Unscripted TV

Camera operator

Also known as: Studio camera operator, Lighting camera operator, Director of photography

Camera operator

What does a camera operator do?

Camera operators are responsible for capturing the action. They film what’s happening, whether that’s on location for a news programme or documentary or in a large multi-camera studio show. They know which cameras to use in which conditions and consider the composition, framing and movement of a shot.

Camera operators on multi-camera studio programmes are one of several cameramen and women all capturing the same action but from different angles. Some have cameras mounted on mobile pedestals, which they can move around the studio, rotate and adjust the height of, all while filming. Studio camera operators receive ‘blocking’ notes, indicating where the presenters and contributors are going to move, which is then rehearsed and amended if necessary. During recording or live transmission, they all respond to instructions from the director via radio headsets.

When shooting on location, such as on documentaries, they might be the only camera operator working in all kinds of conditions; under water, in a snowstorm or in a desert. They often operate a variety of different cameras, including handheld, cameras mounted on a body frame (Steadicam) or a drone. They are responsible for taking care of the kit, wherever they are shooting, and often own their equipment. They are also skilled at lighting and for that reason are often known as lighting camera operators. They often work alone or with one assistant.

Camera operators with a lot of experience have their own editorial eye and often offer up shots and ideas to the journalist or producer. On large shows shot at various locations by a number of different camera operators, one very experienced senior camera operator is responsible for establishing the shooting style for all the camera operators to use, and in this instance is credited as the director of photography.

Camera operators can be employed by broadcasters and, occasionally, TV production companies in staff positions, but are generally freelancers. Many own their own equipment.

Watch and read

What’s a camera operator good at?

  • Photography: have a good eye and understanding of composition, light, colour, focus and framing. You may specialise in certain genres, but you must also be able to adapt to different shooting styles
  • Technical knowledge of cameras: have an in-depth understanding of the latest motion picture equipment, cameras, lens, monitors and lights
  • Communication: listen, do what’s asked by the producer, director and work as a team with other crew and production staff
  • Multi-task: watch, listen, think quickly, problem solve on the go, all whilst carrying out complex technical tasks, adapt to requirements of different shoots
  • Concentration: be patient, maintain focus over long programme shoots, stay calm under pressure

Who does a camera operator work with?

On multi-camera productions, camera operators work under camera supervisors and receive instructions from the director when recording. They sometimes talk to presenters to get the best picture composition. Camera operators work with the grips to move and set up camera equipment and talk to the gaffers about lighting too. They sometimes have a camera assistant working with them. On location, they often work in tandem with a sound recordist and take instruction from the producer director.

How do I become a camera operator?

Camera operator is a senior and experienced position. Most work their way up into this role from a position like camera assistant. The Guild of British Camera Technicians runs a trainee scheme. Working as a kit room assistant is a good preparation for a camera assistant and camera operator role.

At school or college:
You can take A-levels or Highers in a combination of subjects that includes art, art and design, graphic communication or photography, along with maths and physics.If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:

  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Extended Diploma in Creative Digital Media Production
  • NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design
  • UAL Applied General Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Diploma in Film and Television Production
  • BTEC National Diploma in Photography OCR Technical Diploma in Digital Media (Moving Image and Audio Production)
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Creative Media Production and Technology

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. Some of the major broadcasters offer apprenticeships. Check out the schemes with ITV.

If you can’t get an apprenticeship with a broadcaster, it might be worth trying to find one outside the TV industry, where you can develop your skills and your craft. You can then move into TV at a later point. In England, there’s a Level 3 apprenticeship as a photographic assistant.

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will give you the skills you want. Go to where can I find an apprenticeship? to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region, or approach companies directly.

Work for an equipment company:
Contact an equipment rental company like Panavision, Provision or ARRI Rentals. Ask if you can become a kit room assistant for them. That way you will get to learn more about the kit and build up contacts.

Get a degree:
It’s not essential to have a degree in order to become a camera operator. There are, however, degree courses that specialise in television production and photography that you might consider. Have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in unscripted TV or search for "camera". We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the unscripted TV industry.

Get work experience:
Try to get work experience by writing to local production companies and asking if they offer any. Keep an eye out for work experience opportunities at the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and the PACT Indie Diversity Training Scheme.

Take a short course:
Hone your skills in camera operating by taking a specialist course. Go to the list of training courses recommended by ScreenSkills to see if there is one about camera work.

Network:
Get to know people in the unscripted TV industry by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest in and knowledge of the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this.

Network online:
Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there are Facebook pages or other social media groups for people making unscripted TV in your area. There might even be groups for runners and trainees. Join them. Create a ScreenSkills profile. There are a lot of crewing agencies that will charge you to be on their books. Sign up to the free ones initially. Wales ScreenNorthern Ireland Screen and other areas offer free crew databases. Find a film office near you and get connected. If you do sign up to paid sites, make sure they specialise in the areas in which you’re interested.

Search for jobs:
Research unscripted TV production companies that you’d like to work for and watch the programmes that they make. Regularly check their websites and job listings websites to see if they are advertising for roles. You can also send in a short speculative letter with your CV to the production manager. Register your CV on websites like The Talent Manager, which is used by most broadcasters and independent production companies when looking for staff. StartinTV offers tips on creating your CV and attending interviews, as well as some advice for your first day working in TV.

You might also be interested in…

Being a jib operator or camera supervisor in the unscripted TV industry. You might also be interested in being a camera operator or director of photography in the film and TV drama industries.

Further resources