A cinematographer — also known as a director of photography — is the chief camera operator on movie productions. It is the cinematographer’s job to practically capture the director’s vision for the film. They receive shot lists from the director and must determine the technical aspects required to achieve each one, working with other camera operators, assistants and lighting crews to do so. Salary levels for the occupation will depend upon where and for whom a cinematographer works.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups cinematographers with other camera operators in the television and video industries. It reports that, as of May 2009, the average annual salary for the occupation was $49,590. This is equivalent to a monthly wage of $4,163 and an hourly pay rate of $23.84. Pay comparison website SalaryList.com, put the average yearly salary for cinematographers alone at $64,161, as of 2011.
Salary by Employment
Most cinematographers work for motion picture production companies. The BLS lists the average salary for this sector of the industry as $52,440 per year. Practitioners may also find employment opportunities within federal government agencies, where the average wage is $63,940, and other professional, scientific and technical services, which offer an average salary of $46,280 per year.
Salary by Location
The geographical location in which a cinematographer works will also affect her salary. The BLS lists Oregon and New Mexico as the states in which, across all industry sectors, an individual is likely to earn the highest average rates — $73,890 and $65,510 per year, respectively. South Dakota, by way of contrast, is listed at an average of $26,910. At the level of metropolitan districts, the Portland, Vancouver, Beaverton area of Oregon and Washington heads the survey, with cinematographer salaries averaging $94,660, while Elizabethtown in Kentucky is listed at just $46,170.
The BLS predicts that employment opportunities for cinematographers, as well as for camera operators across other visual media, will increase by approximately 11 percent over the years from 2008 to 2018. This is roughly in line with growth projections for the country as a whole, expected to be between 7 and 13 percent over the same decade. The motion picture industry is expected to expand, particularly as the industry seeks to make use of digital and Internet innovations. As such, salary levels should remain attractive, although the BLS cautions that competition for any vacancies within the field is likely to be keen.