How to get started as a freelance camera operator

All staffers, at all levels, look at their position from time to time and say I'm not being paid enough, I'm working too many hours, I don't see my girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/children, I'm not having a life - I want to become freelance and make my time my own.

Having been a freelance Camera operator for over ten years I have heard this many times and my advice is always the same.

I became freelance because my first employer, as Camera Operator, insisted on it and I've been playing catch-up ever since. I learnt the hard way, I became a freelance Camera Operator before I knew enough employers in the industry that would have been happy to employ me. Consequently, it's been a struggle. Ten years on I can say I have finally reached a place where I'm known by enough employers at being good at what I do. I have a cv with plenty of decent credits on for an employer to take me seriously, but even now I know that can and invariably does change every now and again. The phone stops ringing and you don't know why - it's often for no other reason than everyone that you know is quiet at the same time.

So when a staffer asks me whether they should become freelance my response is - "Who will employ you?" If you cannot name about 10-15 names (not companies but individuals from different companies) that know you and you are confident that they will employ you regularly, then the cold harsh truth is you are not ready to be freelance.

Also, if you want to become freelance because you do not see your family then becoming freelance is not the answer - it will only make it worse as there's a lot more work for a freelancer to do than operate cameras, such as looking for your next job, invoices, sorting out your tax, etc. and you don't get paid for those jobs. If you want to have a life then change career. You've heard that said many times before I'm sure but the bottom line is you will work long hours, sleep in sterile hotel rooms more than your own and stress about work probably more as a freelancer than a staffer.

The ideal route, that I wish someone had pointed out to me when I started out, is to join a production company as an anything (runner, cam assist, focus puller), work hard and work your way up to operating cameras. Stay with that company for about 5+ years by which time, if you are lucky and any good, you should have worked with enough people that now know how good you are and would be comfortable employing you direct.

Before completely ending ties with your staff job, ring your contacts and try to get some freelance work alongside your staff job (even if it means using your holiday entitlement to free up your time). Ask your contacts, would you employ me on a freelance basis for any work you have coming up? Try and get them to commit to something, any job no matter how small.

Once you have done a few freelance jobs and your staff job is now getting in the way of freelance jobs and you can answer the question - who is going to employ you - you can give up the staff job and you've made the switch.

In short, if you are asking how do I become a freelance Camera Operator, the answer is you're not ready and shouldn't put yourself through it because it's not the answer.