Interested in the entertainment industry and love work working with cameras? A job as a camera operator may be for you!
If you have a passion for something, it's always worth seeing if you can turn that passion into a fulfilling career. If you have found yourself always drawn to the camera, recording all you can, maybe it's time to make a career out of it! Camera operators have the flexibility to work anywhere that requires videos to be created, so there are a number of potential locations for this job, too!
In this article, we will give you a comprehensive guide of how to become a camera operator, reviewing everything from the responsibilities and requirements to the hours and salary. We even go into the steps you need to take to follow this career path. Let’s see if you have what it takes to become a camera operator.
Let’s not mince words here, camera operators do just that, operate the camera. They are responsible for recording and capturing all aspects of a scene, specifically when it comes to television or motion pictures. These operators are a second set of eyes for the director, ensuring the lighting and focus is on point for every shot they film through that camera.
Camera operators will know more than just the camera, however. You not only have to be a successful photographer when needed, you’ll also have to know all the equipment aspects as well, like the setup, take down, and assembly of any components that accompany the camera or the set.
Standard responsibilities of camera operators are:
- Operation of motion picture or television cameras to record scenes
- Knowing and applying the technical aspects of lenses, film, filters, light and camera settings
- Adjusting printers, camera controls, and related equipment to find the right lighting, exposure and focus
- Working with electricians, lighting technicians and directors to determine desired effects
- Arranging studio sets to best suit the camera
- Controlling the lighting equipment, film stock, audio and cameras to get results the director desires
- Maintaining, cleaning and testing all broadcasting equipment to ensure proper working order
- Watching filing sets to determine problems from camera angles and lighting to inform the director
- Training and development of additional camera operators
- Remaining updated on new technology and current industry trends.
The job of a camera operator can vary depending on the specific role you’re working on. From on-location films to studios or offices, this section will review the environment, hours and job satisfaction to give you a comprehensive view of the role.
Most camera operators (36% to be exact) are self-employed workers, therefore the work environment for this job can be extremely broad. Depending on the project itself, your work environment can be on location, rather than in an air-conditioned studio with proper plumbing, heating and cooling.
Should the film you’re shooting be in a studio or on a site that is easily accessible to you, your work environment would require carrying heavy equipment to set up and take down, standing for long periods of time, and perhaps the occasional delayed bathroom break.
Some camera operators find themselves in dangerous conditions, all for the sake of their job. Situations such as severe weather, natural disasters and military conflicts are not uncommon places for camera operators, as they ensure they are getting the best shot. Consider some of these on-site locations just occupational hazards of the job. Don’t forget to carry your heavy equipment around with you, and you’ll be set!
Work schedules in the film industry may be specific to the current project’s needs. For example, if you're working in television and a major story just came in, you may have to put in some extra hours to ensure the story hits the evening news.
Should you be in the motion picture industry, your schedule may include 10-hour workdays, or even 24/7 availability, but then will have months off at a time between films. The hours may differ for which film — or area of film — you’re working on, but what doesn’t change for this role is that your work hours are typically focused on the ever-changing needs of the film, broadcast, or show, leaving little room for a schedule in most cases.
Camera operators rate their career happiness at 3.5 out of 5 stars, which goes to show you that this job can absolutely be rewarding! While satisfaction may be high, camera operators rated their salary satisfaction a 2.9 out of 5 stars, perhaps contributing to the job satisfaction numbers not being a 5 out of 5 stars overall.
While a role running all things camera may be exciting when you never want to put the camera down to begin with, it’s important to take into account all aspects of the job before taking the leap. Let’s keep evaluating this to see if you've found the right career.
Life in a post COVID-19 world has changed the job market drastically on many fronts — camera operators are no exception. While being a camera operator might not be one of the most popular post-COVID jobs, online only streaming services have increased and are likely going to continue increasing, creating great job security for this role.
Employment projections are on the rise with a 24% increase in need for camera operators by 2030. While it may take some time for life to level out post pandemic, if you’re looking for a career as a camera operator, there should be a job for you!
Making a career decision most always involves evaluating how lucrative the job is going to be long term, utilizing salary calculators and comparison tools to decide if the role is right for you. As of May 2021, the median annual wage for camera operators was $49,230, while the highest ten percent of this career earned more than $101,380, that leaves the lowest 10 percent earning less than $30,160.
The states that offer the best salaries for camera operators are New Jersey, NJ, at $94,830, New York, NY, at $90,920, District of Columbia, DC, at $82,110, Connecticut, CT, at $73,910, and Washington, WA, at $71,550. Should salary be a driving factor in your decision, perhaps a relocation to one of these states may be in order.
If you're still here and absolutely hooked thinking there is no better career fit for you than a camera operator, then it's time to see if you fit the mold. Review the professional skills needed to be successful and ensure when applying for this job you have, or can work on, the following qualities:
- Sound theoretical, practical and technical knowledge of cameras
- The ability to frame and compose shots
- The ability to perform camera moves accurately
- Communication skills
- Interpersonal skills
- The capacity to multitask and take direction
- Teamwork skills while leading and motivating
- Diplomacy and tact
- The ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines
- Flexibility, patience and creativity
- Attention to detail
Now that you know all you can about becoming a camera operator and you're ready to take the plunge, you need to know how exactly to do that. Let’s go over the steps to becoming a camera operator to set you on the right track.
Step 1: Determine if it's the right job for you
As we have seen, becoming a camera operator can result in long nights, dangerous locations, and a salary lower than the median household income for the US, but remember, if you’re passionate about it, dive in! Think about more than just those things. See if your current and future life goals are conducive to this type of working environment and if your aspirations fit the mold. A love for cameras wouldn't hurt either!
If you've come to this point and are still stuck on the fence, perhaps it’s time to take a career assessment. Check out the CareerHunter tests, created by organizational psychologists focused on asking you questions to help you identify your areas of interest to match you closely to what you could enjoy doing in a job. Evaluate the career tests and find out once and for all if becoming a camera operator is right for you.
Step 2: Focus on the right subjects at school
Be sure to tailor your education specifically to this dream of becoming a camera operator. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to take any math or science courses, but try to focus on the drama, film, photography, and videography courses to keep that dream in sight.
Don’t only focus on the process of operating the camera, though. In today's market, with all the digital cameras available, spend some time focusing on editing software classes, as those are now also used on film sets, too. Make yourself a camera operator that knows a good mix of film theory with the practical training built into your portfolio as you're planning for your future career!
Step 3: Earn a degree
As a camera operator, having a bachelor’s degree in an area related to film or broadcasting is typically still suggested to set you apart. Degrees commonly achieved by camera operators are media and communications, film or broadcasting, even cinematography or video-editing if your university provides a program such as that. Focus your degree on your passion, such as cameras or film, and get a degree that will help you become a better camera operator.
Step 4: Complete an internship
Lastly, before you can run, start with walking. Look for an internship in the film industry that sparks your passion. If you’re more into becoming a television camera operator, then look at your local television stations for internship availabilities. Or perhaps you really want to be on the team that makes the next greatest movie? If that’s your dream, seek out motion picture internships and get an in there, working your way up the ladder.
Some internships may not pay well, or even at all, but that doesn’t make them a bad internship. Remember, this is the path to your dream job, and sometimes you have to earn your keep and make a name for yourself a bit before you can take off. Keep putting in the work and becoming a camera operator will be within reach.
What a career! Helping to create a film that could change someone’s life or reporting a story that matters to someone — how rewarding!
While we’ve provided you with a bulletproof road map to become a camera operator, there are still some things you can do as you progress, including pursuing further qualifications, such as training programs or certifications, becoming a member of an industry association, like the ACO, and putting in the long hours!
If this is your dream, don't give up on it, no matter how hard it is. The reward will be well worth the work!