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Cinematographer vs. Director: What’s the Difference?

Posted by Debbie Camper on October 28, 2022

Look in the end credits of any feature film or television show, and you’ll see cinematographers and directors listed. Of course, these jobs exist outside of Hollywood, too: Corporate video productions with sizable crews also need cinematographers and directors.

While some small jobs can be handled by a videographer alone, today’s audiences have high expectations, and companies are meeting those standards by commissioning full-scale video shoots. Cinematographers and directors can make their names on these sets, creating high-quality content with impressive production values.

But for both professionals hoping to enter the field and businesses assembling crews for their video shoots, this raises a question: what exactly do cinematographers and directors do, and what’s the division of responsibilities between these two jobs?

Exploring the differences and similarities between cinematographer and director functions and career paths is a good way to get more clarity about just what happens on a video set, as well as what it takes to eventually become a cinematographer or director.

Cinematographer vs. Director: What Are These Roles?

When you’re appreciating a finished feature film, television show or corporate video, you’re seeing the work of a cinematographer and director working in tandem. In fact, these creative professionals tend to work very closely together, to the point where some of their functions overlap.

Both cinematographers and directors are high in the video production chain of command. The key difference between the cinematographer and the director is which elements of the video production fall under their influence.

  • Cinematographers handle the visual aspect of filming. Indeed notes that this includes managing the video camera equipment and related gear, including audio and lighting. The cinematographer should also oversee the camera operators, making sure the technical details such as aspect ratio are being executed correctly. On small video crews, a cinematographer may use a camera themself.
  • Directors roles are more dedicated to the creative and conceptual aspects of filmmaking. Climb The Ladder points out the dual nature of a director’s job — before shooting starts, the director makes creative choices in collaboration with writers, while on set, the director is the one giving instructions and keeping the shoot moving.

While cinematographer and director are two discrete roles, the two positions do collaborate on the aspects of filmmaking that combine creativity and technical matters. This may include blocking out shots and determining the composition of frames.

The fundamental differences between the director and the cinematographer come from specialization. Namely, the cinematographer is highly focused on the  visual elements of a film at all stages of production. Indeed explains that before a shoot, a director may be in charge of scouting locations, while on set, they’ll work closely with talent to shape performance decisions. At both junctures, the cinematographer will be making decisions around the visual look and feel of the project.

As far as a professional’s preferred career path, there is ample room to explore within the world of video production. Working up to a cinematography role could be an overarching career goal, or part of a plan to move into directing roles. Alternatively, there are small-scale shoots that are best handled by a lone videographer, who can take on both directing and cinematography functions.

On a large-scale production, there is plenty of work to split between the cinematographer, the director and the rest of the crew. Exploring the big-picture and day-to-day responsibilities of cinematographers in greater depth can give further context about both the ways in which these jobs differ and the places where they complement each other.

What Does a Cinematographer Do?

Since film and video are visual art forms, the cinematographer, or director of photography, has an enormous role to play in the quality of the finished product. By taking care of both technical and artistic duties, a cinematographer can create the tone and mood of a video and directly impact the audience’s appreciation.

That focus on the visual doesn’t mean a cinematographer can ignore related elements such as audio. Creating a cohesive finished video means making all the elements work together, so the cinematographer must develop strong relationships with the crew members responsible for everything from sound and lighting to visual effects and beyond.

Duties before the shoot

In the lead-up to a film shoot, a cinematographer has plenty of responsibilities which will set the tone for the production. As Film Lifestyle explains, these professionals need to select the type of camera to employ for each shot. From gritty handheld camerawork to more traditional shots, the choice of camera determines the look and feel of the finished product.

The cinematographer is also tasked with choosing how individual shots will come together. The amount of color saturation on a particular project can determine how it looks, as can the aspect ratio and the style of framing used throughout the production.

A good cinematographer will have a vision for how the finished product will look. While they don’t set the creative direction of a project — that’s in the hands of producers and the director — the cinematographer is the one who brings it all together to give the video a cohesive and compelling style.

In today’s digitally enabled filmmaking age, there are a few other aspects of a cinematographer’s job. Climb The Ladder notes that the cinematographer is the person who chooses the technology for a given shoot. Since most videos are produced digitally rather than on film stock, the cinematographer has to pick a file format that will suit the end goals of the project.

Duties on the set

Once a shoot is underway, the cinematographer should always be communicating with the other professionals present on the set. This is an important priority because it enables a cohesive and consistent look for the project, despite the fact that there are numerous departments involved in a video production.

As Film Lifestyle notes, cinematographers must collaborate with gaffers, who are responsible for lighting. Without the correct lights, it can be impossible to execute the exact kinds of visual shots a cinematographer is trying to capture.

The cinematographer is also the person who has the final call over setting up cameras and microphones, which means they must have highly efficient working relationships with every camera operator and grip on the shoot. Indeed adds that when video cameras, microphones and other gear need testing on the set, the cinematographer is the one who is responsible for performing those checks.

In addition, if there are any notes or specifications coming from other creative departments, the cinematographer is the one who needs to keep track of them and make sure those practices are being implemented on the set. If the cinematographer does their job well, the final product will come out looking just as envisioned.

CTA career ebook scaled Cinematographer

What Does a Director Do?

The director looms large in the popular imagination. It’s easy to think of the Spielbergs of the world when picturing a director, but what does the director do in a more prosaic context, for instance on the set of a corporate video production?

In these cases, the director is the person with the final responsibility for the direction of the finished product. Being a director comes with a variety of creative decisions before the shoot begins, then people management tasks once filming begins. The success or failure of a director’s efforts will largely revolve around that individual’s working relationships with a number of other important members of the crew, prominently including the cinematographer.

Duties before the shoot

A director is a leader of people first and foremost. As Film Lifestyle points out, directors are the ones who bring in the rest of the crew and the talent, determining the direction for the project.

Directors are the individuals who can have the biggest personal impact on a video, because they use their creative sensibilities when choosing who to work with and what methods to use for filming.

For complex, scripted projects that require rehearsals and intensive preparation, directors are in charge of these processes. Whether a video shoot is managed in a loose, naturalistic way or overseen down to the last detail — these are some of the choices that directors make, and they set the tone for the whole shoot to follow.

A director has to work with people in all other departments — the production designer who has prepared the set or location, the technical crew members who will execute essential roles on the set, each executive producer or other producer who has had a hand in arranging the production, the talent who will appear on camera. These connections must all be solid to prevent the shoot from getting out of control.

Duties on the set

Once the shooting days begin, the director is the person who keeps everything in line. Climb The Ladder notes that the production schedule is in the director’s hands. Making sure the shot list is completed on time, or individual shots are rescheduled if something unexpected occurs, is a director’s responsibility.

The popular image of a director is as the person saying “action,” “cut” and “that’s a wrap.” They are the ones with the final say about when a shot is completed, and whether another take is necessary.

Once footage has been captured on a soundstage or on location, a director’s work is not over. The director collaborates with the editor to turn the collection of shots into a cohesive finished product, and in many cases the final cut is in their hands.

A video emerges from production bearing the creative fingerprints of its director. By choosing who to work with, taking command of the set and working with the editors, the director has shepherded that production from start to finish, and will take the praise or blame depending on its quality.

What Are the Career Prospects for Cinematographers and Directors?

Since the types of film shoots offered by different production companies vary so widely, it can be difficult to give a clear picture of what cinematographers and directors can expect to earn. One thing is clear — there is no one place to work as a film professional, because especially when dealing with the corporate video space, there are companies based around the world seeking to make high-quality videos near them.

As for salary and career prospects, Indeed explains that the median wage for cinematographers in the U.S. is $61,900, as contrasted with $76,400 for directors. With that said, the actual figures can vary widely from these medians due to the vast variety of production sizes, durations and types.

As for job prospects, the need for directors is projected to rise 10% over 10 years, with openings for cinematographers and visual crew roles rising by 18%. Businesses are realizing that they need high-quality video content to compete with their increasingly ambitious rivals, and this is leading to ever-growing demand.

How Can Video Professionals Get on Cinematographer and Director Paths?

There is no one set path to become a high-ranking member of a video production crew. Many professionals come up through film school and have a formal education in the language of film. Others get started by transferring from other creative departments into video — this move may be especially popular at organizations that make their own videos in-house.

One positive factor for anyone considering a career path in video is the existence of industry-specific organizations that help professionals network. Personal connections can prove essential in learning about possible job openings and opportunities to take on new and exciting roles in the video space.

Industry gatherings and roundtables are also useful parts of the learning and professional development process. Crews Control offers two kinds of roundtable events. At our executive roundtables, leaders in the film production space discuss the next steps for the industry as a whole, while at our media and communications career roundtables help newcomers meet one another, gather insights and advance their job searches.

For more on careers in the video space, download our ebook.

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