You are here

tv film cameraman career image

TV /Film Camera Operator

Television and film camera operators create and capture moving images for feature films, commercials, corporate productions, and the whole range of television programmes, including drama, news and outside broadcasts. They work with sophisticated camera equipment and accessories.

A camera operator's duties vary according to the production, but may include:

  • overseeing the preparation and checking of the camera and other equipment
  • deciding camera positions, composing shots and offering creative suggestions
  • operating the camera and other equipment
  • carrying out fault-finding and overseeing camera maintenance work.

Camera operators work long, irregular hours, which may include shift work, nights and weekends. They can work anywhere, including dangerous locations such as war zones. The work can be physically demanding and may involve travel and long periods away from home.

Although some camera operators are employed, many are freelance. Freelancers may earn between £1,500 and £2,200 a week or more, depending on the type of production.

A TV/film camera operator needs:

  • creative and technical camera skills
  • extensive knowledge of how camera equipment works
  • the ability to take direction
  • patience, attention to detail, and physical stamina
  • good colour vision and hand-to-eye co-ordination
  • an interest in photography and cameras.

The largest employers include the BBC, ITV and independent production companies. There is intense competition for work, which tends to be in areas where there are major studios, such as London and Manchester.

There are no set entry requirements to be a TV/film camera operator, but most camera operators have studied for technical qualifications, and can also demonstrate their experience and skills with a showreel of their work. Although qualifications can be very helpful, experience, knowledge and contacts are equally important.

Training is mainly on the job, starting at assistant level and working up the ladder in the camera department, which can take several years. Continuing professional development (CPD) is also essential.

Camera operator is a senior role and progression is usually to director of photography (DoP), lighting camera or camera supervisor.

What is the work like?

Television and film camera operators create and capture moving images for feature films, commercials, corporate productions and television programmes, including drama, news and outside broadcasts. Images may be captured and broadcast live or they may be recorded onto film, videotape and, increasingly, onto hard drives, for editing and later transmission or projection.

A camera operator's duties vary greatly according to the production, but may include:

  • overseeing the preparation and checking of the camera and other equipment
  • deciding camera positions, composing shots and offering creative suggestions
  • operating the camera and other equipment
  • assessing how all the elements of a production, including performance, art direction, costume, make-up and lighting, appear through the camera eye piece
  • supervising the movement of the camera
  • carrying out fault-finding and overseeing camera maintenance work
  • taking instructions from directors and other production staff.

Camera operators work with sophisticated camera equipment and accessories. If there is no lighting crew they may also be responsible for lighting.

Camera operators may work alone or with a journalist, using lightweight portable camera equipment. On larger productions, such as feature films, they may work as part of a camera crew as well as with lighting and other technical crew and performers.

In television studios and on outside broadcasts, camera operators work with sound and lighting engineers, and the floor or studio manager, taking instructions through a headset from a gallery based away from the location or studio.

Hours and environment

Camera operators work long, irregular hours, which may include shift work, nights and weekends.

Camera operators can work anywhere, including studios, venues such as concert halls and sporting arenas and on location, which can be indoors or outside, in all weather conditions. The work can be physically demanding, requiring stamina and strength, and may involve working at height, on cranes or scaffolding.

Some work may involve travel, in the UK and abroad, and can entail long periods away from home. News camera operators may work in dangerous situations, such as war zones.

Salary and other benefits

Many camera operators are freelance. They negotiate a fee and rates vary according to the type of production and their track record. The following freelance rates are for labour only and do not include the cost of equipment, which freelancers often have to own or hire. They may have long periods of unemployment between contracts.

  • Camera operators in TV drama and factual/documentary may earn around £1,500 a week (based on a 10-hour daily rate of £309).
  • On a low-budget feature film, camera operators may earn around £1,864 a week.
  • On a major feature film or for commercials, they may earn around £2,238 a week. (For commercials this is based on a 10-hour daily rate of £441.)

The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) can advise on rates.

Skills and personal qualities

A TV/film camera operator needs:

  • creative and technical camera skills
  • extensive knowledge of how camera equipment works
  • the ability to take direction
  • patience, attention to detail, and physical stamina
  • good colour vision and hand-to-eye co-ordination
  • team-working and communication skills
  • to be quick-witted and resourceful
  • knowledge of relevant health and safety procedures.

Interests

It is important to have an interest in:

  • photography and cameras
  • lighting, television, video and film production.

Getting in

Some broadcasters employ permanent staff, but most camera operators work freelance on contracts which may be for days, weeks or months. The largest employers include:

  • terrestrial broadcasters, such as the BBC and ITV
  • satellite and cable companies
  • independent production companies
  • the corporate video market.

There is intense competition for jobs. Work tends to be found in areas where there are TV studios such as London and Manchester. The UK's film studios, such as Pinewood, are on the outskirts of London.

Some vacancies may appear in the trade press, such as Ariel and Broadcast, and on websites such as www.broadcastfreelancer.com, www.mandy.com, www.productionbase.co.uk and www.productionwizard.com, but many camera operators find work through industry contacts. Reputation is key, along with a showreel of work.

Some camera operators are listed in industry directories such as The Knowledge and Kays Production Manual.

Entry routes

There are no specific entry requirements to be a TV/film camera operator and most learn their practical skills through hands-on experience on the job. Even with qualifications, camera operators usually start as an assistant, performing routine tasks such as cleaning and moving equipment and making tea, before working their way up the ladder. This can take several years.

Many camera operators undertake a college or university course before looking for work. Relevant courses include:

  • City & Guilds qualifications, such as the Diploma in advanced media techniques
  • BTEC National Diploma/Certificate in creative media production
  • ABC Level 3 Certificate in cinematography skills
  • Higher National Diplomas (HND)/ Higher National Certificates (HNC), foundation degrees, degrees and postgraduate qualifications in film and television production and photography.

Entry requirements vary and candidates should check with individual institutions. As a guide, minimum requirements for entry onto an HND/HNC course are one A level and three GCSEs (A*-C) or equivalent; for a degree course the minimum requirements are normally two A levels and five GCSEs (A*-C), usually to include English and maths or equivalent.

The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant.

Skillset's website has a database of courses including those at Screen and Media Academies.

Although qualifications can be helpful, experience, technical knowledge and contacts are equally important. Applicants also need drive and determination to work in this field.

Some organisations, including the BBC, BSkyB and FT2 (Film and Television Freelance Training), offer work experience placements and training schemes, but competition for places is fierce. Details are available on their websites.

Other relevant experience might include working at a camera equipment hire company, assisting on community television productions and student films or working as a runner. Skills in stills photography and basic electronics might also be useful.

Training

Camera operators usually learn most of their skills on the job. Constantly changing technology means that continuing professional development (CPD) is necessary. The National Film and Television School and the BBC offer specialised courses. Regular training in health and safety is essential

Freelancers have to fund their own training, but may be eligible for support from Skillset.

Getting on

Camera operator is a senior role within the camera department. Progression is usually to director of photography (DoP), lighting camera or camera supervisor.

Further information

BBC Recruitment, PO Box 1133, Belfast BT1 9GP. Website: www.bbc.co.uk/jobs

BBC Training and Development. 0370 010 0264. Website: www.bbctraining.com

British Society of Cinematographers (BSC), PO Box 2587, Gerrards Cross SL9 7WZ. 01753 888052. Website: www.bscine.com

BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union), 373-377 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT. 020 7346 0900. Website: www.bectu.org.uk

Cinematography Information and Discussion. Website: www.cinematography.net

FT2 (Film and Television Freelance Training), 3rd Floor, 18-20 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TJ. 020 7407 0344. Website: www.ft2.org.uk

The Guild of British Camera Technicians (GBCT), c/o Panavision, Metropolitan Centre, Bristol Road, Greenford, Middlesex UB6 8GD. 020 8813 1999. Website: www.gbct.org

The Guild of Television Cameramen, 1 Churchill Road, Whitchurch, Tavistock, Devon PL19 9BU. 01822 614405. Website: www.gtc.org.uk

ITV Network Centre, 200 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8HF. Website: www.itvjobs.com

National Film and Television School (NFTS), Beaconsfield Studios, Station Road, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire HP9 1LG. 01494 671234. Website: www.nftsfilm-tv.ac.uk

Shooting People. PO Box 51350, London N1 6XS. Website:shootingpeople.org

Skillset, Focus Point, 21 Caledonian Road, London N1 9GB. 020 7713 9800. Careers helpline: 0808 030 0900. Website: www.skillset.org

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

Career and Course Articles: 

online magazines