Camera operators are the eye behind the technical film equipment used to create films, television shows and commercials. A broad range of degree programs at several different levels train prospective camera operators to visualize the scene and properly operate the equipment, which ranges from small hand-held cameras to large boom-mounted crane cameras. Most of these programs include hands-on training in film and TV production and can result in an Associate of Science in Cinematography, a Bachelor of Arts in Television, Radio and Film Production, or a Master of Fine Arts in Production.
Associate of Science in Cinematography
Associate of Science in Cinematography degrees are offered primarily through community colleges, though some 4-year colleges and universities offer such programs as well. Students learn skills in camera operation, lighting, directing and sound production as well as the elements of writing for film and digital editing. While these degree programs prepare graduates for entry-level positions in broadcast studios and other film production facilities, students may also transfer credit to a 4-year bachelor's degree program related to broadcast or film studies.
Candidates wishing to enroll in associate degree programs in cinematography generally must only have a high school diploma as a prerequisite for admission. Many colleges have waiting lists for entry, as education for the career field is somewhat competitive and slots are limited.
Many 2-year programs consist of around 60 credits of coursework to complete the degree. Coursework includes:
- TV studio production
- Digital video processing
- Mass media communication
- Field video production
- Acting on camera
- Film making fundamentals
Bachelor of Arts in Television, Radio and Film Production
Four-year programs leading to the Bachelor of Arts in Television, Radio and Film Production degree are usually housed within colleges' departments of communication and mass media. Students who have previously completed an associate degree program in a related discipline may be able to transfer some coursework, enabling them to complete the program in less time than the traditional undergraduate.
Radio and TV production programs based at 4-year universities generally require applicants to be high school graduates or hold a GED equivalency diploma. Programs are often competitive; students frequently must apply to the mass communication or broadcast departments separately after being admitted to the university or college. Some colleges require prospective film students to complete aural and visual competency skills tests.
Much of the first two years of a Bachelor of Arts in TV, Radio and Film Production consists of liberal arts coursework, including social and natural sciences, mathematics, and English. The major is generally highly customizable, depending on the student's interest. Students in the program learn about:
- Writing for TV and radio
- Film industry practices
- Advanced production and performance
- Audio and video production
- Media convergence
- Media law
Master of Fine Arts in Production
The terminal degree for the career field, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is available for candidates interested in graduate-level education for camera operators and other cinematography-related positions. The curricula in these programs focus on developing students' creative skills as well as enhancing and expanding students' technical skills. Most film production students enrolled in MFA programs work with 35 millimeter, Super 16, high definition, and RED digital cameras.
In addition to a bachelor's degree program transcript, application, and resume, most graduate programs in film production require candidates to submit a statement of interest in the program and several letters of recommendation. Prospective students generally have an option to submit an example of written work, such as a screenplay or short story, or a sample of visual work, including a short film or photography portfolio.
MFA in Production programs generally take two years to complete and include summer semesters. During that time, students take courses to develop advanced technical and aesthetic skills. The last semesters of a production master's degree program usually involve a thesis project, during which students may produce a feature-length film or other completed project suitable for entry into film festivals. Coursework covers:
- Advanced sound and film editing
- Producing and directing
- Camera operation
- Lighting mechanics
- Film history and aesthetics
Popular Career Options
With an Associate of Science in Cinematography, graduates can work for TV studios as filmographers for large or independent production houses. Many camera operators and cinematographers work as freelancers as well. Career options include:
- Documentary maker
- Music video producer
- TV news camera operator
- Feature film camera operator
- Cable TV producer
Salary Information and Employment Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), job openings for camera operators are expected to see almost no change, with employment increasing by just 2% between 2014 and 2024. Median salaries for camera operators were around $49,080 as of May 2015, with the bottom 10% bringing in less than $25,070 per year and the top 10% earning more than $105,120. Salary depends greatly on a camera operator's geographic location.
Students who complete associate, bachelor's or master's degree programs in fields like cinematography or production can gain the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue camera operating jobs in many industries, such as television, movies, and the news.