A camera operator or cameraman is a professional who operates a film or video camera.
Cameramen operate a professional video camera in film or television settings: news, entertainment, music videos, drama, sport events, commercials, documentaries.
In filmmaking, the preparatory phase is crucial to avoid costly re-shootings of the same scenes. During this phase, the role of camera operator is to:
- Discuss the angles and style of shooting with the director and the cinematographer
- Walk with them through the filming locations (outdoors, sets, stage, etc.)
- Test lenses and angles during rehearsals
Cameramen are then responsible for shooting various scenes. They do so by looking through the camera, tilting and moving it to follow the action. They can use some special equipment like tracks and dollies (moving camera cranes) and may be working with other cameramen who are shooting from different angles.
Cameramen also alert the production department if they spot errors with the décor and the actors (costumes, make-up) or if they see unwanted objects left on the set.
Cameramen need to be excellent communicators as they are key members of a film crew: they have to liaise both with the technical crew (camera grips, clapper boy, electricians, lighting and sound teams, set builders) and the creative team (director, cinematographer or director of photography, art department, actors).
Technology in pre- and post-production evolves at a fast pace: camera operators must keep up to date with an incessant flow of new cameras, lenses and recording formats (for example 2D and 3D).
Most camera operators work on a freelance basis. Short-term contracts are available in TV and music video studios, advertisement agencies and film companies.
Freelance salaries vary according to your experience and the type of client you are working with. The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU), which represents freelance workers in media industries, suggests the following minimum rates for a 10-hour working day:
- £309 for drama
- £319 for a documentary
- £254 to £355 for TV news
- £384 for a low-budget film
- £461 for a commercial
- £468 for a major feature film
- Having a thorough understanding of filming and video editing techniques
- Filming sequences for TV programmes, commercials, music videos and films
- Reading and acquiring a thorough understanding of scripts when working on a film set
- Being aware of all filming locations
- Selecting appropriate equipment to shoot (lenses, filters, lighting, cranes, dollies, etc.)
- Determining other technical details such as the size of the dolly
- Laying tracks for a dolly
- Discussing photographic style and framing with the film director
- Shooting rehearsals
- Checking for any problems on the set (actors’ make-up or costumes, props, extraneous objects)
- Advising the director, cinematographer and actors
- Undertaking training courses to keep up with the fast development of new technologies and equipment
You do not normally need a formal qualification to become a cameraman. However, courses and higher education qualifications in film and television production have mostly overtaken in-house training and learning on the job.
Short training and continuing professional development (CPD) courses are run by a range of organisations, for example:
- Passion for film and photography
- Normal colour vision
- Excellent technical knowledge of camera equipment
- Strong IT skills
- Good visualisation skills
- Excellent observation and recording skills
- Quick decision-making
- Ability to multitask
- Excellent communication skills
- Ability to work calmly under pressure
- Good level of fitness
- Ability to handle heavy and delicate equipment
If you work in set television programmes such as entertainment shows, you will work regular hours, although these may be unsocial (evening and weekends).
On film and documentary shoots, you can expect very long days (more than 12 hours). You are likely to travel to sets around the country and even around the world. You might be working outside in cold or wet conditions.
Handling cameras can be physically hard, especially if you are shooting a documentary or a film scene with a lightweight camera on your shoulder and need to hold it for long periods of time.
Only a handful of companies such as the BBC employ full-time camera operators. Most cameramen are freelancers, which can result in unstable earnings, especially at the start of your career.
As is common across creative industries, competition for camera work is intense. One of your best assets will be your wide network of contacts in all areas of TV and film production.
Several professional networks offer their members a range of benefits, from training sessions and conferences to networking events:
- The Guild of Television Cameramen
- The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA Crew)
- The Association of Studio and Production Equipment Companies (ASPEC)
- The British Kinematograph, Sound and Television Society (BKSTS)
Hands-on experience is invaluable, so try to find a placement or internship in a local TV studio or a camera and equipment hire company. You will have the opportunity to learn how to use a wide variety of cameras, lights and sound equipment and may get to assist cameramen.
Promote yourself by preparing a professional showreel that you can send to prospective employers.
As you progress, you may be in charge of other cameramen and become head of camera in a TV studio.
Some camera operators go on to become cinematographers, who have the overall responsibility of giving a consistent look and feel to a film.
Also known as…
- Video Camera Operator
- Camera Technician
What’s it really like?
Jon Boast is a freelance cameraman based in London.
What is your job title?
I am a lighting cameraman/DOP (director of photography).
How long have you been in this particular job and how did you find it?
I have been self-employed for almost 8 years now. I have been in the industry for 13 years.
What was your first job as a cameraman and how did you end up doing it? Did you do an apprenticeship?
My first job was filming on programmes like Pet Rescue. I did an informal apprenticeship working for a crew and kit company in South London. I assisted other cameramen, etc.
What academic qualifications do you have?
I have a first class BA (Hons) Media Production with Photography, a few A levels and 10 GCSEs. It’s not an academic job though; I learnt everything really on the job, getting involved and having a good eye.
Do you think that university prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
My degree prepared me for life. That is all. My degree didn’t help me nearly as much as getting out there and doing it.
What do you do in a typical working day?
It depends. Normally, I have an early start, pick up the sound man and drive to the day’s location. I discuss the shoot and schedule with the director. Then we set to work, lighting and shooting that day’s shoot. It often involves lots of driving, long days and you’re always on your feet. Every day is different, often with different locations, different directors and clients. One day you could be filming in a factory, the next in a TV studio or in the middle of a field!
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Anyone wanting to be a cameraman should have a passion for it. It’s a way of life. Trainees should possess initiative, enthusiasm and anticipation. Along with this, of course, having a good eye is key.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
I have been lucky enough to travel a lot for my work. I’ve filmed across Europe (Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Belgium, etc.), the USA, Argentina, Malaysia, South Africa, Mozambique, to name but a few!
Do you belong to any professional body, and if yes, what are the benefits?
There are two key bodies I think. BECTU, which is the union for industry professionals, and the Guild of Television Cameramen. They have their benefits, such as training days and having someone to answer your questions when you need help regarding finance or law in the industry.
What has been your best experience on the job?
I am lucky enough to travel, meet great people and have a varied job every day. I can’t specify one best experience! Filming great white sharks in South Africa was good!
What was the worst experience?
Nearly capsizing in a boat full of kit and crew in the middle of nowhere!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Have a passion for it, it’s a lifestyle. Get to play with the kit and meet some nice people along the way who can help you. Keep on at them.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
I often think I couldn’t do anything else. I have wanted to be a cameraman since around the age of 13. So there is no looking back now!
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour – this is very helpful for job seekers?
Daily rates for freelance cameramen vary, depending on experience, what kit you own, etc. A standard rate for a cameraman without any kit is about £350 a day. I have a lot of kit, van, etc., but this requires financial investment – more than £200,000.