TV/Film Camera Operator

The Job and What's Involved

Television and film camera operators capture images for TV programme's, news items or films using sophisticated equipment.

TV camera operators capture events as they happen and either broadcast them live or record them on videotape or film for editing and later broadcast. They may work on outside broadcasts, including big sporting events, on location or in studios, where sets are created.

A camera operator's main duties include:

  • Supervising the setting up of the camera and other equipment such as lenses, filters and sometimes lighting (if they are working without a lighting crew).
  • Taking the best shots, by planning, studying scripts, practicing shots and angles, finding solutions to technical and practical problems, and being creative and innovative.
  • Taking instructions from directors and working from printed lists of which shots to take.

TV/film camera operators work with other members of the crew, such as the camera assistant, focus puller (who is responsible for ensuring that the camera is in focus), sound and lighting engineers, and the floor or studio manager.

News camera people may work alone or with a journalist. They tend to use light-weight camera equipment mounted on their shoulder. Film camera crew are usually helped by a person known as a 'grip', who sets up tripods, cameras, tape or film reels, trolleys and electric cables.

Camera operators often work outside normal office hours, including evenings and weekends. A day of shooting may last for 10 hours, and camera operators could film at any time during the day and night.

They can work in a variety of settings, including hi-tech, purpose-built studios or in venues such as theatres and concert halls. They could also work on location, where cameras may be positioned on cranes, scaffolding or moving vehicles, filming outdoors in all weather conditions.

Some work may involve travel throughout the UK and abroad. Some camera operators work alongside reporters in dangerous situations such as war zones.

Many camera operators are freelance or work on fixed term contracts. Rates of pay vary according to the type of production.

  • Camera operators in TV drama and factual/documentary may earn around £1,500 a week (based on a 10-hour daily rate of £300).
  • On a low-budget feature film, camera operators may earn around £1,800 a week.
  • On a major feature film or for commercials, they may earn around £2,200 a week (For commercials this is based on a 10-hour daily rate of £440.).

The above freelance rates are for labour only and do not include the cost of equipment, which freelancers often have to own or hire.

The Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) can give advice about rates.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The largest employers include:

  • The BBC and ITV.
  • Independent TV and film production companies.

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

Some camera operators are employed on a full-time basis, but many work freelance and are employed only for the duration of a project, which may be days, weeks or months. They may work on shorts and feature films, television series, music videos and commercials.

Some freelancers register on websites such as www.broadcastfreelancer.com or, www.productionbase.co.uk. These websites allow camera operators and other technical crew to list their CV and experience. Employers can then search the databases for crew with specific skills.

Camera operators may also use diary services (with whom potential employers can check freelancers' availability) or agents. It is important to build up a network of industry contacts as many people hear about work through word of mouth. Reputation is the key.

Education and Training

There are no set entry requirements to be a TV/film camera operator, but most camera operators have studied for higher-level qualifications, and can also demonstrate their experience and skills with a showreel of their work.

Some GCSE's (A*-C), including English, maths and science, may be useful. The Diploma in creative and media may also be relevant for this area of work. Other relevant courses include:

  • City & Guilds qualifications, such as the Diploma in media techniques or Certificate for audiovisual industries induction.
  • BTEC National Diploma/Certificate in media production (or moving image).
  • Higher National Diploma (HND)/ Higher National Certificate (HNC), foundation degrees, degrees and postgraduate qualifications in film and TV production, and photography.

Entry requirements to courses vary according to the qualification and candidates are advised to check with individual institutions.

As a guide, minimum requirements for entry onto an HND/HNC course are one A level and three GCSE's (A*-C) or equivalent; for a degree course the minimum requirements are normally two A levels and five GCSE's (A*-C), usually to include English and maths, or equivalent.

Skillset's network of Screen Academies and Media Academies are institutions that it has identified as offering the highest quality of film and television skills training. Details are available on its website: www.skillset.org which also has a comprehensive course database.

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 companies, such as the BBC, offer work experience placements, but competition for places is fierce. All placements are unpaid and last between a few days and four weeks. Other relevant experience might include working at a camera equipment hire company or assisting on community television productions or student films.

Most camera operators start as a trainee or runner before working their way up the ladder as they gain skills. Some may start as a camera operator's assistant, after completing a training course, and learn on the job from more experienced crew members.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

There are some schemes available for new entrants to TV or film. Entry is fiercely competitive. They include:

Schemes run by Skillset or regional screen agencies across the UK. These are aimed at people who are committed to a freelance career in the industry and who already have some experience. Schemes last between 3 and 18 months and combine short course training with industry placements. Trainees receive an allowance and work towards vocational qualifications.

Schemes of varying lengths run by broadcasting companies, including the BBC and Channel 4. Details are available on the websites of the individual broadcasters.

FT2 - Film and Television Freelance Training runs a new entrant technical training scheme, which offers the opportunity to train as a camera assistant.

Camera operators usually learn most of their skills on the job. However, constantly changing technology means that continuing professional development (CPD) is also essential. The National Film and Television School offers a number of specialised courses at all levels, as does the BBC. Freelancers have to fund their own training, but may be eligible for support from Skillset to cover part of the fees. Regular training in health and safety is essential.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A TV/film camera operator needs:

  • Technical ability and familiarity with current technologies.
  • Creativity and imagination.
  • Patience, as it can be frustrating having to wait long periods between shots or to repeat the same shot many times over.
  • To have good hand-to-eye co-ordination.
  • Good hearing and normal colour vision.
  • Physical stamina.
  • To be able to work well as part of a team.

Your Long Term Prospects

Camera operator is a senior role within the camera department. Progression is usually to director of photography or lighting cameraman.

Get Further Information

BBC Recruitment,
PO Box 48305, London W12 6YE
Tel: 0870 333 1330
Website: www.bbc.co.uk/jobs

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

FT2 - Film & Television Freelance Training,
3rd Floor, 18-20 Southwark Street,
London SE1 1TJ
Tel: 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
Tel: 020 8813 1999
Website: www.gbct.org

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

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

Scottish Screen, 249 West George Street,
Glasgow G2 4QE
Tel: 0845 300 7300
Website: www.scottishscreen.com

Skillset, Focus Point,
21 Caledonian Road,
London N1 9GB
Free careers helpline: 08080 300 900
Website: www.skillset.org

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