How To Direct & DP Your Film At The Same Time (Without Sacrificing Quality)

I just finished directing & DPing my latest feature film, and wanted to share some thoughts on the process. Hopefully this post can help some of you who are looking to juggle both roles on projects of your own.

Before we get into some of the tactics I used on set, we should talk about determining whether this path is right for you. As there are a lot of benefits (but also drawbacks) associated with doing so.

Like any other choice, it’s always about what is best for your project as a whole.

DPing Your Own Movie: Pros & Cons

There are two primary benefits of DPing your own film:

  1. You can work faster
  2. You have more control over your shots

But both of these are conditional on a variety of factors.

As for speed and efficiency on set, that is largely dependent on your technical skill and eye for framing and light. Also to a lesser degree, the camera that you choose to work with.

For me, directing and DPing projects has often made sense, as I come from a camera background. I know which tools will get out of my way and let me spend as much time with the actors as possible, while still delivering beautiful visuals.

The less experienced you are as a DP, the simpler your camera choice should be.

If I were just starting out, I would much rather shoot on an iPhone and focus on framing, blocking, movement, story, and performance. As opposed to wasting time troubleshooting technical issues with a bigger cinema camera I’m not accustomed to.

We’ll explore camera choice more below. But assuming you pick the right tool for the job, you will also have the added benefit of gaining more control over your shots.

Even the best cinematographer will never be able to read your mind. And to get anywhere close requires a ton of communication, both on set and off.

As your own DP, you don’t need permission to pick up the tripod and move it, turn off a light, reframe a shot, or swap a lens. If you have a strong vision and know how to execute it, this can create a ton of efficiencies.

There are drawbacks to shooting your own film too, of course. Even under the best of circumstances, you are still going to be spread more thin.

And you won’t get the experience of collaborating with a dedicated DP, which can be incredibly rewarding and challenge you to try new things.

But ultimately you have to make the decision on a project to project basis. I’ve DP’d about half the films I’ve directed, and will continue to assess them one at a time.

Camera Choice

Utility is the number one factor to consider when choosing a camera for your film. This is true of any film, but especially when you are serving as both director and DP.

If your camera is too big, too small, too hard to operate, too cumbersome to work with – it doesn’t matter how good the images are. It will hurt the final product.

You should always start with a thorough assessment of your project’s needs, and work backward from there.

Do you have a lot of low-light shots? Handheld shots? Zooms?

Are you shooting in a controlled environment, or in the field?

Will you have a focus puller, or are you pulling your own?

Answering these types of questions will ultimately lead to the best camera choice.

But as I mentioned earlier, you also need to factor in your skill level, to ensure you aren’t choosing a camera that you can’t confidently operate.

One of my favorite cameras that I’ve ever owned is the Arri Alexa Classic 4:3. But as beautiful as the image is, the camera is very big and very heavy. For some films, that’s no problem. But for others, a smaller camera – even an iPhone – might be a better choice. Especially for run and gun projects, shot with little or no crew.

Ultimately you are looking for the best image quality possible in the most easy to use form factor (for your specific needs).

Lens Choice

Your choice of lens is just as important as your choice in camera. Perhaps more.

When it comes to glass, again you want to consider both the utility of the lens, and the creative qualities.

Anamorphic lenses are awesome, but if you’re shooting in low light you might be better off with a super fast spherical lens.

By the same token, prime lenses are sharper than zooms as a whole, but zooms are faster to work with on set.

Some DSLR lenses can yield strong visual results, but won’t be as easy to pull focus with…

There are no right choices, you can only pick the best option for your film and workflow. 

Below I’ll share some detail on my last two feature films, and why I chose the gear / lenses that I did.

Directing & DPing: Two Feature Films

The two features that I both directed and DP’d are my upcoming film Disappearing Boy, and my new feature Teacher’s Pet which is now in post-production.

These projects were vastly different in every way, and naturally called for individualized approaches to both gear and crew.

Disappearing Boy was shot in a very unconventional way, across almost an entire year in small shooting blocks. It was made without any crew at all, and had a very run and gun approach.

I chose to shoot that film on the Fuji X-T4, as it was the best camera for the job. I loved the image quality mixed with the tiny form factor.

While the camera has some shortcomings with regard to image stabilization and autofocus, for my needs it was perfect. Gorgeous color science, but small enough to sneak in some shots anywhere. And because I knew it like the back of my hand, I could easily balance camera with directing actors. It never felt like a struggle.

Lens-wise, I shot that entire film on a single 50mm Leica R prime lens. This created a positive creative limitation on the film, and helped avoid lens swaps – which made things more efficient.

As for my latest feature film Teacher’s Pet, it was a big step up in terms of scope. We had a full crew, permitted locations, and more resources overall.

This allowed me to choose a more traditional cinema camera – the Arri Alexa Mini – which delivered incredible images. I also considered the Arri Amira (a great alternate if you don’t have a 1st AC), but because I had a focus puller I went Alexa Mini.

The Alexa was paired with the DZO Vespid Retro Cinema Lenses, courtesy of Tvacom. After testing a few options at the Tvacom rental house, the DZOs seemed to work best from a creative standpoint. Giving us a slightly more analog feel, but still offering lots of detail.

To save time on set, the majority of the film was shot on three focal lengths: 16mm, 50mm, 125mm. We also used the 75mm a fair amount.

Both of these feature films were vastly different in production scope. But I was able to capture roughly the same amount of pages per day by ensuring camera choice, lens choice, and crew were all in alignment.

Balancing Camera With Actors

Great performances are the most important element in any narrative film.

Everything we’ve gone over so far will help free up more of your time and bandwidth to work with the talent.

But even if you choose the perfect camera for your production, you know it inside and out, and have a great crew – there are still going to be challenges on set. Unless you plan accordingly…

During prep, I highly recommend meeting with your actors for a rehearsal.

Even a single day of rehearsal can go such a long way in ensuring you and the actors are on the same page. This can mitigate a ton of back and forth discussion on set, and give the actors a chance to come in strong.

On set, it’s about turning off your DP brain for 10 minutes before each scene to simply direct. You can use this time to talk through the scene with the actors. Block it. Rehearse it, and then let them break for a few minutes while you set up camera.

I talk about this workflow a little more in this post.

Regarding camera operating – If the camera is on a tripod, I find it very easy to watch performances. Even with some panning / tilting, or slightly more complex moves.

That said, I find it harder to balance things with handheld shots.

For handheld work, you might want to consider asking your 1st AC or another crew member to operate for you. Particularly during long takes of dialogue scenes where you might lose sight of performance.

Knowing how you plan to shoot and anticipating challenges is so important. There is always a workaround, but you need to know what you’re up against.

Focus Pulling

A big question for first time directors / DPs is how they are going to handle focus pulling.

Ultimately you have 4 choices:

  1. Work with a dedicated 1st AC
  2. Pull your own focus manually
  3. Avoid pulling focus entirely
  4. Use autofocus

If your production calls for it, a dedicated 1st AC can of course serve as a focus puller. This clears up a lot of mental space and lets you think more about other directorial elements.

A 1st AC will also ensure your batteries are always swapped, cards are properly formatted, and so on. If you can bring one onto your film, there is no substitute.

If you do need to pull your own focus, you have a few options. The first being to simply pull manually, either using an attached follow focus or straight off the barrel. Personally, I don’t love this method for narrative, as it takes my attention away from the actors.

When shooting myself, I will often eliminate focus pulls all together.

For instance, on my no-crew feature film (Disappearing Boy), I would block scenes so the actors could walk in and out of the focal plane. This generated some really nice results and made it easier to shoot. But I often had to add coverage and more angles as a result. There are always tradeoffs.

As for autofocus, I’ve never used it on a narrative film, but you certainly can. Some cameras are of course better than others in this department (namely Sony). And the tech is only getting better every year.

That said, there are downsides too. You have less control over your shot, and your camera choice becomes very limited, just for starters.

My recommendation is to get a 1st AC if your production allows for it.

If you are making a super DIY film with no crew (or 1st AC), I would generally avoid pulling focus. But I would make exceptions for some scenes that could be pulled manually or make use of autofocus.

Camera Support & Accessories

No matter how low-budget your film may be, you can’t compromise on two things:

  1. A good tripod
  2. Really good batteries

A bad tripod will cause trouble all day, slow you down immensely in between setups, and require more takes to capture smooth movement. Too often, filmmakers skimp out in this area.

Similarly, low capacity / low quality batteries (even if V-Mount or Gold Mount) can cause all sorts of issues on set.

It’s a given that you will be booting your camera on and off constantly to swap bricks. But even worse, if your camera dies in the middle of a take, you risk all of your footage getting corrupted.

Definitely don’t take any chances in this department 🙂

Another important consideration is media. I like to have enough media for the entire shoot day, so we never have to transfer cards on set.

Of course, I will often work with a DIT as it’s best to make backups on set if you can. But on small productions where you are already wearing many hats, there’s no need to take risks dumping your footage on the fly.

An abundance of media reduces the possibility of error. AKA you accidentally formatting a card that wasn’t properly transferred, and losing a day of footage.

Wrapping Up

Directing & DPing your own movie is entirely possible, no matter what level you’re working at.

It all comes down to understanding your skill level, resources, and the actual needs of your project. And then picking the right gear, crew, and workflow to facilitate that.

In years past, I would find myself overwhelmed when attempting to perform both roles. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I would ever do it again.

But after some more trial and error, I discovered that it is not only possible, but often preferable to work that way.

The last two films I made were some of the smoothest productions I’ve been a part of. If nothing else, they showed me that I can direct and DP without unnecessary stress. And that with the right approach, doing so doesn’t hurt performances or visuals, but can actually elevate them.

Directing and DPing certainly isn’t for everyone, but it never hurts to try for those considering it.

You may find it’s not for you. Or it may unlock your creativity in a whole new way.

Have you DP’d your own film? Leave a comment below and let us know about your experience…

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!


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  • Hi Noam,
    It’s great to hear about your process.
    I have DP’d my own work for docs and working with actors for scenes but less so for dramatic work outside the rehearsal room or studio.
    I think you need to know the camera like the back of your hand (must look at the back of my hand more!)
    As you say focus pulling is the decisive issue along with batteries!
    I do love working this way having been lucky enough to shoot with many amazing DOP’s, I find it liberating to wear both hats and fly solo.
    Looking forward to seeing your new work!


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