Spotlights

Job Description

If you’ve watched video content on a TV, big screen, monitor, or mobile device, rest assured it was filmed with a camera of some sort. While camera tech has gotten smaller and smaller, most professional videos are captured with high-end equipment that requires a trained operator. Camera Operators film everything from movies, music videos, TV series, documentaries, network news, sports games...the list goes on and on! 
 
The three main types of operators are Studio Camera Operators, Electronic News Gathering Operators, and Cinematographers. While their primary functions are similar—to capture footage with video equipment—their specific duties, the types of cameras they use, and their working environments are all dramatically different. For example, studio operators work in far more stable, predictable environments, whereas news operators travel where the action is, shooting live even as they face potential risks on the scene. Cinematographers also tend to travel, working in a wide range of more-or-less controlled conditions that may involve stunts, special effects, and cranes for elevated camera angles. Weather and other factors can impact work, causing delays, group frustration, and added pressure. 

Rewarding Aspects of Career
  • Participating in an artistic and creative field
  • Filming content that may be viewed by millions 
  • Working on projects that might be preserved for generations
  • Collaborating with directors and celebrities in a dynamic environment

”I have the kind of job that when I walk away there’s nothing to take home. There’s no paperwork, no reports, nothing I have to get in by Friday. I’m not the kind of person that could sit at a desk all day long, I would go crazy. I have to move around and  feel needed; I find it very rewarding. When I was covering sports I used to travel a lot. You get to meet a lot of people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet. How many other jobs give you the opportunity to meet Chris Bosh, or Sir Richard Branson, or have a conversation with Michael Douglas? I’ve had Tom Cruise come up to shake my hand. Most people would never get to meet Tom Cruise on the job.” - Philip Kerns

The Inside Scoop
Day in the Life

”I always show up early to make sure my camera is ready to go and to see if there are any problems with it that wouldn’t hold up in production... Normally I show up at 8:30, look through my camera and make sure everything is cool. We start to rehearse. On “Shark Tank” we have to get in five pitches before lunch. That pitch could go 15 minutes, or it could go an hour. The minute they walk out, the art department sets up for the next pitch. 15 minutes later the next person comes out and, boom, ext pitch, it’s over. They go out, next pitch comes in, it’s fine. We get through five, have an hour lunch, come back, and go through four or five more before the end of the day. You don’t know how long you’re going to be there.

End of the day is usually around 5:30 p.m. The other day we got through 10 pitches and they said, ‘well Disney is coming in to do some stuff for a couple of Disney shows, so we’re going to be here another three hours’ (even though we just shot ten pitches and have already been there for nine hours). You have no choice but to bring your A-game and keep doing it. We shot the stuff, and after coming in at 8:30 in the morning we left by 10 at night. Turn around the next morning, back to work at 8:30.
It’s like baseball; you show up and it could be eight innings or it could be 13 innings. It really depends, you may tape two ‘Ellens’ in a day.  Or you could be there at 8:30 a.m. and not shoot until 11:00 p.m.. You just never know.” - Philip Kerns

Job Responsibilities

Working Schedule

  • Each type of camera operator may experience different working conditions. Most work full-time but hours can vary greatly, depending on what time filming needs to occur. Overtime is expected on movie sets where 12 hour days are not uncommon.

Typical Duties

  • Studio Camera Operators:
    • Working with fixed position cameras to film sets or stages
    • Setting up or tearing down equipment, as needed
    • Following director instructions for camera angles and subjects
    • Staying alert for impromptu action or unexpected occurrences
  • Electronic News Gathering Camera Operators:
    • Collaborating with roving reporters to cover live news
    • Staying vigilant for action or hazards such as storms, criminal activity, motor vehicles, volatile bystanders, or even military conflicts depending on the stories being covered
    • Filming additional shots for later editing, as needed
    • Ensuring that equipment is kept free from damage due to inclement weather 
  • Cinematographers:
    • Serving as the director of photography, filming movies for studios; working with directors and other crew members
    • Utilizing a wide range of high-tech camera equipment, often set on cranes or rigs
    • Using various techniques to capture animation, special effects, stunts, or to produce in-camera visual effects
    • Potentially working with setup crews, depending on the size of the production
    • Traveling to and from studio lots or on-location film sets
  • Downloading digitally captured footage for sharing with editing teams
  • Collaborating with on-set lighting and sound crews
  • Assisting directors with realizing their visions utilizing suitable equipment and lenses; suggesting shooting styles, angles, or lighting
  • Enduring austere conditions, including inclement weather or dangerous situations
  • Composing shots using various camera lenses and camera settings
  • Using stationary, track, or crane mounts
  • Letting actors know which cameras are shooting
  • Reviewing written or visual guidance for desired shots; determining necessary equipment, setups, distances, angles, and processes to achieve results

Additional Responsibilities

  • Working out technical difficulties and finding creative workarounds
  • Operating equipment kept inside news vehicles 
  • Performing freelance videography work, filming private events for individuals or companies
  • Guiding assistants on larger productions
Skills Needed

Soft Skills

  • Ability to work with and guide teams
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication skills
  • Composure under pressure
  • Cooperative
  • Creativity
  • Detail-oriented
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Keen organizational skills
  • Normal near and far vision
  • Normal color vision
  • Multitasking
  • Persistence
  • Physical stamina
  • Planning and project management
  • Resourcefulness 
  • Skills for coordinating and instructing activities
  • Sound judgment and decision-making
  • Time management 
  • Visualization skills

Technical Skills

  • General familiarity with computers (PC or Apple)
  • Familiarity with a wide range of camera types and associated equipment, including automated film processors, camera harnesses and lens, tripods, distortion meters, electronic viewfinders, frequency analyzers, lightmeters, oscilloscopes, radio frequency transmitters, signal generators, and lighting systems
  • Knowledge of newer technologies such as IMAX, 3D, and 8K
  • Ability to use common hand tools for setup or breakdown
  • Safe use of stationary, track, or crane mounts
Different Types of Organizations
  • Cable or video streaming companies    
  • Government agencies
  • Large corporations
  • Motion picture studios
  • Nonprofits
  • Self-employed workers 
  • Television broadcast networks
Expectations/Sacrifices Necessary

Camera Operators have a lot riding on their shoulders, sometimes literally if they’re lugging around an electronic news gathering camera! Gear can be extremely expensive, ranging into six digit figures in some cases. But the shots themselves may be priceless, so operators have to keep their eyes peeled and be ready to catch lightning in a bottle! 
 
Unexpected moments on pre-recorded talk shows. Crucial breaking news stories. One-time only, multimillion dollar special effects scenes. There’s no end to the moments that Camera Operators must be able to film in a way that is clear, poignant, and ready to be edited into a usable cut. The pressure is on, hour after hour, day by day! For film productions, it might even last for months, away from home while shooting at locations around the world. 
 
Stamina and resilience are definitely required. Physical work conditions vary greatly, with news and movie operators particularly exposed to sometimes less than pleasant conditions. A news story might involve covering a hurricane or a military combat zone. A movie script might require filming in a hot desert, out on the open water, or at a crowded urban location where real people and vehicles are waiting for a scene to be finished so they can get by. Time is money, and operators are expected to work efficiently, get their scenes recorded, and move on to the next item on the checklist. When things go wrong, they might have to stay until the work is done versus breaking down for the night then going back the next day. 

Current Industry Trends

Digital streaming has revolutionized how audiences view content and altered how creators produce it. Demand for new movies and shows has risen, requiring more Camera Operators to step up. Employment is projected to rise by 18% in the coming decade, which is far greater than average. That said, operators in some industries, such as network broadcasting, may see a bit of a decrease as technology replaces some manual aspects of the job. In cases such as e-sporting events, digital camera crews may operate cameras remotely from behind their computer screens. 

Digital cameras have been around for a while now, but are still impacting the industry in exciting new ways. Resolution continues to improve, to the point that the human eye can no longer make the distinction, such as 8K. De-aging special effects are also hot now, too. These require new cameras like the ARRI ALEXA Mini, special rigs, and innovative techniques to capture multiple angles of actors that are fed into CGI software to make them appear younger (or older, sometimes!). Meanwhile, IMAX and 3D camera technology continue to evolve and be used in unique ways. 

What kinds of things did people in this career enjoy doing when they were young...

Camera Operators must have a great eye for composition and enough understanding of psychology to know what makes a compelling scene and a powerful performance. Odds are they enjoyed drawing, photography, and watching plenty of movies growing up! They may have also been into creating YouTube videos with smartphones or digital cameras, maybe even saving up to buy a nice Digital SLR costing hundreds of dollars or more. It takes real passion to work as a Camera Operator, and many grew up with a strong desire to break into the field, perhaps inspired by favorite movies, events, or personalities. 

2019 Employment
29,700
2029 Projected Employment
33,800
Education and Training Needed
  • A bachelor’s degree in Film and TV is a great way to get started
  • Practical experience is invaluable to really learn the technology and how to use it properly. Experienced operators might enter the field with just an Associate of Applied Science in Digital Filmmaking or sufficient specializing vocational training
  • Students should stock up on classes related to cinematography, film studies, film and video production, video technology, broadcasting, and audiovisual tech
  • Working as a camera assistant or production assistant will provide crucial On-the-Job Training
  • Participating in small indie projects is a superb way to build your portfolio
Things to look for in a program
  • Hunt for information about alumni and what types of projects they’ve worked on after graduation
  • Review program offerings to ensure there are enough courses focused on the type of job you want (film, TV studio, documentary, news, etc.) 
  • Review faculty bios to learn about their backgrounds and credentials
  • See what types of cutting edge technology and techniques are being taught
  • Learning to operate a camera well requires a good deal of practical experience, so physical classroom attendance is ideal, when possible
    • Hybrid attendance (a mix of online and in-person) can work; fully online degrees could limit the ability to learn required technical skills
    • Review online programs and courses carefully
  • Check out or ask about job placement statistics after graduation
  • Make a list of your dream, target, and safety schools; stay organized as you closely review application requirements and admittance rates
    • For example, USC has a 13% general admission rate but only a 3% admission rate for its School of Cinematic Arts 
  • Look for dynamic student organizations; see what types of exciting projects they work on!
Things to do during high school/college
  • If your high school offers them, take classes in film studies, video technology, and audiovisual tech
  • Your school might have an AV club you can join, that assists with various productions
  • Teach yourself by reading books, watching tutorials or listening to podcasts, then get out there with a camera to shoot some footage
  • Don’t waste your college electives; take as many applicable courses as you can to round out your knowledge of the larger industry
  • Decide if you want to attend college full-time or part-time, and whether you’ll go in-person, online, or via a hybrid program
  • While doing your associate’s or bachelor’s, participate in student filmmaking as much as possible
  • Volunteer to film events or work on projects to gain hands-on experience and learn what it’s really like on a set or on-location
  • Join college film clubs to learn, have fun, and produce content that can be used in your portfolio. Put your work on YouTube, Video, or other sharing platforms
  • Be part of your local filmmaking community by attending events and getting to know people
  • Advertise yourself online so you can join independent filmmaking crews
  • Pick your professors’ brains and immerse yourself in the hardest, most technical aspects of the work. You’ll get out of the degree what you put into it! 
     
Typical Roadmap
Camera Operator Gladeo Roadmap
How to land your 1st job
  • Complete as much applicable education and training as possible
  • Get some practical experience under your belt by engaging in student, volunteer, or entrepreneurial projects (ensure finished work is viewable, preferably online, and lists your name in the credits)
  • The best way to qualify for any job is to know what you’re doing. Know everything about how to use the specific types of cameras and gear necessary for the jobs you want 
  • Demonstrate your technical abilities and knowledge of angles, positions, and shooting techniques on your resume and through your portfolio or demo reel
  • Ensure your portfolio or demo reel is fleshed out with a variety of relevant projects. Be specific about the details of your involvement
  • Look for assistant positions such as camera assistant or production assistant
  • Let your network know when you are graduating and work with your school’s career center to locate, prepare for, and apply for jobs
  • Post your resume on job portals and set up your LinkedIn profile
  • Make sure your resume is compelling, detailed, and provides substantial proof of your experience (to include a link to your portfolio)
  • Ask professors and supervisors if they’ll serve as references or write you letters of recommendation 
     

"If I were trying to start today, I would probably try to find some kind of non-union production company that does reality shows, due to the high number of them. I would try to find a production company, try to get on as a production assistant or whatever it takes to get onto the set so I could meet everybody and say hi. Say hi to the cameraman and have him or her show you what they do. You just have to get in.” - Philip Kerns

How to Climb the Ladder
  • Learn everything you can from everyone you come in contact with!
  • Know your job inside and out, but also know the responsibilities of other crew members
  • Be a team player who knows when to lead and when to listen. Train new operators and crew, as required
  • You can’t please everyone all the time, but in this industry you’ll need to keep in mind who to avoid displeasing the most. Many influential celebrities, directors, and producers can be difficult to work with, but maintain your professionalism and integrity!
  • Place yourself where the work is! You may find extra opportunities in entertainment hub cities like New York or Los Angeles
  • When juggling multiple projects, make sure to prioritize and keep track of deadlines
  • Always be on time, do exceptional work, and bring value to the productions
  • Keep your equipment well-maintained and safe from dust, debris, water, or harmful elements
  • Stay flexible and innovative, and offer solutions or workarounds when a problem comes up. In fact, have a few backup plans in your toolbox at all times! 
  • Keep up with industry trends and new technologies. When possible, be an agent of change by developing new ideas and techniques yourself
  • Don’t be shy! Take your place in the larger community by participating in professional organizations and contributing to the field beyond the scope of your paid position 
  • Advocate for worker rights and get to know well-placed personnel within studios and networks
Recommended Resources

Websites

  • California Film Commission’s List of Associations, Guilds, and Unions
  • Independent Film & Television Alliance 
  • International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada
  • National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians 
  • Society of Broadcast Engineers 
  • Society of Camera Operators
  • Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers 
  • The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences 
  • Wedding and Event Videographers Association International 
  • Women in Film

Books

  • Bare Bones Camera Course For Film And Video Paperback, by Tom Schroeppel 
  • Color Correction Handbook: Professional Techniques for Video and Cinema, by Alexis Van Hurkman  
  • How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck: Advice to Make Any Amateur Look Like a Pro, by Steve Stockman 
  • The Camera Assistant's Manual, by David E. Elkins 
  • The Steadicam Operator's Handbook, by Jerry Holway and Laurie Hayball
Plan B

Operating cameras can be wild but stressful work. The hours might get long, work might pull you away from home for weeks or months at a time, and conditions can get ugly with bad weather or dangerous situations. For those looking for something a bit tamer, the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a few alternative career options to consider: 

  • Broadcast, Sound, and Video Technicians
  • Editors
  • Photographers
  • Producers and Directors
  • Reporters, Correspondents, and Broadcast News Analysts
  • Special Effects Artists and Animators

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Source: Interviews, Bureau of Labor Statistics, ONET

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