A television camera operator works with digital, electronic and film cameras and produces required shots by combining the use of complex technology with creative visual skills.
They usually work under a director or director of photography and may be supported by a camera assistant.
A camera operator may specialise in working in any or all of the following areas:
- Studio - where the camera operator usually follows a camera script, which gives the order of shots. This is practised at rehearsal and is cued by the director during recording. The skill lies in interpreting what the director wants and acting quickly and effectively to achieve it;
- Outside broadcast (OB) - working as part of a team of camera operators filming live events, such as sporting and ceremonial occasions and music performances;
- On location - where there is likely to be more opportunity for creativity through suggesting shots to the director.
Work activities vary greatly depending on the type of programme, for example studio or outside broadcast programmes, television dramas, commercials, documentaries or news, and whether the camera operator is using one of several cameras, or a portable single camera (PSB).
Generally tasks can include:
- assembling, preparing and setting up equipment prior to filming, which may include tripods, monitors, lighting, cables and leads and headphones;
- offering advice on how best to shoot a scene and explaining the visual impact created by particular shots;
- planning shots for example when filming an expensive drama scene, such as an explosion, there may be only one chance to get things right, so shots need to be meticulously planned beforehand;
- practising the camera moves required for pre-arranged shots;
- studying scripts;
- finding solutions to technical or other practical problems (for an outside broadcast, for example, the natural light conditions need to be taken into account when setting up shots);
- being prepared to innovate and experiment with ideas;
- working quickly, especially as timing is such an important factor;
- taking sole responsibility in situations where only one camera operator is involved in the filming;
- keeping up to date with filming methods and equipment;
- repairing and maintaining equipment;
- demonstrating a good awareness of health and safety issues;
- driving crew, actors and equipment to and from locations.
Part of the role involves interacting and maintaining good working relationships with other members of the crew and cast, including the:
- sound recordists;
- lighting technicians;
- Camera operators often work on a freelance basis and rates of pay vary according to the type of production.
- The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) recommends that the standard day rate for a camera operator on a low budget production is £371. This is for a ten-hour day during social hours.
- On high budget features of over £40million, the recommended day rate is £620.
- At other levels of work, such as outside broadcasts and news items, day rates range from £254 to £319.
Extra payments can be charged for overtime and unsocial hours. Full information on the different freelance rates is available from Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU). It may be possible to negotiate rates of pay based on your previous experience, as well as the type of production.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are generally unpredictable and long (ten to 14 hours a day) and can include evening, weekend and night shoots.
What to expect
- Outside broadcasts involve work in all weather conditions.
- Job availability can be unpredictable, particularly at the start of a career when a network of industry contacts is still being established.
- Women are currently underrepresented in camera departments. Support for women in the creative media industry is provided by the organisation Women in Film and Television UK (WFTV).
- Work tends to be concentrated in areas with major studios such as Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Manchester.
- Dedication, patience and stamina are needed. The work can be physically demanding as you have to stand for long periods of time and carry heavy equipment.
- Working to tight deadlines may be stressful and long waits between shots and repeating takes until the recording is perfect may also be frustrating.
Technical skills and appropriate experience are far more important than formal qualifications. Industry experience is key and it is likely that you will need to start your career as a camera assistant, working your way up to camera operator over several years.
While a degree or HND is not required to become a camera operator, a qualification in one of the following subjects may provide a useful background:
- media production;
- media studies;
- performing arts;
- photography, film or television.
Other relevant subjects include lighting, optics and cinematography. You can search for approved courses in television production at Creative Skillset Courses Directory.
At entry level, employers look for candidates with a well-developed interest in photography, along with related experience. This includes film stills, a collection of photographs, a showreel of work or amateur films and videos, which demonstrate a passion for television and camerawork.
You need to show evidence of:
- sound theoretical, practical and technical knowledge of cameras;
- the ability to frame and compose shots;
- the ability to perform camera moves accurately;
- interpersonal and communication skills;
- the capacity to multi-task and take direction from others;
- teamworking skills and the ability to lead and motivate others;
- tact and diplomacy;
- the ability to work under pressure and to deadlines;
- flexibility, creativity and patience;
- attention to detail.
Excellent hand-eye coordination and good hearing and colour vision are also vital. Physical stamina is required for working long hours and carrying heavy equipment around. Additional useful skills include a driving licence and competence in IT.
Many freelance operators own their equipment and so they need to be able to carry out maintenance and basic emergency repairs. Knowledge of safe working practices, with regard to electricity and lights, is essential.
For work experience, contact production companies and facility houses and investigate structured schemes such as:
Work shadowing can provide useful experience and can help develop contacts in the industry. Working as a runner can be a useful entry point, but it is vital to have a career plan and to keep your overall career aims in mind.
Read trade journals, attend exhibitions and join relevant industry forums to keep to up to date with the latest industry news and new technical developments.
Competition for entry-level jobs is fierce. Vacancies are not always advertised so it is vital to establish a network of contacts and to approach companies directly with a targeted CV.
Major employers in the UK include:
- BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting Group);
- production companies making programmes for various channels such as Channel 4 and Channel 5;
- Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C);
- cable and satellite companies.
Employment is predominately freelance, although some of the larger broadcasters, e.g. the BBC and ITV, employ some permanent staff.
The independent production sector also offers a range of employment opportunities for camera crew. Typically, independent company productions include:
- broadcast television;
- short films;
- corporate videos;
- pop 'promos';
- web video.
The majority of independent companies are SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) competing with each other for commissions. Camera operators are more likely to work with these companies on a freelance basis.
Look for job vacancies at:
Contact details for making speculative applications for freelance work can be found in specialist directories including:
Jobs are often found by marketing yourself through an entry in a crew directory or diary management service, such as The Firm Booking Company.
Training is predominantly on the job with you typically starting at camera assistant level, observing experienced crew members and gradually gaining practical experience.
Some television companies set up their own in-house training programmes, as and when they need staff to work in certain technical roles.
As it is likely that you will work on a freelance basis, you will be responsible for identifying and meeting your own training and development needs.
Training courses are run by a range of organisations and you can look into opportunities at:
- Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU)
- Creative Skillset Courses Directory
- National Film and Television School (NFTS)
Networking opportunities and the chance to exchange your views and experiences, as well as raise your profile, are provided through membership of organisations such as The Guild of Television Cameramen (GTC). The GTC also offers a range of free workshops to members on subjects such as:
- camera techniques;
- web design.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is vital and you need to take responsibility for ensuring you keep up to date with changing technology and techniques in the field. Read trade journals for industry updates.
The main career development path is to start in a junior position, such as a camera assistant or trainee, runner or technical operator and progress from there.
With experience, the next step is into the position of camera operator and then, after some years, to lighting camera person or director of photography.
The more senior roles allow more creative input and demand leadership skills.
Advancement within the profession depends on a number of factors, such as:
- building up a network of contacts (particularly for those working on a freelance basis);
- developing excellent relationships with directors of photography;
- demonstrating high-level technical and artistic skills;
- keeping up to date with new technologies and techniques;
- successfully marketing yourself and your skills and experience.
Being flexible on your location is also important, as many jobs are in London or in other cities with major studios.
With experience, you will build up a list of credits, which can lead to further opportunities and offers of work.
If you are a freelancer there may be a less structured career path, and so you need to take responsibility for maintaining your own skills, employability and continuing personal development (CPD).