Are You a DP or a Light Putter-Upper?

by Ron Dawson14 Comments

DP. It stands for director of photography (DoP for you British types. 🙂 Two simple letters. D. P. It's funny how much is communicated when you add a few letters before or after your name.

  • Dr.
  • MD
  • PhD
  • MFA
  • Esq.

In each of these examples, these letters truly mean something. They mean you've take some sort of extended training and education to earn the right to add those titles to your name. It will be very easy for the average lay person to know if you have the goods.

Not so when it comes to the letters DP. The way that term gets thrown around and added to people's names, you'd think someone is passing them out on the street corner like flyers. But come on, let's be real. Are you truly a Director of Photography?

Let Their Be Light

So, let's shine some light on the sitch, shall we? According to Wikipedia a DP is…

a chief over the camera and lighting crews working on a film, responsible for achieving artistic and technical decisions related to the image.

Just for the record, I know the term and title goes beyond film crews. But the part I want to hone in on is the “artistic and technical decisions related to the image.”

Artistic, as in “that related to the creativity of the art.”

Technical, as in “that related to the science of light and gear.”

So I ask the question to those of you who so freely and easily add this title to your moniker. Are you truly engaging in the artistic and technical direction of the light used to create the images you are creating (i.e. a DP) or are you just putting up the lights and fiddling with them in a somewhat 3-point system so the guy's face isn't too dark? (i.e. a light putter-upper).

I have been hired in the past to “DP” projects. This is where I come in and I'm chiefly responsible for the lighting and camera operation. For most of my own gigs that I shoot, I do this. And I'm pretty darn good if I do say so myself. But, for now, I do NOT use the term DP to describe myself because I know that I have a long way to earn that title. In fact, I don't think I'll ever use that term because frankly, that's not my forte nor do I want it to be.

I was really awakened to that fact last summer when I participated in the local 48 Hour Film Project and brought in a real DP. Shortly after I arrived at the rental house and was picking out a few lights, the real DP arrived and started picking way more gear I never even thought of. Gels. Additional lights. C-stands and clamps. Power supplies. I was immediately humbled and so thankful I brought in someone who know what he was doing.

DP on the set of my 48 Hour Film Project. You see that thingy-ma-bob in his right hand. That's called a light meter. 😉

Then I saw the excellent lighting video (below) by Eve Hazelton-Reynolds, DP for “The Underwater Realm.” What I would have approached as a simple 3-point lighting set up, she took to a whole new level. (And by the way, if you don't know what I mean by 3-point lighting set up, you REALLY had best not be using the term DP).

Playing the Role

But there's good news. Even if you truly don't deserve to put those two little letters after your name, that doesn't mean you can't play the role and maximize your craft. The key to remember is the “D” part: director. Think about the role the way you'd think about a project if you were directing it.

  • Pre-production. Don't just rent a Diva 400 and a Lowell light kit and show up on a shoot. Determine ahead of time the look and feel for the project. What moods do you want to set? What themes do you want to explore? Work with the director (if it's not you) to figure all of this out and come up with a real lighting design.
  • Production. As I mentioned earlier, on most of the shoots I do, I'm manning the camera, setting the lights, etc. Learn how to do all the production-related tasks well.
  • Post production. By this stage of the game, your job as “DP” is done. However, how the project will be edited may play a huge role in how you light it. Will there be green and blue screening? Will there be a lot of color grading? Will visual effects be added?  Be kind to the editor and light your jobs in such a way to minimize post production work.

I'm sure there will be no shortage of opinions as to this topic. Have at it. Next week I tackle the question: “Are you a director, or just a camera pointer.”

[tentblogger-vimeo 33672808]

Ron Dawson is an award-winning filmmaker better known as a producer and director (but he sometimes pretends to be a DP). He's an avid blogger, podcaster, husband and father. He writes about the art and business of filmmaking and photography at

(cover photo credit: snap from Ron Dawson)


  1. Let me be the first to disagree a little bit. I think of a DP as the person who is in charge of the look of the film/movie. It goes beyond lighting to what type of camera is used (if you have a choice) and he/she may even be the ‘Camera Holder’ or ‘director’.

    If you write/direct/produce and wear many hats during production, how do you give credit? Maybe use ‘A Film by…’ or something similar.

    I do like that you call yourself ‘Filmmaker’ because it covers it all. I consider myself a writer first so maybe I’ll just call myself a writer/filmmaker.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your comment Madera. My post is definitely more about the lighting angle, but I do cover (somewhat) the camera. In my interpretation of Wikipedia’s definition, I specifically state “Technical, as in that related to the science of light and gear.” That would include camera.

      Part of the issue/problem is that there are so many fields we are covering. There are people like me who primarily do corporate videos as a living. Then there are those who read this who are making a living working as freelance shooters, DPs, etc. on feature films, TV shows, etc. Based on what area of the business in which you primarily work will affect how see yourself too.

      I think writer/filmmaker is a good title.

  2. Light Putter Upper is a little degrading – obviously you have explained it fairly well.

    When I started, over 20 years ago, I called myself a DP because that is indeed the job not only I was aiming for but what my job description usually entailed. Being a junior I was a bit naive to the fact that especially back then, it was mostly a film term and a term reserved for the accomplished.

    I was also humbled and explained that even though there is no formal training and accreditation attached the title DP there was an informal understanding that it was one of respect. Something you earned among your peers. Thus I see even here you mention a “real DP” . Real DPs are hard to come by and they certainly bring an Xfactor to the set. When I come across a Real DP, I pay attention. I may use the title when it applies but I forever strive to find that Xfactor, its a pursuit.
    Today, that certainly is not the case. Anyone who is technically doing camera work is calling themselves DP and some who believe that because they are doing the creative decisions with the image allows them to do that.

    In fact they can. You can call yourself what you want. The key thing here is what do you peers think and if you show up and call “put up lights” then you are not a DP, in my opinion and I think anyone who has worked long enough will think that, even silently.

    My feeling is that, its much more than that. Its a philosophy a way of working, a way of dealing with people. The light putter uppers are technically called gaffers and their craft is its own thing. As a DP myself, I rely on the gaffer immensely for what they bring to the table and in their absence, I will do it myself.

    A title is important. It embodies who you are and allows others to label you… yes label because a true set can be like a military operation. If you are a soldier, there is no room for the ego of a general, you respect the general in title, but mostly you respect their role, the person, their decisions even in collaborative situations.

    So yes call yourself a DP by all means but be prepared to rise to its true meaning and deliver; otherwise you will acquire other labels from your peers.

    And yes, DPs I respect are not afraid to get the hands dirty and be a light putter upper if so need be.

  3. I think a lot of “documentary DP’s” could learn something from this. I know in the run & gun setting it may be hard to get light the way you want it, but even a bounce card can make a world of difference. With documentaries like Art Of Flight and Life Cycles, they show the world how to make a beautiful documentary. If you can’t do it there, relighting in post is a time consuming, but usually viable option. I think the main reasons for not lighting properly are ignorance, laziness, poor planning, or some combination of the three. Thanks for putting this out there.

  4. Let me humbly disagree a bit. The title of director of photography is not based on whether he/she is good or not, new or experienced, working on a feature or a wedding. It only describes a job on a production team. A pilot can be a private pilot or an airline pilot. Two very different things, yet they share the same craft.
    A DP is measured by his/her work reflected in credits, accomplishments or others label like ASC for example.
    If we go down that path, when do you call yourself a filmmaker, editor, grip?
    The popularity of visual media has never been greater and accessible than today and anybody can put up a shingle to say anything. Just like in the real world with plumbers, carpenters, brokers, financiers and so on.
    The market will sort them out. But please do not give into the somewhat elitist attitude of defining a DP as something that it is not. The proof is in the pudding.

    1. I agree, today its a job description. I was mentored differently. A bit like learning karate at the community hall or training with a master, is probably a more likely comparaison.

      In my humble opinion.

    2. Author

      First, I should say that the name of the “Real” DP is mention in my article is Bryce. 🙂

      Second, I agree with you to an extent. Whether or not you’re new to this biz, or you shoot weddings or feature films, you can still be considered a DP? But I tell you this: if I get in a cockpit with someone who calls himself a pilot, he/she had better know what they’re doing.

      Likewise, if someone decides to go by the title DP, when they get on set, they had better know what they’re doing. My main point is, unless you’re making a concerted effort to truly understand and master both the technical and artistic aspects of the craft of DP, I would suggest not calling yourself one. If you are striving, but are new at it, then call yourself a baby DP. 🙂 (I’m only half joking.)

      1. HI Ron,

        I do think you put it really well. I was just throwing my opinion in the ring. To a certain degree you are right, its a job description, so if you do the lights and the camera on a 48 hour film, technically you are one. Do you shake hands with ppl at an ASC meet and greet and introduce yourself as a DP? Well that is your gauntlet to run.

        My point is exactly yours, you better put your money where your mouth is. It starts with respecting the title in my opinion and only then can you respect the craft. If to some its a job description then that will certainly lead their career in that sort of direction.

        Thanks so much for your article Ron, its very thought provoking.

  5. I’ll go with ‘light putter upper’ for now haha..

    Moving from a professional stills shooter into moving footage I am finding lighting only slightly more challenging now my cast moves and my lighting needs to be setup in such a way the lighting doesn’t change to much while they move. ie: angles of shadows/sharpness/colour/brightness etc haha..

    I used to use up to six studio strobes but now find myself using up to a dozen small led panels, several of those are adjustable spot/flood units and up to three larger 1’x1′ led panels – also back that up with up to three larger arri 6bank 2′ fluro panels for floods.

    I’ve got a location lighting case for 99% of my work which is shooting interviews. Just the 4 small spot/flood led panels on L batteries that last for two hours and 30seconds haha and all packs into a 1510 pelican case on wheels, also packed inside are the nano stands for ultra portability. My biggest grr is trying to get single shadow rendering from the small led panels.. I’ve double scrimmed them but there’s a huge light loss when I do that.

    I can still get enough light for a 3meter setup away from subject at iso160 f5.6 on a face for -ev1 smooth shadow camera side.
    I also carry in that case the magic makeup shine kill, the black foil, pegs, 4 small 8″ friction arms and 6 nano clamps and a ,… red lipstick.. err.. I’ll have to ask the GF about that one.. I’m training her up to by my lighting and sound crew 🙂

    All this learning I’ve done in the last six months for one doco!.. We are just about to head off to China end of March 2012 for a 6 month self-funded doco to shoot in China with this porty kit I made and the GF crew 🙂

    so what do I call myself?
    Pre-production I do everything – story/research/planning, ideas, locations, travel, paperwork, permits, meetings, budgets, gear etc,
    Production I do DP stuff i guess, rearrange the rooms/style the set, point to where i want the lights setup etc, leave the setup to the GF and she also does the mics,lavs setup etc, she’ll setup the three camera rigs also while I talk to the interviewee, she’ll then setup the cameras ready to roll and click the buttons 🙂 I’ll do the camera lens selections and angles though.
    post production – I do everything, backups, editing, sound, colour grading, etc through to marketing and the ibook authoring etc.

    I don’t have the cameras yet though – was waiting to see what the nikon d800 and canon mk3 looked like first before setting off. I’ve decided to simply get three GH2 cameras (because of the hacks avaliable for that gh2! ) I’ll get these while in China as they are so easy to get over there cheaply. I’ve priced them with kit glass for about $450usd 🙂 I’ll just get some adapters for my nikon glass. No budgets for three c300s let alone three 5dmk3s or 3xd800’s even 🙁

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  7. Yes the title Dp is tossed around like a mofo. Is too bad the industry doesn’t really create a degree like an MD or PHD. I’m mean the union sorta does but still not very effective. Thanks for flushing out the posers on your series. The next one should be “are you a Filmmaker or just borrowing daddy’s camera”. I’m a DOP (and not Brittish) by trade but aspire to be a Filmmaker, which is the one who can handle all the crafts and execute all levels with mastery. The real top of the creative film food chain, post included. I would only be lucky enough to carry the title FM after my name. Every ones thinks they are filmmakers.. See you around.
    M. Palafox

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