Getting reliable information on an industry as fast-moving as the film industry can be tough.
Thankfully the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is in charge of keeping track of how jobs, money, and people flow into and out of different occupations and industries. And they make that data readily available on their website.
So today we’re going to pour through that data – which is from 2012, but nonetheless recent enough – to draw some interesting insights on working as a camera operator within the film industry.
Now when I say “camera operator,” I’m using that term loosely. The BLS couldn’t possibly track every single job title, so as we explore this data about camera operators, you can assume that it covers:
- Television, film, and motion picture industries (including news)
- Camera Assistants
And anybody else who might fit under the title “Camera Operator” in the broadest sense.
Because the definition of camera operator is so broad and the data slightly old, be aware that these figures are more useful as guidelines. While the research is sound and the numbers thoroughly vetted, I would consider this information only as a piece of the puzzle and not the only info worth considering if you’re going to use it in a major decision about your career.
So, with all those qualifications and caveats out of the way, let’s get down with the data…
10 Facts About Camera Operating Jobs and Money
1. On average, camera operators make about $49k annually
The mean annual wage for camera operators in 2012, according to the BLS, was $49,260.
But let’s take that with a grain of salt. Why? Because that number gets inflated by the people at the high end of the spectrum; meaning if Roger Deakins gets included in the pool, he single-handedly inflates the mean annual wage which is calculated by averaging all wages together.
The more accurate indicator (for those of us who don’t get invited to the Oscars) is the median average wage which is the number in the exact middle of the spectrum regardless of how high or how low the extremes are. Unfortunately, the median annual wage is only $40,000.
2. Which is lower than other film occupations, but higher than still photographers
Of course none of these wage numbers mean much if we don’t have context to put them within. In this case, it’s helpful to compare what camera operators make against others in the film, television, and media industries as well as against the average wages for all occupations in the US economy.
When you do that, as we have in the chart above, there’s good and bad news. The good news is that camera operators make more money than the national average and, when you isolate camera operators within the “Motion Picture and Video Industries,” the annual mean wage jumps to $57,100. The bad news is that, compared to some other common production jobs, we’re lower on the scale.
Also interesting is that still photographers make markedly less than film and video camera operators. That surprised me considering the similarities between the two professions.
One last thing: compared to the “arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations” group, camera operators make about $6,000 (mean) and $4,000 (median) less in annual wages.
3. The conventional wisdom is true; the most work is in California and New York
According to the BLS, California and New York are the states with the most employment of camera operators with both states besting the third state on the list, Florida, by almost double the number of camera operators employed.
(There is a catch, however, which is that self-employed camera operators are not included in these numbers. That said, other statistics show only 22% of camera operators are self-employed, so the impact may not be as large you imagine. Additionally, the anecdotal evidence I have of who I know working where seems to line up with these numbers. Still, they aren’t perfect.)
If we drill further, we find the best metropolitan areas for camera operator jobs rank as follows: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Houston.
Surprised? Maybe once you get past the definitive 1 and 2 spots. I was surprised not to see Atlanta, GA ranked higher considering it is quickly becoming a hotbed for productions on the east coast. These figures are from 2012, however, so it’s possible Atlanta has risen in the ranks since then.
4. The best states to make money are Washington, D.C., California, and Maryland
More employment is not directly correlated with a higher annual wage. That honor – of paying their camera operators the most – goes to Washington, D.C. followed by California and Maryland.
At first that may seem surprising, but consider that Washington, D.C. (flanked by Maryland) has a tremendous infrastructure for television news and work related to politics in the nation’s capitol.
Meanwhile, sandwiched between the two east coast states is left coast California which pays its camera operators, a majority likely working in Hollywood, an annual mean wage of $69,080. That’s high compared to the national average for camera ops, but also compared to New York’s $53,210.
5. The best cities to make money are Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Washington DC
When you break down which cities/metropolitan areas have the highest annual mean wage for camera operators, it provides surprising results: Las Vegas, NV sits on top with a staggering $112,230 annual mean wage! The reason for this? Employment is listed at a meager 100 jobs – albeit well-paying jobs.
Listed next is just as surprising a city in Bethesda, MD. It, too, has only 100 jobs, but boasts an annual mean wage of $78,840. As mentioned above, this is probably due to its proximity to Washington, D.C. which has a healthy marketplace for politically-based television broadcasting. The true D.C. metro area is listed at #6 for highest annual mean wage, but combined with Bethesda, deserves to be mentioned somewhat higher.
Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles is number three with an annual mean wage of $76,120 – not far behind Bethesda and boasting many more jobs than the Maryland city. In fact, of the top 10 cities with the highest annual mean wage for camera operators, LA is the only one that breaks the 1,000 jobs barrier. That means it’s one of the few areas that has many jobs and pays well.
Rounding out the list is Chicago, Camden, NJ, a handful of California cities, and Atlanta, GA.
6. If you’re struggling to set a day rate, a good start might be $275/10-hour day
The hourly mean wage for camera operators within “Motion Picture and Video Industries” is $27.45. If we extrapolate that to 10-hours and 12-hours you get a day rate of:
- approx. $275 for 10-hours
- approx. $330 for 12-hours
These are reasonable rates and fall right in the middle of the wage scale. If you’re just starting out and trying to wrap your head around a good baseline for a day rate, these figures aren’t too far off.
(Note that these rates are for labor and don’t include a kit rental fee)
You’ll always have to tweak your rate depending on project, budget, and other factors, but at least with these numbers you’re basing your rate on something meaningful, not arbitrary.
7. There were 21,400 employed camera operators in 2012
Out of the entire labor-force, including those who were self-employed, there were 21,400 working camera operators in 2012. If this number seems low, it may be – it only counts those whose camera operating gig is their primary job.
That removes a potentially large chunk of people who camera operate on side-gigs (think a wedding videographer who started it as a hobby, but accepts paid work for extra cash) or people whose primary job is helping them transition into an eventual full-time camera operator (like a young woman who shoots short films on the weekends before quitting her 9-5).
The BLS also does not distinguish between jobs in which a person could embody multiple roles. For instance, “preditors” often shoot, produce, and edit their own material – are they considered camera operators or producers or editors? That’s dependent on the individual’s self-reporting to the BLS.
So what’s the true estimate of the number of camera operators working across the U.S.? It’s hard to say. This number from the BLS is the best guess we have with any certainty.
8. Employment for camera operators is projected to grow much slower than the U.S. average
As the U.S. economy (hopefully) continues to make modest gains in the next decade, job growth for camera operators is expected to be significantly slower than all other occupations in the U.S. economy. Specifically, camera operators are projected to have a 6% positive change in employment between 2012 and 2022 compared to the 11% positive change projected for all occupations.
9. But that’s still better than the projected employment growth for other industry jobs
Here’s other media occupations projected to grow slower between 2012 and 2022:
- Film and Video Editors – 1%
- Art Directors – 3%
- Producers and Directors – 3%
- Actors – 4%
- Photographers – 4%
Suddenly 6% isn’t so bad – though it would be nice to anticipate double-digit percentage growth.
10. Of workers considered camera operators, only 22% of them were self-employed
Though we often imagine camera operators as those toiling below-the-line in Hollywood and living the freelance life, only 22% of camera operators were self-employed in 2012. 28% were employed within radio and television broadcasting (news stations, TV production studios, local access, etc.) and another 28% were employed within the motion picture and video industries.
That means over three-quarters of working camera ops are gainfully employed by some type of entity be it a production company, a corporation with internal video production, places like venues that keep event staff on payroll, or another situation that keeps them on payroll.
What’s your reaction to these numbers? What surprised your or didn’t surprise you? Do you find anything on here that you think goes against the grain of conventional wisdom? Please share in the comments!
Disclaimer and Sources
These figures are compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here is their methodology:
OES [Occupational Employment Statistics] estimates are constructed from a sample of about 1.2 million establishments. Each year, forms are mailed to two semiannual panels of approximately 200,000 sampled establishments, one panel in May and the other in November. May 2012 estimates are based on responses from six semiannual panels collected over a 3-year period: May 2012, November 2011, May 2011, November 2010, May 2010, and November 2009.
These are numbers that you can trust and, if you disagree with my interpretation of them, please feel free to visit the source links below and draw your own conclusions.
- OES, May 2012: Camera Operators
- OES, May 2012: Photographers
- OES, May 2012: Producers and Directors
- OES, May 2012: Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations
- OES, May 2012: Radio and Television Broadcasting
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014 Edition, Film and Video Editors and Camera Operators
- Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections, 2012 – 2022
- National Employment Matrix Projections, 2012 – 2022, Camera Operators