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The director of photography (commonly called the cinematographer or "DP") serves as the director's eyes. They work with the director to set up the shots according to the director's vision. The difference between a director of photography and a camera operator is that the DP rarely operates the camera when it comes to filming because they supervise a team of camera operators who do all the filming.
The immediate duties of the director of photography include coordinating with the director on whether to shoot in film or digitally, how to compose the shot, how to light the scene, which lenses to use to manipulate images and camera placement. Sometimes the DP will operate the camera, but most do not. This is where the camera operator comes into play.
The director of photography relies on the camera operator to film the shots the DP and director set up. Camera operators should be more than familiar with the camera equipment used during production to best meet the vision of the DP and director. The camera operator takes instructions from both the director and DP and relays them to the camera crew, creating a plan of execution that uses technical skill and style to get the shot needed.
Qualifications and Skills
Aspiring DPs usually attend film school or major in a field related to film. From there they might find work as an apprentice with a camera crew where they learn the duties of an assistant camera operator and work with the lighting department. The skills of a cinematographer are honed by shooting films and improving technical expertise, from focal lengths to lighting setups.
Camera operators also usually attend film school or receive a degree related to film. They also have technical expertise of film or digital cameras and computer programs for editing. Camera operators typically start out as production assistants for the camera department of a studio where they receive on-the-job training needed to become camera assistants and eventually camera operators.