Approximately 21,080 television, video, and movie camera operators work in the United States. The majority of salaried camera operators work in the film and television industry at TV stations or film studios. Most jobs are found in large, urban areas. Some camera operators are self-employed and contract with documentary or independent filmmakers, advertising agencies, and trade show or convention sponsors. Some camera operators may work for the federal or local government.
An entry-level job as a production assistant is a typical first step for camera operators and provides the opportunity to learn how film and video production works. Production assistants usually begin with assignments such as setting up or loading film into cameras and adjusting or checking lighting. With experience, the assistant may participate in decisions about what to photograph or how to film a particular scene.
Before you receive any paying jobs, you may have to work for a while as a volunteer or intern on a film project. You can surf the Internet for postings of openings on film productions, or contact your state's film commission. Competition for camera operator jobs will be keen. Those with the most experience and advanced training in the evolving digital technologies being used in film, television, business, and educational productions, should have an advantage in finding positions.
It usually takes two to four years for a motion picture camera operator to learn the techniques necessary for the job. Those who become proficient in their field, after several years of training, may be able to work on film projects as a cinematographer or director of photography (DP). The DP supervises other camera operators and works more closely with the directors, producers, and actors in the creation of the film. Some camera operators study cinematography part time while keeping their jobs as camera operators. They may later move to larger studios or command higher salaries. Camera operators who are employed in the television industry might advance by working on more prestigious projects, working for larger stations, or by managing the work of other camera operators.
Most of those hoping for advancement as camera operators must contend with two current trends. In broadcasting, automatic cameras at many television stations make camera operators less needed. In movies, the industry has become more productive, so fewer workers are needed. However, the increasing popularity of new content delivery methods such as mobile, digital video streaming, and online television may lead to more jobs for camera operators in the future.
Tips for Entry
As a student, become familiar with various types of cameras through a school club, for example, or by working in a camera store.
Take classes in math and science that will familiarize you with the concepts of ratio, proportion, light, and perspective.
In college take courses in photography and art history that will introduce to the principles of artistic composition and different styles of visual presentation.
Become familiar with the different types of video editing software.
Consult the Department of Labor State Apprenticeship Information Web site for information about specific apprenticeship opportunities for camera operators.