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Director of photography: What I do and how much I make

Trevr talks about the artistic and business sides of his role as director of photography.

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Video transcript

Hi, my name is Trevr Merchant. I'm a director of photography and a photographer and my annual salary is $80,000. So, typically I'm working with universities, health systems, small businesses, and even creative agencies to produce branded content, web content, and then I also work on short films, feature films, and I do photography and sometimes I teach. So for the last year I've been working as my own business as a freelancer and I decided to partner up with a producer and director here in Denver who's incredibly talented. We work as a great team and he takes care of all the stuff that I'm not quite so good at. So, I'm not amazing with client interaction or like, you know, client management, always stay on top of everything, and scheduling and all of that. So Matt takes care of running the business as a business. And I'm good at making the pictures pretty, and making sure the sound is good and the color's consistent and the really technical side. My job really starts after he's done a lot of his legwork. So he's already gotten the bid on a project and done a lot of the pre-production and I come in to basically take a dream, a picture in somebody's head and figure out how we're actually going to make that real. So there's a script, there may be storyboards, there's probably a location already, and it's my job to go into that location or you know, read that script or go through those storyboards and figure out what lights are we gonna need. What equipment are we gonna need. Are we gonna need, you know, gimbals and drones, and all that fun stuff. Or is it just going to be me with a camera in a really compact situation because of whatever reason. My job on set is to oversee the camera department and sound and lighting and all of those technical things. So I'm there to set up the shot, make sure that it looks great, light the shot and work with our director or producer and make sure that the client is happy as well with how everything is going, how everything looks, and then I will adjust as needed. When we're done shooting I'll be the one to either hand off the media to an editor or assistant editor or even take that footage and turn it into a more editable file. I did not go to the film industry to make a lot of money. The research that I did, I found that a camera operator was typically making about $50,000 a year. And I think that's about what my parents were making and I knew that we weren't doing that great, and so I thought, that's not enough money. You know, if I wanted to go shoot Hollywood movies, which is the dream you can make a lot more money, but there's maybe 20 people doing that. You know 20 really, really great DPs. And so the research that I did early on kind of convinced me that going into the film industry wasn't a great financial move. It just so happened that I got so excited about the projects I was working on that it kind of turned into, okay, I'm making money doing this because I'm doing it all the time. And so I may not make as much as I could have if I went into a different industry, but by diversifying what I do, so I do photography, video production, and I teach, I'm able to subsidize my personal projects, my passion projects, and I make a good living that I can afford to travel and do fun stuff. When I first started out I was making like $12 an hour as a student intern. So I was making videos, and they were technically professional-quality videos, but they weren't up to my standards. I knew that they weren't that good. And the nice thing about that job was that I was able to make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of leeway. I was working for a university and they gave us the opportunity to just try a lot of stuff out. So you're making $12 an hour, but you're also kind of still learning and you're in school. And then when I graduated I was hired on at a salary of $40,000 a year, and so a big jump from being a student intern, but still not a great income in the Denver market, you know, you could make quite a bit more. And so I continued to work in that environment and realized we were charging for our services and they were charging about $100 to $150 an hour for my time and I was getting paid by $20 to $25 of that. And I knew all the numbers, so I decided to bring it to my boss and say, "I know how much you guys are charging for me, I know what kind of value I'm bringing in, I billed, you know, this many hours last year, that equates to this amount of money. I think I deserve a raise." And they said, "We agree you deserve a raise, how does $2,000 sound?" And I said, "That sounds crazy. So I think I'm going to go out on my own and try try to do this as a freelancer and see if I can make a bit more money, and hustle, and work on different projects." When you work as a staffer at a corporation or university or hospital, you're only working on videos that pertain to that thing. And then when I got freelance jobs I was able to travel and shoot other stuff. When I started making more money as a freelancer I realized that, you know, I could run a solid business. I could buy equipment. I could rent that equipment and make more money on top of that when I wasn't using it. When I partnered with my business partner, we decided that want to build a business that we can have a higher through-put. So we knew that we wanted to make more money than we could on our own, and so by building a business and hiring more crews we can have a higher through-put of a video work and we can make money on top of each one of those projects. So I do see my salary increasing over time because I can with my teaching experience, I can bring people in that are lower cost that don't know as much and I can say, "Okay, we're going to train you and we'll tier your salary as you go, as you get better, and we can give you more responsibilities," and I can be the one to do that training and then I'm getting paid back for the training that I provide, because they get better and you can charge more for their time. This year was my first full year freelancing and I made quite a bit more than $80,000 but I decided to, at any chance that I got, invest that back into new equipment or computers, or infrastructure that allowed us to do more work. So if I can take that money that, you know, I made and go on a vacation that's great, but it's not going to make me any more money next year or in five years. If I can take that money and buy a new camera system and tripod and audio kit, then I can train a crew member to go out on his own or her own and use that gear of mine, charge the client for that equipment, make a little bit of money from the freelancer that I hired, on top of their rate, and then I'm making more money with the gear with the people I'm training and hiring and then I don't have to work as hard, hopefully. But right now I'm working about seven days a week. It may sound cheesy, but my favorite thing about being a DP is working with my wife. She is an incredible production designer and stylist and working as a team with her on set is very creatively satisfying, but also really cool for our relationship. I think when you're making movies you need to have a common language, and that's probably true for any industry. If you want to get something done and it's creative work, you have to be able to speak in the same terms. And that's been pretty cool to be able to work with my wife because she knows me well enough that we don't always have to talk to communicate.