Cinematography roles: Who is needed on set?

Cinematography is a skilled craft that’s vital to film. Most productions spend the majority of their funding on cinematography. Why is that? Productions put a lot of attention into cinematography because it’s literally what’s on screen. It’s also how productions achieve visual and emotional impact and consistency.

It takes many talented people working together to create the films we watch. Regardless of the production’s size, various roles are necessary to achieve great cinematography.

What is cinematography?

Cinematography’s official definition is the art of creating motion pictures visually. While true, there’s more to cinematography. Master Class states cinematography isn’t just about recording the action. It’s about how the production captures the images. All on-screen visual elements contribute to a project’s cinematography. These elements include lighting, framing, composition, color, exposure, focus, camera movement, shot size and camera placement. Each element is critical and overseen by assigned departments. So, one department handles the lighting, while another department handles the camera.

All the department closely collaborates throughout the production to visually capture the emotions and story the director envisions. Every production has many moving parts, so it’s crucial each department stays organized and communicates.

Cinematography roles on set

Director of photography

New York Film Academy

When it comes to cinematography roles, the most important is the director of photography. The ultimate goal of a director of photography, also known as DP, is to capture the director’s vision. Working closely with the director, the DP oversees every cinematography department, such as the camera and lighting department. While it’s their job to deliver the director’s vision, it’s also up to them to suggest new ideas and concepts if the director’s vision isn’t possible or is open for improvement.

DPs consider many elements throughout the entire production, from pre-production to post-production. They look at camera placement, movement, lens choice, lighting and shot composition. So, they’re essentially in charge of everything we see on screen.

Camera department

Camera operator

As the name suggests, camera operators handle the camera during production, framing shots and handling the camera equipment. Sometimes the DP will also be the camera operator. However, on big productions, the roles are separate. The camera operates works with the DP to divided on the best course of action regarding camera placement, movement, and composition.

They must be comfortable with using a variety of equipment. Also, they’ll use many pieces of equipment throughout the production and choose which ones they’ll use for each scene. Additionally, camera operators work with the lighting department to ensure the composition is perfect.

First assistant camera (focus puller)

Depending on the scene, the camera’s focus needs to be adjusted. The first assistant camera, also known as the focus puller, ensures the camera is always in the correct focus. They’re also responsible for putting the camera together at the beginning of the day and taking it apart once production wraps up for the day.

Second assistant camera (clapper loader)

Also known as the clapper loader, the second assistant manages the clapperboard. A clapperboard is a classic film tool. Clapper loaders use cla[[erbpard to synchronize pictures and sound for post-production. The clapper loader uses the clapperboard at the beginning of every take. They also log when film stock is ready for processing. Additionally, they manage all the camera equipment as its transported from one place to another.

Digital imaging technician

Digital imaging technicians (DIT) deal with the internal workings of the digital camera. With the approval director of cinematography, the DIT can make adjustments to the production’s digital cameras to achieve various imaging results. Additionally, they may create compressed dailies from raw footage and prepare all the files for post-production.



When it comes to cinematography roles, gaffers are important. Gaffers play a key role in the film’s lighting. They’re ultimately the chief lighting technician and the head of the electrical department. Throughout the production process, the gaffer work with the production’s DP.

In this role, gaffers are responsible for directing the lighting department to create the lighting the DP and director envision for the scene. Gaffers come onto a project early on. They meet with the director, DP, and producers. They discuss what kind of lighting they envision. It is here gaffers plan what equipment the production needs to achieve their vision. Additionally, they’ll hire people to the lighting and electrical department. On set, gaffers oversee the lighting and make adjustments if needed. If you want a full rundown about gaffers, check out this article about gaffers’ critical role on set.

Best boy (lighting)

The best boy, when working with the lighting department, act as the second in command to the gaffer. When they’re working with the electrical department, they’re the best boy electric. Additionally, if the best boy works with the grip department, they’re the best boy grip. The best boy electric and best boy grip are two different roles and have different responsibilities. The best boy electric includes hiring people to the electrical department, make work schedules, communicate the needs of the crew during production, track inventory, and check equipment. When checking equipment, they make sure the quality is consistent and ensure nothing’s broken. They’ll replace any damaged equipment.

Lighting technician/electrics

Lighting technician/electrics set up the lighting equipment on set. After the equipment ready, they operate the lighting throughout the shoot. They also manage the power distribution on set.


Key grip

The grip department builds and maintains the set’s equipment. The key grip runs this department. They supervise all the grips working on the production. Also, grips set up rigs and all the equipment the lighting department uses. The key grip ensures everyone does their tasks correctly.

Best boy (grip)

Just like the best boy in working under the gaffer, the best boy grip works as the second in command to the key grip. They’re responsible for organizing the equipment truck and take stock of everything.

Dolly grip

Dolly grips focus solely on operating the camera dollies and cranes. They are the ones who move around the dolly track, push the dolly, and assisting the camera operator through the shot.

Each role is vital to the success of a production

There are many cinematography roles involved in filmmaking. Professional, gripping film cinematography takes a lot of hard work, skill, and communication. Every department needs to communicate throughout the entire process, during and in-between shots. The heads of each department, like the key grip and gaffer, communicate with each other and the DP. Together, they touch bases and make sure their departments are on the same page. They also talk about what their department’s needs are to each other. The heads then reiterate the needs to their best boys and the rest of their department. Together, each department delivers lighting, framing, composition, camera motion, camera angles, depth of field, zoom, focus, color and exposure that’s in line with what the script calls for.

Communication is the key to successful cinematography. There are many moving parts. Everyone relies on each other to work as one unit to deliver the director’s vision. Good communication ensures the visuals are consistent and the director’s vision is present throughout the entire project. Additionally, it allows everyone to think of new ideas that could ultimately make a scene more impactful.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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