The responsibilities of a camera operator are ultimately determined by the field or 'medium' in which he or she operates. There are two basic types of camera operators based on medium, the film camera operator (or cinematographer) and the TV or video camera operator (videographer).
In the world of filmmaking, a film camera operator works in collaboration with the director, director of photography, actors and other crew members to come to decisions that are either technical or creative in nature. The director of photography usually leads a film crew, which include film camera operators and several assistants.
The video / TV camera operator, on the other hand, is a professional camera specialist who records events, either on location or inside a TV studio. Also called a videographer, a professional TV / video camera operator does not discuss any creative aspect with his or her immediate superior, which is usually a television producer. Videographers are also called to help with small TV and video productions such as commercials, educational or informative videos, weddings and other special events coverage.
Simply put, a film camera operator or cinematographer aims to help in telling the story or a movie whereas a TV camera operator records events or news and aim to present scenes as they unfold.
In the United States, there are around 16,270 camera operators that are currently employed and are paid with a median of $40,170 per year. The top 10 percent are making an average cameraman salary of $87,850 per annum or more. Those in the bottom 10 percent are typically paid at or below $19,770 per year.
The majority of camera operators, approximately 6,140 of them, work within the TV and broadcasting industry. The camera operator salary in the said sector is slightly above the national average at $41,480 a year. The second largest concentration of camera operators are employed in the motion pictures and video industry and are paid with an average camera operator salary of $58,110 a year, which is much higher than the national average. Other industries that boast of high employment rates for camera operators are; cable and other subscription programming (salary estimate not available) and professional, scientific, and technical services ($42,610).
The top paying employers of camera operators are; the Federal executive branch ($65,220), sound recording industries ($60,990), accounting firms and payroll services providers ($60,010), and employment services ($59,250). It is important to point out that all four top paying employer types have employed less than 460 professional cameramen, suggesting that employment prospects are very low and competition for these roles may be steep.
Many camera operators enter the industry with a bachelor's degree in broadcasting, mass media, and film. Most colleges and universities offer educational programs in all these fields. Some even provide training courses in specialized areas such as advanced camera operation and video editing software. Since most video recording is now done digitally, many aspiring camera operators are now trained in various techniques using digital cameras and related software.
Universities and colleges that offer degree programs in film, broadcasting, and mass media also provide internships for their students in order to help them gain valuable experience which will help them prepare for finding a job after graduation.
Camera operators who are members of legitimate film organizations are also preferred by employees and clients. Many camera operators employed in big companies are members of several groups, among of which are the American Society of Cinematographers, the Association of Camera Operators and the Society of Camera Operators.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the camera operator profession will see a little growth within 10 years, from 2010 to 2020.
Along with film editors, camera operators will see only a 2% increase throughout this timeframe.
The growth of camera operators in TV and broadcasting will be impeded by the emergence of automatic camera systems, which will greatly reduce the demand for TV camera operators in the immediate future. Camera operators will face tight competition as more and more candidates pour in compared to the number of jobs available. Only those with extensive experience and knowledge in camera operation both in TV set or film will have the best employment prospects and land lucrative contracts.
Depending on the nature of the industry they wish to enter, camera operators have different starting points. In broadcasting, aspiring camera operators start out as assistant, running errands for the camera operator such as fixing the wiring and making adjustments with the camera as well as the set. Those who want to work in filmmaking industries begin their careers as production assistant and likewise carry out simple tasks for the operators. After a few years of experience and a lot of training, one can become a camera operator.
The usual career progression for film camera operators with experience and adequate skills entails promotion to higher positions like lead cinematographer (lead cameraman), assistant director of photography, director of photography, and eventually director. TV camera operators can also experience a similar progression in their careers, starting from lead TV camera operator, to TV producer, to floor director and eventually director of programming.
Experienced camera operators can also opt to go the freelance route and operate as independent camera operation services providers. Many videographers have found success in covering special occasions such as weddings, reunions, short films, and local commercials.
Teaching in college is also a good option for many camera operators, especially in the subjects of filmmaking, camera operations, and filming principles. Other camera operators are also called upon to serve as reviewers for cameras scheduled for testing.
Listed below are professions that are closely related to the camera operator occupation:
Working behind a camera, whether as a videographer or cinematographer, can be a very rewarding profession for a creative and technically-minded individual. Camera operators must possess a certain level of natural creativity, as well as having a high attention to detail, good co-ordination, excellent vision, and of course the technical ability to understand the equipment they operate. If you have a passion for film and possess these natural prerequisites, you may be able to have success as a camera operator in the exciting film and media industries.