What's the difference between a cinematographer, a director of photography (DP or DoP), and a camera operator?

setting up a tripod.jpg

What's the diff?

photo by Seth Schaeffer

I've been noticing lately that even my family members do not really know what that other thing at the top of my webpage actually means. Sure, they all know what a director is... but things start to get fuzzy when we start to talk about what a cinematographer does. Yesterday I asked my wife what she thought it meant... suffice it to say that's what lead to me writing this post :)

On certain projects, there's essentially no difference. On others there's a big difference. But let's get nitty gritty with it.

"Cinematographer", "DP", "DoP", and "Director of Photography" are synonymous. It's the person at the head of the camera department who helps bring the director's aesthetic vision to life. The DP oversees camera choice (Are we using RED or Alexa? A Sony or Canon or a Blackmagic camera?), lens choice (are we using Canon dSLR zoom lenses or Cooke primes?), shooting style (does this scene call for a handheld, cinema verité style or a dreamy, stabilized style using a gimbal? Or a tripod?), and lighting choices (are we going to go contrasty with deep shadows to create a darky, moody feel or are we gonna use lots of bright fill-light to make it feel like a Gap commercial? And what tools do we need to achieve that look?). Often, but not always, the cinematographer fills the role of camera operator because that's the best way for them to achieve their creative vision, or simply because that's what the budget allows. On bigger sets, the cinematographer might not even operate camera and they will often have a team under them consisting of a 1st Assistant Camera (1st AC) or a Focus Puller who's job it is to adjust focus on the lens, a 2nd AC who does the clapper board and makes sure the camera has batteries and media at the ready amongst other responsibilities, key grips and electricians are heads of departments that look to the cinematographer for direction, and the list goes on.

Here's a situation where I am a camera operator but not a cinematographer. The film was the Cure and the cinematographer was my buddy Sean Conte. I was mostly there because of my mad gimbal skillz.

Photo from The Cure Film

Camera operator, camera op, cameraman, or camerawoman are people whose main job is to run a camera on a given production. They are not necessarily responsible for all the creative choices for which a cinematographer is responsible. Sometimes at a live event there will be multiple camera ops on a production serving the needs of a single director and/or cinematographer (who in this case would be sort of like the quarterback for the camera team). Other times, I've been hired as a "cinematographer" but "camera operator" may have been a more apt title because it was just a small crew running around outside with a zoom lens and circumstances didn't allow much room for all of those creative responsibilities and choices I listed above.

These days you can have a one or two-person crews who do really quality work, or you can have enormous Hollywoodish productions with dozens of crew members (though we don't see those out in Grand Junction or western Colorado too often). It's a sliding scale that usually comes down to what is necessary to achieve the director's creative vision on a given budget. For me, most of my experience has been between crews of 3 to 7 people, though I've one-man-banded my fair share as well. As a cinematographer I like to operate the camera myself as much as possible and I usually pull my own focus. I love shooting handheld and also have a lot of experience with gimbals such as MōVI or DJI Ronin systems. I prefer whenever budget allows to have at least a key grip and someone to assist with camera functions such as changing lenses, changing batteries, swapping and backing up media. One thing I've learned, a good crew is priceless.

Hope that helps.

Thunderful US