Motion picture studios, production companies, independent producers, and documentary filmmakers all employ DPs, either as salaried employees or as freelancers. Approximately 29,400 television, video, and motion picture camera operators (a category that includes cinematographers) are employed in the United States. Most freelancers are responsible for finding their own projects to work on, but a few are represented by agents who solicit work for them.
Internships are a very good way to gain experience and help you to become a marketable job candidate. Since local television stations and lower budget film productions operate with limited funds, they may offer internships for course credit or experience instead of a salary. You should check with your state's film commission to learn of productions in your area and volunteer to work in whatever capacity needed. Many production opportunities are also posted on the Internet. By working on productions, you'll develop relationships with crew members and production assistants, and you'll be able to build a network of industry connections.
Before working as a cinematographer or DP, you'll likely work as a camera assistant or production assistant. To prepare yourself for this work, try to gain some experience in camera work with a college broadcasting station, a local TV crew, or advertising agency.
Camera operators may choose to join a union because some film studios will hire only union members. The principal union for this field is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada (IATSE). Union members work under a union contract that determines their work rules, pay, and benefits.
The position of cinematographer is in itself an advanced position. Most cinematographers worked their way up from first assistant and camera operator before being considered for a position as DP. It is also important to make connections with others in the film industry. Those wanting to be DPs must get a foot in the door by making short films and getting them seen by producers.
Camera operators may have opportunities to work as cinematographers on some projects. As they continue to develop relationships with filmmakers and producers, their DP work may increase, leading to better paying, high-profile film projects. Once a DP has begun working in the industry, advancement may come as the DP develops a reputation for excellent, innovative work. Directors and producers may then request to work with that particular cinematographer or DP, which can also lead to higher pay.
Make your own films to develop a style and get experience behind the camera.
Work in any capacity on a film or video production to understand the collaborative process firsthand.
Study film, keeping in mind how the scenes were shot, framed, and lighted.
Look into budding opportunities in new media with content for online programming and mobile phones.
Stay informed about the latest technological advances by reading industry magazines.