Director vs cinematographer (duties and differences)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 16 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A film is the culmination of the vision of many different people's contributions. Each individual in a filmmaking project adds their own individual nuances and vision to the film, resulting in the final pictures you see on screen. Understanding the roles of director and cinematographer can help you decide which career path is right for you. In this article, we define director vs cinematographer and discuss the main differences between the roles.

Director vs cinematographer

Knowing how to distinguish between director vs cinematographer is a key part of understanding the filmmaking process. An in-depth rundown of each role is available below:

What is a director?

A director manages the creative aspects of a film, television show or commercial. This creative control includes adjusting the script of the work, directing the actors to express a particular emotion at a certain point in the scene and advising on the setting of the film or scene. The primary responsibilities of directors include the following:

  • providing actors with notes regarding their line delivery and expressions.

  • considering and implementing edits to the script to improve the delivery of the film

  • supporting the editor in cutting the film, providing creative insight into a technical process

  • directing camera crews on where to shoot certain scenes and parts of the scene to capture

What is a cinematographer?

A cinematographer is responsible for the aesthetic of the film, in contrast to the director's responsibility for the creative aspects of the work. This means deciding on the lighting for certain scenes, the lens and camera the production uses and consulting with the director on the ideal shot for a certain scene. Some responsibilities cinematographers have include:

  • visualising shots in a scene and ensuring the shot looks good on screen

  • testing experimental shots and using new techniques for filming complicated scenes

  • working closely with the visual effects department to create the right look for each shot

  • discussing the look and feel of the film with the overall director, lighting team and occasionally actors

Differences between director and cinematographer

There are several factors that differentiate the director and the cinematographer, including the following:

Level of focus

One of the key aspects separating the work of a director and the work of a cinematographer is the level of focus the two roles have. A cinematographer has a significantly greater degree of focus in their day-to-day work. This is because a cinematographer is responsible for one aspect of the overall film, which is the way the film looks on screen and the way the film conveys the visuals of the scene to an audience. As such, cinematographers focus on the in-camera nature of the film production process.

Directors have a far wider field of view in the film production process. This is because the director has the overall responsibility for the creation of the film, including guiding the actors on the way they complete their work, working closely with the cinematographer in creating a cohesive look and feel for the film and supporting editors in cutting the film together. This disparate range of responsibilities means that directors have little focus on one area of their work. This varies depending on the director's style, as different directors have different styles and focus their efforts on different areas.

Related: 8 film shot types for beginner filmmakers to explore

Previous experience

Working as a cinematographer is a very precise and almost scientific aspect of the filmmaking process. This is because the way light interacts with lenses and different cameras has a significant impact on the final look of the film. Cinematographers have experience that includes specifically studying cinematography and spending time working as a cinematographer rather than in other roles. As one of the most specialised positions in the filmmaking process, holding experience in cinematography alone is beneficial for both new and experienced cinematographers.

Directors have wider skill sets as it benefits them to understand many different moving parts in the filmmaking process. As directors work with different members across the filmmaking process and have the responsibility of working with all of the departments, experience comes from a range of different places. This means that working as an editor, cinematographer, actor or even an audio assistant is beneficial for developing a directing career. In such a broad role as a director, all experience is beneficial for growing an understanding of the filmmaking process.

Compensation

The salary and compensation package of a director varies significantly depending on the nature of their work. The majority of directors receive their pay on a project by project basis, working freelance and receiving a specific fee for the work they complete. One of the biggest factors affecting director pay is the nature and scale of the project, so creating a car advert pays less than working on a feature film. Establishing the average compensation for a film director is difficult due to the variance in the role.

Working as a cinematographer has a higher likelihood of being a salaried role, with the national average salary of a cinematographer being £26,898 per year. More cinematographers work in salaried roles as this is less of a freelance position, with production companies hiring cinematographers on a permanent basis to work alongside the freelance directors the company hires. This means that cinematographers have a greater degree of job security, whereas directors have more earning potential. In the case of prominent cinematographers, freelance work is an option.

Related: 17 film industry jobs (with duties and salary information)

Employment choices

Depending on the nature of the role, directors have a significant degree of control over the employees they use on a project. This is because every position in the film production process has an effect on the overall outcomes of the work. For example, editors have different styles depending on their own personal tastes in film. Directors choose the team so the final product is cohesive and follows their vision for the film, rather than having different styles clashing with one another throughout.

A cinematographer also has some degree of control over employment, choosing their camera and light crew. This is a common occurrence, as cinematographers have lighting and camera operators they work with consistently due to their styles working ideally in tandem with one another. This means that the cinematographer's work is consistent across a range of projects and there's minimal training and learning on the job for their team. A director may overrule a cinematographer's employment decisions in order to establish a more cohesive style throughout the project.

Related: A step-by-step guide on how to get into the film industry

Working with producers

Producers are the people funding the film and assisting in the organisation process. Directors have consistent meetings with the producers, updating them on the progress of the project and receiving support and advice regarding the brand's preferences in terms of image and filmmaking. This is an ongoing process, with the director functioning as the main conduit through which the producers convey their image for the project and guide the final product in the direction they prefer.

Contrary to the director's conversations with the producers, the cinematographer has little to no contact with the producers. In some instances, the producers use an all-employee meeting as a means of conveying the vision of the project. Most of the time, a cinematographer's primary means of talking to the producers is via the director. This occurs in instances such as the cinematography department requiring adjustments to the budget and acquiring more equipment that increases the quality of the final product.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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