According to a recent A.C. Nielsen Co survey, the average American spends more than 4 hours per day watching television. This accumulates to 28 hours a week or two months per year. These programs that take up such a large majority of our lives, TV shows, movies, documentaries, and news broadcasts, all require the work and technical skills of a small group of professionals – camera operators.
When considering potential careers, many people are drawn to camera operation thanks to its fascinating subject material and exotic shooting locations. As an experienced news documentary camera operator with over 20 years of experience, Russel Marhull can attest to these benefits of camera operation; however, Mr. Marhull also hopes to share with interested parties what they can realistically expect from working as a camera operator. Those considering a career as a camera operator as encouraged to read the following article, where Russ Marhull will answer some of the most commonly asked questions about camera operation.
What Is a Camera Operator?
A camera operator is a person who is employed by film production studios, video production houses, news outlets, and cable companies to operate camera equipment and capture footage for motion pictures, television shows, music videos, documentaries, and news and sporting events. Camera operators must hold a deep understanding of the technical aspects of camera equipment, frame composition and, depending on their field, be able to carry heavy equipment over distances while capturing footage.
What Fields do Camera Operators Work In?
As previously discussed, there is a range of fields that all need experienced camera operators. These fields include:
Film: By far, film production companies hold the largest number of camera operators out of any field. In filmmaking, camera operators are tasked with capturing a director’s vision and often have little control over their shots. Additionally, camera operators will be responsible for setting up the camera equipment for each scene, framing the shot, and capturing each scene’s footage. Camera operators in film will be told a director’s vision and must choose which cameras, lenses, and gear will best capture the director’s shot. Film camera operators will collaborate with other departments such as lighting and editing, and on larger film sets, camera operators will often be given camera assistants that will help store, transport, and care for all camera equipment and gear on set.
Music videos: A number of camera operators choose to predominantly shoot music videos as these shoots can be both artistically stimulating and offer unique challenges not found in film. In many small music video shoots, camera operators have the chance to work not only as an operator but as the music videos cinematographer, capturing their own vision for the video.
News: In the news industry, there are two types of camera operators, camera operators who work in the studio and those who work in the field. Camera operators who shoot primarily broadcast news stories will shoot from a fixed perspective inside the broadcast studio and work with the director to capture a certain order of shots and transitions. Camera operators who work in the field with on-the-scene reporters will have more agency in their shots and be responsible for capturing a wide variety of shots that correspond with the current news story.
What Is the Difference Between a Camera Operator and a Cinematographer?
A cinematographer, also known as a director of photography, is an individual who is in charge of the camera and lighting crew and who is responsible for the overall look or aesthetic of a film, television show, music video, or news station. While sometimes cinematographers prefer to take charge of the camera themselves to ensure specific shots are correctly captured, oftentimes, cinematographers will delegate to camera operators.
Camera operators, who work under cinematographers, are responsible for capturing footage as directed by the cinematographer, director, or script.
How To Get Your First Job as a Camera Operator
As with many jobs in the film industry, camera operator jobs are highly competitive. Camera operator veterans in the film and news industries are known for retiring late in life, leaving few available positions for those entering the field. With so few open positions, those looking to obtain their first camera operator job must find ways to stand out against the competition. Luckily, the following steps can help aspiring camera operators gain the necessary experience and education needed to obtain one of these coveted positions:
- Gain Camera Experience – While this step may seem obvious, learning the basics of camera equipment and operation will get you incredibly far as a camera operator. Individuals can gain valuable camera experience by purchasing any video camera, practicing shooting in different modes, and becoming familiar with angles, positioning, smooth movements, and styles.
- Formal Education — A formal education is one of the best ways to gain additional experience with multiple types of cameras and video equipment. Although many camera operators have not completed formal education, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree with help candidates stand out in their job search. According to a recent survey of camera operators, roughly 55% of all camera operators hold a bachelor’s degree. Those looking to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a field related to camera operations should consider the following colleges and that widely recognized as the best colleges for camera operators in television, video, and film:
- Emerson College
- New York University
- Columbia College Chicago
- University of North Carolina School of the Arts
- Savannah College of Art and Design
- Internship/ Become an Assistant – As with many other careers, the best type of experience you can gain is not in a classroom or on your own, but by shadowing a professional. It is imperative to learn real-life skills that may not have been taught in a classroom setting when working as a camera operator. Individuals can gain this experience by working as a camera assistant, production assistant, or interning at a news station. Additionally, amateur camera operators can use these experiences to network and possibly obtain a full-time position at a production studio or news network.
- Continue to Improve Your Portfolio —As a camera operator, a demo reel or portfolio of work is incredibly important and can help set aside candidates during their job search. Although many begin building their portfolio in college, individuals can start working on their portfolio soon after purchasing their first camera. Russ Marhull, Brooklyn-based camera operator encourages students to consider volunteering for fellow-student films or low-budget indies when looking for additional material for a well-rounded portfolio.