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A Day in the Life of a Director of Photography

Director of Photography or Cinematographer are names that are often thrown around on set. In a way, they’re the main people who operate the camera and make sure everything is captured— wait, actually, that’s too simple, there’s so much more to it! Luckily, we have someone to help explain this better. Meet Tavis Pinnington!

Tavis relocated from Hobart to Melbourne in 2013 to attend film school at Swinburne. He started out as a camera assistant (we covered this role with Kitty May Allwood previously) before moving into cinematography. In 2020, he was mentored by Michael Goi ASC, through a mentorship program with the American Society of Cinematographers.

His work ranges from commercial, music videos, narrative drama, and feature films. Recently, he's risen to prominence with his feature film debut called Anak, which premiered at the 70th Melbourne International Film Festival and had two sold out screenings at ACMI and Palace Kino cinemas.

1. Describe your typical day:

My typical day changes depending what stage of production I'm in. If I'm in pre-production, my day usually consists of meetings with different departments of the project. Most of the time I'm talking to the director about the project we are making, lots of referencing or location scouting. I also have to coordinate my camera and lighting teams. That usually includes hiring and making sure the team will run smoothly. When it comes to production, my day starts pretty early most of the time. Call time to set could be anywhere from 6am to 9am unless it's a night shoot. Most of the planning for the shoot day is already done in pre production but I go around and make sure everyone is comfortable and confident in what we are making. I spend most of the day behind the camera, lining up the shots and chatting to the director and gaffer.

2. Best bit about your job:

The best aspect of my job is being able to live a very creative life. I have the biggest privilege to be able to call this a ‘job’ and It makes me proud to be a cinematographer. I wouldn’t say it's the easiest job, living a freelance life but it's the most rewarding. I would definitely have to say that the best bit about my job is the travel that comes along with it. I have been lucky enough to travel to Africa this year for work as well as Queensland, Sydney and Adelaide in Australia. Despite the tight working schedule, it’s always nice to travel for work. I’ll also say that when a project you make gets good recognition from the audience, it’s a great feeling. Making good films that connect with people on a personal level is highly rewarding. Another bit I like is connecting with actors when you’re behind the lens. You’re the first person to feel and see their performances play out in front of you, an amazing feeling.

A headshot of Drew Rhodes

3. How did you get to where you are?

Getting to where I am now was no easy task and I took a very unconventional route to being a cinematographer. I went to film school at Swinburne University, then I bounced around the camera department as an assistant camera on music videos and small commercials. I also worked part time as a bartender for years.  I took whatever paid freelance work I could get, but I really wanted to be a Cinematographer. I wasn’t a great assistant so I took the biggest plunge and just started shooting whatever I could get my hands on. I spent most of my time shooting out in the street, really low/no budget music videos or short films. After a while (1-2 years) I had enough for my first showreel. I put it together and put it up on instagram and it showed people that i could shoot. Over the last few years I have been dipping into content and commercials and that's allowed me to take on a few passion projects that have elevated my work quite a bit. One of those was my first feature film, Anak with Caleb Ribates. I struggled a lot with my place in the world and where I fit into this industry, but I feel as though it’s coming together now that I’m about to hit my 30s!

4. What skills and training do you need to do what you do?

The skills and training you need to be a cinematographer varies. I would say the best training is surrounding yourself in films and learn by doing. I learn best by just doing it. I will say that one of the biggest things I learnt when I was working in hospitality was how to work in high pressure environments and communication. Communication is probably one of the most important skills you need as a filmmaker. You have to communicate your ideas to so many people and you have to be quite clear in what you want. Communicating without an ego is also a big one. As I go on, my skills develop over time. Getting the skills to be a cinematographer is not something that happens over night or just at school, it's a life long learning experience because you change as a person, your tastes in art change and your process changes. You’ll gain the skill by doing and making a lot of mistakes!

5. Advice to someone thinking about the job:

My advice to people wanting to be a cinematographer is to be patient and mindful that this career can be great, but, the road to getting what you want can be long and challenging. I would also say that all your lived experiences in your personal life also make up how you view the world, so don’t always go out buying the latest and greatest camera or gear. Go on a trip to a place you’ve never been before or go to a festival you’ve always wanted to go to. All the things you do outside of being a Cinematographer, influences the way you light, frame and capture things. Your unique eye is only equal to the unique experiences you have in life.

Thanks so much Tavis for the amazing insights! What do you find most interesting from Tavis’ reflection?

Tune in next week for another instalment of A Day in the Life!

In case you’d like to learn more from Tavis about cinematography, you can register for Tavis’ workshops here.


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