The Difference: Videography vs Cinematography

Many have asked: what’s the difference between a videographer and a cinematographer? Distinguishing between these two terms has many buyers understandably confused and frustrated. There’s a discrepancy between the actual definitions of the terms and how they’re being re-defined in the marketing of video companies and freelancers. The unfortunate truth for customers is that, depending on how each company / freelancer uses the terms, there may or may not be a difference. So we’re going to outline exactly what defines a videographer and a cinematographer and what it should mean to you as a buyer of videography services.

To be a cinematographer is to be part of a large crew

A cinematographer, also referred to as the director of photography (or DP), is the individual in charge of the camera and lighting crews on a movie or other production. It is the responsibility of the cinematographer to realize the vision of the director by making technical and artistic decisions in regards to lens choice, exposure, lighting, composition, filters, camera movement, color-grading and more. To put it simply, the cinematographer is the person accountable for a film’s cinematography, the art and science of motion picture photography. Every decision the cinematographer makes must also service the director and the story. On a large production, it is unlikely that the cinematographer operate the camera. That’s usually the job of the camera operator, who works under the cinematographer.

Historically, cinema meant film and video meant video

The term “videographer” came into common vernacular as a way to describe an individual who works in videography or video production, as opposed to film production. This means that a cinematographer works with film stock and a videographer works with video. However, the line that distinguishes videography from cinematography has blurred with the advent of digital cinema. Since many (possibly most) major motion picture cinematographers have made the transition to digital cameras, does that make them videographers? Not exactly.

A videographer is a camera operator on a small crew or working solo

Drawing a line between film production and video production isn’t the best way to distinguish between cinematographers and a videographers. What typically distinguishes videographers from cinematographers is that videographers operate with much smaller crew sizes, often working solo. Unlike a cinematographer, a videographer operates the camera. Commonly, the term videographer is akin with cameraman or camera operator. Videographers are often associated with event videography, live TV, small commercials, corporate videos and weddings. Since videographers often work solo, they commonly handle other elements of production, including editing, sound, lighting and more.

As stated above, a cinematographer works with a large crew, and is responsible for artistic and technical decisions regarding the photography of a motion picture in accordance with a director’s vision. A videographer, by contrast, works with a much smaller level of production, is usually the camera operator and probably works solo; overseeing a project from start to finish.

Why are videographers calling themselves cinematographers?

If the distinction between cinematographers and videographers is fairly clear, why all the confusion? Since the defining lines have blurred with the advent of digital cinema, videographers have taken the opportunity to either use these titles interchangeably or create a false hierarchy. Another major contributor has been the popularity of DSLR video cameras, which create a more film-like, cinematic image. This, in combination with the public’s perception of videographers, have led many companies and freelancers to differentiate by categorizing themselves as cinematographers rather than videographers.

Wedding videographers have gotten a bad rep over the years

One of the primary reasons videographers like to call themselves cinematographers is simply so they don’t have to call themselves videographers. For good or bad, videography and videographer have been synonymous with wedding videography. And let’s face it, weddings are a huge (currently $40 billion a year) industry, which means there are bound to be lot of wedding videographers out there. And unfortunately, the stereotypical “wedding videographer”, wearing a cheap tuxedo and standing next to a big, bulky camcorder, is what comes to mind when people hear the word videographer. Worst yet, the association has validity, since many videographers still operate this way. So, in order to strip themselves from this negative connotation, it has become a trend for videographers to call themselves cinematographers.

Cinematographer really just means DSLR vs. camcorder

Now that DSLR video cameras are the standard for many videographers, cinematography and cinematographer have become the go-to buzzwords for marketing DSLR upgrades to their customer-base. Due to their large sensor-sizes, DSLRs can achieve shallower depth of field than digital camcorders in their price range. In layman’s terms, this means video captured from a DSLR looks more cinematic. Although DSLRs have many limitations, such a big difference in aesthetics has created a lot of excitement for videographers, resulting in many videographers making a complete transition from camcorder outfits to DSLR outfits.

Consumers are catching on as well. Though normally uneducated in camera tech, the huge difference in aesthetics is leaving customers wondering why some videos look like movies and others don’t. This confusion forces videographers to differentiate their DLSR work from their camcorder work, which lead to associating videography with camcorders and cinematography with DSLRs.

Wedding “cinematographers” try to mimic Hollywood

In addition to the use of DSLR, a cinematographer (in the way the term is currently being used in the wedding industry) also creates a specific product offering. Due to the recording limitations of most DSLR cameras, continuous recording isn’t possible. So most DSLR-equipped videographers are forced to offer multiple cameras and highly-edited products. Rather than event coverage, cinematographers opt for narrative-style or documentary-style “short films” or “story videos”. Whether or not these products are best for weddings remains to be seen. These short films or highlight videos tend to show very little of the actual event (about 10-15 minutes at most) and are edited Hollywood-style, with a speech or separate recording acting as narration for a flashy story. These video products often take several weeks or several months to edit, and it’s rare that the customer receives their raw footage.

A cinematographer is NOT better than a videographer

Professionals differentiating themselves by use of DSLR videography are aiming to create a false hierarchy between a videographer and a cinematographer. As just explained, when a video professional defines themselves as a cinematographer or their work as cinematography, it more-than-likely means they’re using a DSLR, nothing more. They’ll tell you that a cinematographer creates art, while a videographer simply records an event. They’ll tell you that a cinematographer captures a feeling, not just a moment; or that videography isn’t creative and doesn’t involve storytelling technique. This is all nonsense.

A videographer is just as focused on all the qualities that make compelling video. Having a camcorder vs. a DLSR doesn’t make one a lesser professional. Sure, DSLRs have made way for more cinematic imagery, but the qualities that make a great videographer have little to do with equipment. When shopping for video professionals, don’t let cinematography weigh heavily on your decision. More than anything else, cinematography simply a marketing term.