Camera operator jobs: What do they do? What do they get paid? How do I become one?
Camera operators play a vital role in filming TV, film and online productions and are in charge of – as you might have guessed – cameras.
But what do camera operators do? What makes a camera operator stand out? How do you become a camera operator? What do camera operators get paid?
Read our Mandy News guide to find out!
What do camera operators do? And who do camera operators work with?
Camera operators are responsible for operating a variety of technical equipment including mobile mounts and digital, electronic and film cameras. They work with the film’s director and director of photography to achieve the desired visual style of the production. Camera operators work in close collaboration with the camera department as well as occasionally engaging in dialogue with the actors.
Members of the camera department traditionally include the director of photography, the 1st AC, 2nd AC and the camera production assistant.
The director of photography (or DP) calls the shots and manages the camera department. They work with the director and instruct the camera operator how they would like a shot to look or move or be in focus.
The 1st AC (also known as the first assistant or focus puller), is responsible for the maintenance and care of the cameras. They prepare the equipment, build the camera, focus pull and, if necessary, swap lenses.
The 2nd AC works with the 1st AC and tapes down camera marks for the actors. They also update a report that keeps track of the camera settings if pick-up shots are needed later on.
The camera production assistant (also known as the runner), is an entry level position that helps the team with anything they need from getting refreshments to delivering messages.
The director and director of photography instruct the camera operator how they want shots composed. The camera operator then carries out the guidance and takes all of the different environmental elements into account. While operating, they constantly scrutinise lighting, movement and the elements because these factors can alter a shot.
Camera operators carefully prepare the film equipment required to shoot a scene. It is their responsibility to make last minute changes if any are required.
Camera operators see the scene directly through the camera's viewfinder or LCD screen, along with the director of photography and director – who view the scene through monitors. Often the camera operator will focus on ensuring the camera captures the action with the settings agreed upon with the director and DP – but when a camera operator spots discrepancies, it is important they quickly communicate their needs to the rest of the team so production is not stalled and/or footage that won't be used is not recorded.
When do camera operators start work?
Camera operators start working near the end of pre-production. While they sometimes have a hand in planning and preparing scenes, they are mostly responsible for making adjustments to the camera based on the elements affecting the shot after the director and DP block the scene.
Throughout production, camera operators consult with the other heads of department – such as sound and production design – about camera placement. It is their job to creatively frame and capture the action. They must be ready to respond quickly to directions and offer their own feedback.
Types of camera operators
There are a variety of camera operators who work across the world in countless capacities. Some capture music videos, others risk their lives in war-torn areas, some shoot sports and others work on movie sets.
The three primary types are studio camera operators, news operators and movie camera operators.
Studio camera operators work in a controlled studio and film from the same set position, with occasional movement. Think of a talk show or a news broadcast. They usually follow a script and have time to practice in rehearsal. Studio camera operators work closely with the director and show producer and constantly follow the cues they are given.
For fiction films and TV shows, which are often larger productions, a camera operator will often have a team of assistants working with them.
News camera operators work wherever the news story is. News camera operators will sometimes work in dangerous environments in order to cover developing events, sometimes putting their life on the line.
Can I be a camera operator?
Camera operator certainly do a lot more than push buttons and it takes a lot of determination and resilience to become one. The job is physically demanding and usually takes place far from home, sometimes for weeks or months on end.
They work long, arduous hours in stressful, sometimes extreme, environments. Breaks are few and far between, and deadlines often tight.
Camera operators need to have a certain amount of patience, stamina, technical ability and communication skills if they want to succeed in the industry. Being able to understand directions and respond clearly at the end of a long day after carrying bulky equipment around is essential.
The good news is that if someone is passionate about the job, working as a camera operator can be deeply rewarding because they have an opportunity to work with brilliant people and see sights around the world (depending on the specifics of their job).
Key skills a good camera operator needs are patience, excellent hand-eye coordination, an eye for detail, expert camera operation skills, a good sense of visual composition, physical fitness and a strong sense of diplomacy when working with others. Camera operators should also have good technical knowledge about current and upcoming equipment specific to the area they want work – or want to work – in.
There isn’t one set way to becoming a professional camera operator. High-level qualifications might make a job search easier, but there are no specific eligibility requirements to gain camera operator jobs.
Useful degrees include media production, media studies, the performing arts, photography, film, or television.
The most important qualities a camera operator will be judged on are technical skill and a strong work portfolio. Confidence is best developed through practice by working professionals. Natural talent in artistically framed shots is helpful, but not a requirement – there are many ways to shoot something and many different production requirements.
Most camera operators work their way up from the bottom. It is not unusual to start out as a runner before moving on to camera assisting. Working your way up the job ladder can take several years, but don’t get discouraged. Most professionals don’t inherit success, they work for it.
How to become a camera operator
Getting a job as a camera operator can be difficult because the competition is fierce. There is a lot of talent and only so many positions available. The best way to get a job is to pile up a portfolio, make connections and be content starting at the bottom.
The path to becoming a camera operator will likely begin at runner level, eventually moving forward to 2nd and 1st AC in the cases of film. Regardless of your starting point, it is important to continuously build upon your knowledge and increase your technical skills.
When looking for camera operator jobs, it is a good idea to also approach companies directly because not all vacancies are listed online.
Good places to start are smaller production companies and videography houses. Large entities like the BBC, ITV and well known cable and satellite companies are all great places to work, but extremely competitive, especially when a camera operator is just starting out. 4Talent, BBC Work Experience ITV Insight offer training courses that aspiring camera operators might find useful.
Networking, interning and job shadowing are all great ways to increase chances for future job opportunities. Building up contacts, developing relationships with directors of photography, marketing yourself and learning how to operate new technology are also essential ways to advance your career.
Moving to a major city where employers live may also increase your chances of being hired. London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Sydney, New York and Los Angeles are all good places for an aspiring camera operator to live, although if news is your area of interest many towns and districts have local news channels that you may want to contact for work.
How much do camera operators make?
The average annual salary for a camera operator in the United Kingdom, according to payscale.com, is £30,000 ($39,676).
However, according to salary.com, the median salary for a camera operator working in the television and motion picture business, in the US, is $79,497 (£60,116) as of 2018.
It is important to note, though, that camera operators often work in a freelance capacity where the pay can vary greatly.