  32. The most important name to remember when operating, besides the cast, is that of the boom operator
  33. The differences between types of lenses are generally over-exaggerated. Don’t push for the really expensive set if it means sacrificing lighting equipment or crew; both of which will have far greater effect on your image
  34. Beware of spending hours in the rental house shooting lens tests and no time shooting lighting tests, or talking with the production designer. This results from the temptation to see lens choice (which feels controllable) as the most critical component of the look of your project, instead of just one of many factors (which may not)
  35. T1.3 lenses are very useful especially in tiny locations or with a minimal art department
  36. Try to add 21mm, 40mm and 65mm lenses to the standard set you carry — they end up being very helpful on location (for spherical S35)
  37. Buy your own on-board monitor that records each take so you have your own instant playback. You’ll wonder how you survived without
  38. Resist being the DP who owns a fortune in equipment; if you can raise that kind of money put it in property
  39. There’s nothing inherently magical about doing things in camera — accept that many aspects like lens artefacts and diffusion can be added digitally with a greater degree of control. This concept is anathema to many, but focus on the results you want and then find the best method. Often doing things in camera is a way of generating theatrics on set — that’s fine, but understand why you’re doing it and don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees
  40. When using IRND filters that tint the image, always white balance this out in camera
  41. Having a small, (sometimes cheaper) camera on standby to grab inserts or establishers can make the difference between getting them or not
  42. When it comes to lighting, less is more
  43. Less than that
  44. You’re probably still overthinking it
  45. Before you bring in lighting equipment, make sure what’s there naturally isn’t better
  46. Taking light away is usually quicker than adding it
  47. Very few shots wouldn’t benefit from some negative fill
  48. If in doubt, backlight
  49. If you can’t backlight, sidelight
  50. Use really big lights, really far away
  51. Whenever possible light through windows and keep the lighting equipment on set to an absolute minimum
  52. Just before a take ask yourself if there’s any light source you’d actually be better without, or that makes the shot feel ‘lit’. It’s often the last one you added
  53. Use the inverse square law to your advantage at large distances and small
  54. Light meters are useful but the ultimate light meter is a good monitor. Ignore the snobbery. Ansel Adams would have loved false colour
  55. Never let maintaining lighting continuity force you into a mediocre shot
  56. Every shot is an opportunity for visual style; don’t spend forever on the pretty wide shot and phone in the coverage (which will make up most of the edited scene)
  57. Plead with your location scouts to try and avoid south-facing locations
  58. Always order the high speed ballasts (especially on commercials)
  59. Always order camouflage net to disguise the shadows of textile frames
  60. The nightmare lighting situation is day exteriors with intermittent cloud and high winds. Avoid.
  61. You need half the level of haze you think you do
  62. For best haze look keep camera close to subject to avoid shooting through too much air. Background will still look great but you retain contrast in foreground
  63. The full theatrical version of the gel swatch book contains way more ideas than the reduced ‘cinematographers’ version. There are more colours in the spectrum than just CTO to CTB
  64. Poly/foamcore bounces are brighter than you think. Try draping with unbleached muslin
  65. Don’t be afraid of hard light. It’s not just for backlight
  66. Master the Source 4. Beware that many film electricians aren’t used to them. The fixed lens versions are much better than the zooms
  67. A large soft toplight is beautiful, but it rarely looks good unless you can skirt it almost completely off the walls
  68. A location lit well purely with practicals is a joy. Always carry a selection
  69. Get everything on dimmers
  70. The theatre and live events worlds are light years ahead of film in their use of control systems and intelligent lighting — learn from them
  71. Hybrid LED fixtures are good but those with RGB are even better. See note 63.
  72. Eggcrates and snapgrids are essential
  73. A “book light” is often an efficient use of space in a corner but test for yourself to realise it’s only marginally softer than directly lighting through a thick textile, at the cost of nearly two stops more light required. Usually any extra softness comes from spill from the bounce source.
  74. Be aware how much unwanted light sources can affect your image at ISO800 and above — ensure spill from the side of lights, fire escape signs, even LEDs on kit is covered up
  75. A combo rigger / spark is extremely valuable on all but the smallest productions. Having a crew full of qualified electricians is useless if you can’t put the light or textile where it’s needed
  76. Very occassionally a polecat / wallbreaker rig will be useful. Usually it just takes forever to setup and ends up restricting your shots. Try a megaboom or menace arm from the corner
  77. A large diffusion frame on a cherrypicker solves many problems but accept that the wind in the UK makes this challenging
  78. Be wary of a tendency of DPs to see ‘digital’ as a dirty word, or a quality that must be avoided or compensated for. This is as meaningless as putting ‘organic’ at the other end of a non-existent spectrum. Neither description holds up to scrutiny
  79. Learn as much about digital imaging and colour science as possible. It’s your job as a DP to know the same detail about digital as you might know about film stocks and processing techniques. Without this knowledge you’re handing over a lot of control of your image to the DIT and colourist
  80. Charlatans abound in these arenas. As a rule: if someone can’t clearly explain a concept or technology they don’t understand it
  81. Always attend the grade even if this means getting cover for whatever you’re shooting at the time. Without our attendence being standard eventually it will be considered irrelevant and removed from budgets altogether
  82. Shoot a proper colour chart which includes skin tones in each setup as a reference for the grade
  83. Try and get your DIT out of their van and near set so you can keep an eye on what they’re doing with dailies. Communicate early and often so intentional stylistic decisions are not ‘fixed’
  84. Learn as much about VFX as possible — see if you can visit a facility to see how your footage worked out for them. Your working knowledge of greenscreens and tracking markers should be nearly as good as a VFX supervisor
  85. Remember that alongside your cinematographic duties you are the overall manager for what’s usually the largest group of people on set. Read a book or two on management and HR skills
  86. Your own reputation is dramatically affected by the behaviour and conduct of the crew you hire
  87. Your gaffer and grip are critical — an informal ‘interview’ at the very least is a good idea before committing to weeks working alongside someone you don’t know
  88. Just because a crewmember has huge credits does not make them the right person for the job
  89. Female crew are often better than their male equivalents — not due to their gender but because they’ve usually had to work much harder to get to the same position. This is an industry with deeply-ingrained gender roles and we have a lot of work to do on this front
  90. Ensure your crew have actually read the manuals for all the kit. Many a piece of perfectly functional equipment has been angrily returned to the rental house
  91. Micromanaging your team is both counter-productive and awful for morale. Ask for a result, don’t spell out a method
  92. The extra half hour in bed isn’t worth it
  93. Always re-read the day’s sides over breakfast
  94. Use the Waze app to avoid traffic
  95. Having your morning coffee and 10–2 well before call time will leave you focused on the crucial first decisions of the day, not looking for the first opportunity to find a bathroom
  96. Assume anyone you don’t recognise on set is an executive producer and treat them as such
  97. Work with your gaffer to plan pre-rigs so blocking can start very shortly after call time. It doesn’t look good to have ladders and electricians all over the set when the cast and director walk on
  98. On a drama it’s considered very bad form not to turn over within an hour of the call time
  99. Nothing good happens after the first beer in the crew hotel. Make your excuses and get an early night. This gets worse the older you get
  100. Often the best thing you can do to improve tomorrow’s work is go to bed at 9pm
  101. Remember that your constituents are the director and producers — it’s tempting to hang out with the crew but they’re not going to get you the next gig
  102. It’s a great sign of trust when a director starts asking your advice about how to block a scene — don’t waste it by not having any ideas ready
  103. Swap lots of references with a director new to you to make sure you know what they mean by “dark”, “edgy” etc
  104. Be wary of the conservatism and resistance to change inherent in much of the industry
  105. Remember in prep that budgets are a zero-sum game: by insisting on resources benefitting you they must be taken from someone else
  106. Respect the work of the line producer and take every opportunity to control your costs. Be realistic about your requirements and look for ways to simplify your methods for the same results. It’s not clever to have unused equipment sitting on the truck
  107. You do your best work when out of your comfort zone — avoid re-treading past victories
  108. Don’t act like you’re bigger than the job you’re on — this is evidentally not the case
  109. Other people’s success is not your failure
  110. Your value as a DP is more than just the sum of the things you’ve learned along the way

If you’d like to hear more from me, here’s my Instagram, and you might like my podcast interview on Modern Cinematographer.