A GUIDE TO BECOMING A CAMERA OPERATOR
Director of Photography Etienne Sauret’s Viewpoint
Experienced camera operators possess unique combinations of skills. They all seem to have artistic sensibilities – facile perception, a keen eye and the ability to compose balance and beauty in a frame; they also have impressive technical skills – a solid understanding of lighting, audio equipment, electrical requirements and even the physics required to produce the right shot with efficient timing. Due to the rigorous demands of the job, and the un-repetitious nature of the work, most camera operators build a career with a blend of education and on-the-job training. They also tend to be confident, lifelong learners willing to take on new challenges and learn new technologies to develop their craft.
The Camera Operator Job
A camera operator is someone who sets up a camera and records images that will later be edited for an audience. Camera operators are employed to film TV shows, motion pictures, music videos, documentaries, news segments, corporate meetings and sports events. In the US, most operators work in the motion picture industry or in television broadcasting, but the number of operators working in corporate video production is increasing. Some camera operators are employed by production houses, corporations and institutions such as churches with in-house studios; and others work as freelancers or owner operators. The median annual Camera Operator salary in the US is $38,938, as of November 07, 2016, with a range usually between $31,958-$47,334, however this can vary based on geography and industry. For example, the mean income for the motion picture industry is $64,810 and the mean income for Broadcast and Radio is $51,970.
Beyond the visually aesthetic and technical aspects, there is an understanding among the best operators that they have a tremendous responsibility for shaping the story and telling the viewer what is important at any given moment in a scene. Tom Shroeppel writes about this in his extremely informative book, The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, which is used to teach camera operation basics in numerous academic settings. The ability to make the right split-second camera operation decisions that move the story in just the right way comes with years of experience. Subtle choices about camera movement, angles, focus and timing all add up to perfecting the shot and satisfying the vision of the cinematographer or DP (Director of Photograph). According to Christopher Kenworthy, the author of Master Shots Vol 1-3, “Great directors know that the film is crafted in camera, sculpted and colored by the angles, moves, blocking, and framing that you apply to each shot.” Camera operators need to be on the same page as the director when it comes to this understanding. Operators that last in the business embrace this responsibility and get deep satisfaction from it.
Assess Your Physical, Technical and People Skills
Your path to becoming an operator starts with taking a self-assessment. Since a camera operator does indeed operate camera equipment and its related accessories (which can add up to over 100 lbs with the most sophisticated camera packages), there is a level of comfort with the physical and technical nature of the work that you must be able and willing to develop. Learning about the highly technical specifications and capabilities of cameras, audio equipment and lighting is the foundation of becoming an operator. If you are fascinated with gadgets and new technology and you can’t keep yourself from experimenting with your camera settings and the video editing software on your computer, you might have what it takes for the multi-year process to learn the craft.
Another area of self-assessment is about your comfort level with teamwork. While camera operators must make lots of independent decisions while shooting, they also engage in lots of teamwork and coordination for successful productions to occur. Networking and relationship building is also essential to for getting work and referrals. If you think you can commit to establishing and building trusted relationships and fulfill your obligations to other professionals in the field you will be on the right track to a successful camera operator career.
Aspiring operators also need to assess their ability to develop a camera operators “eye.” This is an eye for capturing the right shots and for assessing, choosing and shaping environments so you can setup good shots. There are online classes and formal high school, undergraduate and graduate programs that teach the basic concepts that must be understood to develop this eye. The basic introductory concepts that are taught include framing, light, composition, color and shading. Most education programs teach these concepts and then help you apply these concepts with equipment training. Education includes how equipment is chosen and manipulated to fulfill your aesthetic goals. It covers lenses and lens selection, exposure, frame rates, resolution, and depth of field. Training also generally includes how to select and choose audio and lighting equipment. If you find yourself engaged with the concepts and enjoying the hands-on experience of these concepts you are on the right track to a career that could work for you.
Commit to Lifelong Learning
After you develop a basic understanding of the concepts and equipment camera operators use, you must put them into practice with an internship or camera assistant position with a film or video production crew. In such positions, you will be shadowing, moving equipment around, running errands, performing administrative tasks and occasionally adjusting a camera. Eventually after a year or two, you will work your way to running a camera or jib. It is important that you volunteer to do everything you have permission to do as an assistant to understand how a crew works and how each person impacts the production process. It is important to take these tasks seriously as they are all essential for a production to be successful. You will also establish your reputation as hard worker who is eager to learn, shows up on time and gets the job done.
Also, use the free time you have on set to ask questions, learn about and help with other positions. Other production crew members that work closely with camera assistants include grips and electricians. These interactions become an opportunity to network with those who can refer you to your next job.
To find work as a camera operator, start with a thorough internet search for camera operator associations, publications and directories that list production jobs. You can also search for listings with large production houses and local broadcast studios. Even craigslist is a source for job listings. Here are links that can help you learn and get exposure.
A Very Rewarding Career
A camera operator’s career is one that truly gives back. If you put the work into it, you will get amazing rewards. These rewards start with the aesthetics and social impact of the films and video you help create but they don’t end there. As you build your reputation in this industry, you will stand out and be appreciated among a select group of people that chose this work. The sky is the limit if you stay focused and seize every opportunity.
If you’d like more information about becoming a camera operator, these links will help: