Training, Education and the DoP.

One of the things that’s struck me on my travels is the different attitudes to training, education and accreditation around the world.

Lets face it, these days anyone can call themselves a DoP, I do! But what is a DoP? What does it mean? It means a lot less today than it did 10 years ago. When I started in the industry there was a kind of unofficial apprenticeship system. You started as an assistant, became a camera operator, learnt how to light, becoming a lighting cameraman and worked your way up. If you tried to sell yourself as a lighting cameraman without having the skills to back that up, word of mouth would mean no one would hire you. Today however it seems that almost anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a DoP, Director of Photography, a very grand sounding title. There is no requirement to have actually had any training or real world experience before you can call yourself a camera operator, DoP, colourist or whatever you fancy.

The problem for production companies is working out who really does have the skills and experience to back up their job title. I’ve spent many days helping production companies train their staff and frankly it’s quite scary sometimes as I’ve met many so called DoP’s and camera operators that have huge holes in their basic skills and knowledge that really shouldn’t be there.

Education and accreditation are what’s needed. I don’t just mean education through college and university courses, but real world, hands on education. Out in the field with more experienced camera operators. That’s hard to get these days as few productions have the budgets for camera assistants and even fewer have the time for mentoring and one to one teaching. You also tend to find that a production, depending on the budget will use either more expensive, skilled and experienced operators or low cost self shooting AP’s and the two rarely come together on the same project at the same time.  In addition we need certification or recognised accreditation. We need industry standard recognition of skills and experience, not just for those new to the industry but also for those of us that have long term practical experience. The IOV (Institute of Videographers) has the right idea. You can gain different levels of accreditation through assessment of your skills by a panel of IOV members. However this accreditation is not widely acknowledged outside of the IOV and is not always relevant to some areas of broadcast television.

A further issue we have here in the UK is that we don’t like paying for training. In the USA and Asia for example that attitude is quite different. I know many Asian freelancers that consider it normal to spend significant sums of money to attend week long, peer led, practical workshops. Why? Because at the end of the workshop they know they will have new or improved skills and they will have a certificate to back that up. That certificate will help them get more work or better paid work. Because the workshop is run by working industry experts, not just college lecturers, the knowledge gained goes beyond just the “how to” but also includes the “why’s” and “when’s” and practical how to run a business experience that is often lacking in traditional schooling.  Because many here in the UK either can’t afford to pay for training or simply think it’s not worth the investment they will turn to the internet for help. That’s a whole can of worms in itself because absolutely anybody can set up a web site and write anything they want. While there is a lot of very good information on the internet, there is also a lot of incorrect information and if you don’t know any better how do you know whether what your reading is right or wrong?

This isn’t something that can be fixed overnight. Our attitude to training and education needs to change, especially as the rate of technology change continues to increase. There are new concepts to grasp almost every day these days.  Great cameras do not, on their own make great pictures. It also takes a skilled operator. We need a formal way of recognising different ability levels to make it easier for production companies to find the right people for the job. I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years, but I’m still learning and many of the most useful things I’ve learnt have been from those more experienced than me. So we need more peer based training and it needs to be accessible to freelancers, not just those with staff jobs. We also need to think of education as an investment. People are prepared to invest £1000’s in a camera that may have a working life of just a couple of years, but are much more reluctant to invest a few hundred in a workshop that might give them skills and knowledge that might last a lifetime.

Finally, what is a DoP anyway? It used to mean Director of Photography. The person that directed the camera operator, chose the lenses and film stock. The DoP did not normally operate the camera. The DoP would normally be the most experienced person in the camera department, typically with many years of experience as an assistant then camera operator. Today it appears to mean anyone that can operate a camera and make a YouTube video.

8 thoughts on “Training, Education and the DoP.”

  1. Great read as always Alister!
    I totally agree with you. It seems like anyone that
    owns a dslr and a slider calls themselves DOPs these days. I find
    it truly disingenuous and lacking respect.

  2. Anyone can call themselves a Director Producer Writer as well. Really the best way to judge is the work they do and that means a showreel. There is a professional honour like ASC or BSC that guarantees a real DoP. Anyone can call themselves a DoP and they are if they Directed the Photography even if it is a You tube short. In film making you’re only as good as your last film. As a DoP you only get hired if you can prove you are adequate. Sometimes when film makers call themselves DP’s DoP’s etc it makes them look more amatuer.

    I think in all aspects of film making it is about show NOT tell.


  3. I can appreciate how you might bristle at folks adopting the moniker and ignoring the history of the title, but two things:

    1-At the end of the day, it’s a job title. And there are responsibilities associated with that title, very specific descriptions if you know where to look. If you compiled a lighting order, conferred with a gaffer, directed an assistant cameraperson how to prep a camera order, any one or all of these things, then you’re a DP, regardless of how you got there or how much experience you have, or how crappy the work looks.

    2-Any and all proclamations of DP-to-be are subject to client’s viewing of the “reel”. Doesn’t matter what they say, what jobs they’ve worked, etc etc. Nothing defines your pay-grade and who calls you what more than your reel.

    If you don’t have one, then you’re just a guy who happens to own a camera, and may or may not know how to do something good with it.

    And I don’t worry about young folks proclaiming to be DPs stealing work from me. The clients with real money (and one or two I do a lot of work for currently, one a record label, and another a national ad agency) very much know the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Very savvy doesn’t even begin to describe these folks.

    1. One of the key things when you hire a “real” DoP is that you expect to get someone with deep and extensive experience across a broad part of the camera department. Someone that, when things go wrong or are unexpected may have seen similar situations before so will know how to deal with them. Yes, anyone can give themselves the title DP but are they really a DP? I came across exactly this a couple of weeks ago at a works shop where a self proclaimed DP didn’t even know that the cameras shutter speed affected the exposure.

      Reels can be faked, anyone can now go on to Vimeo, Youtube or wherever, download some good looking footage and claim it to be theirs. Most won’t get found out. If you have a modern camera almost anyone can produce nice looking images given enough time or a fortunate lighting situation. But, can they light to create a specific look at the request of the director?

      I’m not worried about them stealing work from me, because reputation, personal recommendation and who you know is still very important. But I get angry at the devaluation of once respected job titles that had to be earned the hard way.

  4. A quick look on IMDB will tell you all you need to know about anyone’s professional experience. Anyone not on IMDB clearly isn’t a DoP.

    But then would you consider yourself a DoP (An American term) Or a lighting camerman? It kind of makes me laugh at how British Lighting Cameramen and Camermen who do a little then call themselves DoP’s

    Traditionally a DoP has risen through the ranks of assistants on feature films in America and then after a minimum of five years might get to be a DoP on a film although usually a lot longer.

    A DoP on an American film set is a lot different to a two or three man documentary or even Drama crew.

  5. Mark, not all people who work as DP’s have IMDB entries – I don’t and Alister will attest that my skill set, experience, and capabilities fit the bill. My work is done for an international television network and I get no credit whatsoever. Let’s not be so quick to judge.

    Now, I believe that I know about whom Alister refers when he says that he met a “DP” who did not know that shutter speed affected exposure. It doesn’t surprise me one bit.

    Bottom line – look at the reel, talk to past clients, and make an informed decision when hiring someone to shoot your film.

  6. James
    IMDB is a starting point but if you worked as a lighting Cameraman for an international TV company then you have a professional record.

    If I was looking for a lighting cameraman I would look at their work first and then ask test questions and then a meeting to see if we’re compatible If I was directing its important to me that I can communicate well with and someone I can trust and who will trust me.

    I wouldn’t choose someone calling themselves a DoP with no record of their work and unable to answer my questions and if I was going to collaberate I’d rather have someone who knows a little bit about cameras and who can take direction than a so called self awarded DP who will ruin the production because of a fear of looking stupid and no clue so wont listen and possibly a hitler complex to go with it.

  7. The showreel (or properly edited sequences) shows a lot. Alister is right about people in the UK not wanting to pay for training. I paid out for all sorts of courses at places like BBC’s Wood Norton which ran some excellent training. Not sure if they still run them. I know that at one point the cost to do them went up astronomically. I always hold the attitude that I always have something to learn.

    When I used to run some of the Sony ICE “seminars” I was often astounded at the lack of basic knowledge shown by people who were apparently camera operators and DP’s of many years experience. But having worked with all sorts over the years, many people do literally just bumble their way through things. Some have clients who are happy with the lowest quality, so they don’t see a need to improve. Sad but true. Witness a certain ICE event where a certain ICE was approached about one of the latest cameras and the first question was “Where is the full auto switch?”!

    I have tried setting up courses myself, though the demand in the UK is very low. I asked around once to see what people would be willing to pay for a days training. £50 came back the average answer!! It could of course be that that was how much they rated my knowledge at however 😉 But on a more serious note in the UK it is most definitely a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    I don’t like the title DoP. If someone does create their own production then technically they were the DoP if they set up the shots, so it is a very grand title for what can even result in a wobbly handheld shot. I don’t call myself a DoP because I do a bit of everything. I prefer “Video Producer” since that is what I do.

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