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Camera Operator Job Description, Career as a Camera Operator, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Median—$37,610 per

Employment Outlook: Varies—see profile

Definition and Nature of the Work

Camera operators film motion pictures, videos, television shows, and commercials. They are needed for documentary, industrial, educational, and feature productions.

Camera operators who work on major feature films usually work with a crew. The director of photography, or cinematographer, heads the crew and is in charge of photography. Camera operators do the actual shooting according to the cinematographer's instructions. Assistant camera operators thread the camera and set the focus. They also clean the camera, handle the "clapboard," load film magazines, and fill out camera report sheets. There may also be a still photographer on hand to take promotional pictures. Other assistants called "grips" move cameras and other camera equipment such as dollies, which are mobile camera platforms.

Not all camera operators work with big crews on expensive productions. Many work on small-budget industrial, educational, and documentary films. In making these films the camera operator may be in charge of all shooting, lighting, and, in some cases, directing.

Camera operators who work for television stations do work that is similar to that of motion picture camera operators, but television camera operators run video cameras. Television shows are often taped live in a single take, and they are not as heavily edited as films are. Instead, a process similar to editing goes on during the taping session itself. Communicating through headsets, the director "cues," or gives instructions to the camera operators, during a taping session so that the tape comes out right without editing.

Television camera operators work steadily, unlike motion picture operators who must find a new job after each production is finished. (© Stock4B/Corbis.)

Camera operators usually specialize in either motion picture or television work. Few work in both fields.

Education and Training Requirements

Ability and experience are more important than a degree in this field. Camera operators must have a thorough knowledge of photography, cameras, lenses, and lighting. Training in film and television production is available through vocational school or college courses or through an apprenticeship. Film schools also provide classes on the artistic side of making motion pictures.

Getting the Job

The first step to becoming a motion picture camera operator is to get a job as an assistant. Jobs as assistants are most easily found through direct contact with film producers or studios. Many of these are located in New York or Los Angeles; however, film work is done in many areas of the country. Motion picture producers and studios are listed in the classified sections of telephone directories.

Gaining hands-on experience by working with motion picture cameras is also helpful. Some people learn the basics about equipment by working for camera rental firms.

Assistants and camera operators working on big productions must belong to a union. Experience with nonunion filmmakers often helps beginners land higher-paying union jobs.

Individuals interested in becoming television camera operators can contact television stations directly. Candidates for this job usually start with positions at small television stations.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Usually, several years of actual work behind the camera is necessary before a motion picture camera operator can become a cinematographer. But more than mere technical experience is needed to advance. Cinematography is an art. A cinematographer must be able to interpret on film the vision of a director.

Experienced television camera operators can get jobs at large stations where the work is more challenging. They can also advance to jobs in the programming department of their stations or eventually become producers and directors. Some become instructors at technical schools or universities.

Employment is expected to grow as fast as the average through the year 2014. The job outlook in film work was more promising than in television as of 2004. Growth in the field of television camera operators has been affected somewhat by the use of automated cameras, such as robocams and Parkervision systems. The need for camera operators will grow, though, for individuals interested in filming interactive and live events broadcast as streaming video over the Internet.

Working Conditions

Motion picture camera operators work in the studio and on location in many different settings, from rain forests to deserts. For big productions, camera operators work in mobile dollies and cranes much of the time. They also shoot from cars, helicopters, and even under water. Most of the physical work is done by the grips. However, operating some cameras, especially the hand-held types, can be strenuous.

Like other workers in filmmaking, motion picture camera operators must find another job after each production is finished. Many job offers may come at once or none may come at all, so there may be months of unemployment. Job uncertainty is part of this business. On the other hand, television camera operators work steadily at a television station. They generally work forty hours per week and receive extra pay for overtime.

Earnings and Benefits

In general, union wages are higher than nonunion wages for motion picture camera operators and assistants. The median annual earnings for camera operators who work full time is $37,610. Some experienced camera operators can earn up to $76,100 per year. Benefits for union members include overtime pay, paid vacations, and retirement plans.

Where to Go for More Information

American Society of Cinematographers
1782 N. Orange Dr.
Hollywood, CA 90028
(800) 448-0145

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada
1430 Broadway, 20th Fl.
New York, NY 10018
(212) 730-1770

National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians
501 Third St. NW, Ste. 880
Washington, DC 20001-2797
(202) 434-1254

Earnings for television camera operators vary, depending on where they work. Those who work at large stations in big cities make much more money than those who work at small stations with few viewers. Also, camera operators who work at stations that carry advertising earn more than those at educational or other publicly funded stations. Most camera operators receive paid vacations.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts