The terms Camera Operator and Cameraman sound like they can be interchangeable, but not necessarily. It sort of depends where you are working.
I don’t mean to be too casual, but it really is “sort of.” In order to understand the difference, a good place to start is to distinguish the difference between videography and cinematography, or the difference between video production and filmmaking.
Cinematography is the art of filming a movie. It is well planned and stylized, while videography is more the art of capturing images for a video such as a news program, live event, or internet content.
In videography or video production, the crew is generally smaller and can even be a one-person show. In film, a DP (Director of Photography, also known as the Cinematographer) works with a Camera Operator and a large team to capture images for a film under the guidance of the Director.
Read on to discover the difference between:
- Cameraman Job Description
- How to Become a Cameraman
- Cinematographer/Director of Photography Job Description
- How to Become a Cinematographer
- Camera Operator Job Description
- How to Become a Camera Operator
A Cameraman – or I’d like to say, Cameraperson — is a term you hear more often in the videography world and a Camera Operator is a term you hear on a film or TV set. But to confuse you more, the Cameraman can be called a Camera Operator, but a Camera Operator on a film set has a specific meaning. It’s kind of like a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t a square.
If the camera is a your favorite toy and you want to make a career of using one, it’s important to know which line of work floats your boat, so you can set proper goals. Understanding more about these terms will help you understand where you fit in.
The biggest difference between a Cameraman in video production and a Camera Operator on a film set is that a Cameraman in videography is focused on the capturing the content, very often on the fly and the shots he gets are seen through his eye.
Think about a website that has video content (not major branding or commercials – these operate more like film sets). Let’s say it’s your local Dentist office. They have a video that introduces you to the facilities and staff, and gives you the lowdown on procedures. It’s got simple lighting, good sound and is edited together documentary-style. This requires a small crew. It can be anywhere from one Cameraman to a handful of people.
Now let’s take the nightly news. In this case, the set is lit consistently and there are multiple cameras pointing on the subjects. The person behind each camera is covering a different angle and a Producer is choosing which camera is live. The same goes when they are at the scene of the news story where a Field Producer has a shot list and tells the Cameraman what to get.
But a Cameraman will often weigh in on the shot list and sometimes is left to his own devices to find material to shoot. The most important thing is that the Cameraman decides how to shoot it. A documentary is another field where you will hear the term Cameraman, although big budget, cinematic films will have a DP (more on this later).
In all of the above examples, it is important to note that a Cameraman must think on their feet because he or she is capturing things as they happen. If something important happens, he or she better capture it. In all of these cases, the term is interchangeable.
If you are interested in doing this kind of work, the best thing to do is get your hands on a camera and learn how to use it. It doesn’t need to be a fancy camera to learn the fundamentals. Film departments, whether at a large film school or a community college, are a great place to learn because you get access to cameras that you can use to practice.
If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, once you understand the ins and outs of a camera and feel you have a good eye, you can offer up your services to small businesses to establish a portfolio of work. Once you get good enough, you can charge them. It sounds easy, but this route takes a lot of discipline and you have to have a sales personality to pull it off.
If this isn’t for you, find a local TV station or a video production company and bug them (politely and enthusiastically) until they let you grab coffee for them. Then, once you’re in, work your way to the Camera Department.
If you can get a position as a Camera Assistant, you will learn so much through observation — everything from how to deal with clients or Producers to how to properly care for the equipment and move quickly and efficiently.
A Cinematographer — also known as a Director of Photography or DP — has a different job altogether. A DP works with a team to bring a script to life cinematically. If you can’t wrap your head around the word “cinematic,” watch a news program then watch a movie. How does the camera work differ?
Where a Cameraman is largely out to capture moments on video to tell a story, the DP tells a story through images. A DP collaborates with the Director to establish the look and feel of the film and figures out how to get that look with the camera, lights or other tricks of the trade. In general, a DP prepares much more than a Cameraman and has a whole team with loads of equipment to help her do her job.
If you want to become a Cinematographer, you need to watch a ton of movies. Notice the difference between the looks of the films you are watching. Then watch films without any sound. See what you pick up from the visuals. Once you start to see the differences, then you can start to ask the “why” and “how” questions.
There is a lot to learn to become a Cinematographer, so you need to put yourself in the position to learn those things. There are schools and workshops that can kickstart your learning and many successful Cinematographers come out of a school environment.
Perhaps it’s due to the need to play with fancy equipment. As a DP you will not only need to get your hands on a camera, you will also have to learn how to play with light and the toys that manipulate light. Sure you can watch YouTube, but you need practical experience.
Another place to make connections is through a camera rental house. You can get a job with them or you can build a relationship by asking them about all their cameras. It works! Just don’t catch them when they are busy. If you are constantly growing and learning, and you are professional, the camera houses are wise to support you – you are a potential future client. Just don’t wear out your welcome.
Another goal could be to get in the Camera Department on a film crew. If you get in as a general PA, eventually you will find your way to the department you want. Use these opportunities to build relationships, but never disturb people when they are working.
The Camera Operator on a film set works under the DP. A DP can operate the camera, but many don’t, so the Camera Operator on a film is the person who, without getting technical here, operates the camera for the DP.
They are the ones behind the camera getting the shots the DP and Director want. In some ways, the Camera Operator is the physical extension of the DP, because when there is no Camera Operator, it is the DP who hoists the camera on her shoulder.
Another position to note in the Camera Department of a film crew is the 1st Assistant Camera (1st AC), also known as the Focus Puller. Their job is to keep everything sharp and in focus as the camera moves about.
It is an incredibly demanding job because if the image goes soft, it is unusable. A Focus Puller also runs the Camera Department and is in charge of all the equipment. They also move the camera from one setup to another (unless the camera is on a dolly, in which this is the responsibility of the Dolly Grip).
Follow all of the career tips above! These jobs require technical savvy as well as a creative eye. If you want to make your way onto a film set, understand that you have to start somewhere. Don’t be too cool to grab lunch for someone before you make it to the Camera Department.
The major differences between a Cameraman and Camera Operator is that a Cameraman generally is someone who captures moments on the fly and a Camera Operator usually gets the chance to rehearse and has the opportunity to see what she will capture before she presses record.
Each position requires both creative and technical skills. Though the jobs are similar and in many ways have the same starting point, career-wise — that is picking up a camera and mastering it, the career paths are different.
If you are interested in videography, you can work your way into a position pretty easily once you have mastered the craft. Getting on a film set is a bit more challenging because it is a well-oiled machine and you need to get your foot in the door before you can practice your skills.