While many television camera operatives have a degree, it's more important to have a showreel to demonstrate your passion for photography
As a television camera operator, you'll work with digital, electronic and film cameras and produce required shots by combining the use of complex technology with creative visual skills.
You'll work under a director or director of photography and may be supported by a camera assistant.
You may work on a variety of programmes, for example studio or outside broadcast programmes, television dramas, commercials, documentaries or news. You may use one of several cameras or a portable single camera (PSB). You could also specialise in one or more of the following areas:
- studio - you'll follow a camera script, which gives the order of shots. This is practised at rehearsal and 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 - you'll find more opportunities for creativity on location, through suggesting shots to the director.
As a television camera operator, you'll need to:
- assemble, prepare and set up equipment prior to filming, which may include tripods, monitors, lighting, cables and leads and headphones
- offer advice on how best to shoot a scene and explain the visual impact created by particular shots
- plan 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
- practise the camera moves required for pre-arranged shots
- study scripts
- find 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)
- be prepared to innovate and experiment with ideas
- work quickly, especially as timing is such an important factor
- take sole responsibility in situations where only one camera operator is involved in the filming
- keep up to date with filming methods and equipment
- repair and maintain equipment
- demonstrate a good awareness of health and safety issues
- drive 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:
- lighting technicians
- sound recordists.
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 a starting day rate for a camera operator on a television drama production is £418. This is for a ten-hour day during social hours.
- On high-budget features of over £30million, the recommended day rate is £600.
- At other levels of work, such as outside broadcasts and news items, day rates range from £250 to £320.
Extra payments can be charged for overtime and unsocial hours. Full information on the different freelance rates is available from 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 (typically between 10 and 14 hours a day) and can include evening, weekend and night shoots.
What to expect
- Outside broadcasts mean you'll be working in all weather conditions.
- Job availability can be unpredictable, particularly at the start of your career when you're establishing your network of industry contacts.
- Women are currently underrepresented in camera departments. Support for women in the creative media industry is provided by the organisation Women in Film & 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's likely that you'll 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 ScreenSkills - Tick.
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 your passion for television and camerawork.
You'll need to show:
- 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
- team working 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. 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 you to develop contacts in the industry. Working as a runner can be a useful entry point, but it's 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 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's vital to establish a network of contacts and approach companies directly.
Major employers in the UK include:
- BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting Group)
- production companies making programmes for 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, such as 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
- corporate videos
- pop 'promos'
- short films
- web video.
The majority of independent companies are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) competing with each other for commissions. You're more likely to work with these companies on a freelance basis.
Look for job vacancies at:
You can find contact details for making speculative applications for freelance work in specialist directories including:
You can also find jobs by marketing yourself through an entry in a crew directory or diary management service, such as The Firm Booking Company.
If you think freelancing might appeal to you, find out more about self-employment.
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'll work on a freelance basis, you'll be responsible for identifying and meeting your own training and development needs.
Training courses are run by a range of organisations. Look into opportunities at:
- Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU)
- ScreenSkills - Tick
- 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 if you're freelance)
- 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're a freelancer there may be a less structured career path, so you'll need to take responsibility for maintaining your own skills, employability and CPD.