Wanted: Camera Operators

- - The Future

You can trace the decline of the Camera Operator job back to the days when being a photographer meant you were actually a chemist. Steady technological advances in film, lenses, cameras and software have turned operating a camera into something a monkey can do. You don’t have to look any further than Craigslist to see postings for camera operators listed at $0.25 per object and $10/hr, to realize operating cameras is not a good way to make a living. I don’t think I’m stating anything new here, just working my way to several points I want to make in response to this email I received:

As a benchmark, I am interested in PDN’s 30 under 30, but I can’t help feeling, that it’s about being connected to the right channels, presenting to the right audience and in the right manner. I wrestle with the notion of, “It’s who you know, not what you can do.” And a lot of times, it all feels like a networking popularity contest, or how one presents/markets his or herself.

How does a photographer best position his or her work to a photo editor to be considered at that level? What draws their intrigue? Is it a look, a ton of skill, getting published in the places, being unique in a world when everyone is trying to be unique and therefore mimics one another?

Photography as a business is not about operating cameras. It’s about operating a business and applying the rules that govern successful businesses: advertising, marketing, networking, professionalism, instilling confidence, igniting word of mouth, leadership, standing out, evolving, defining your offering, building a team of talented people… etc. While it may be horrific to see jobs that once paid well go for McDonalds wages, those people are only looking for someone to operate a camera.

The other point I want to make, is that hitching your wagon to something like the PDN 30 is not a good idea. Professional photographers have multiple points of contact with their clients before getting hired. If the first time anyone sees your work or has heard of you is in the PDN 30 you will disappointed by the lack of response. As a benchmark your appearance in the PDN 30 should be accompanied by your 3rd year of direct marketing, a spread in a great magazine, successful portfolio meetings and the completion of an intense personal project.

The job of camera operator has been in decline for many decades, don’t follow it into the ground.

There Are 28 Comments On This Article.

  1. Nicely put Rob! I used to get hung up on the it’s not what you know it’s who you know until I started thinking about other avenues of art, business or really anything else that was once not as accessible by everyone. The more people who do it, typically the better one has to be at it in order to get noticed. Sure, you have to know the right people, but you also have to be business savvy, a marketing guru, a talented photog, have original ideas and they all have to be sharp. I think it’s going to thin the crowds eventually as the pool of ameatuer grow the pros only have to get better to stay afloat.

  2. Camera Operator ? Now days I just call my job description,…”Digital Image Asset Acquisition Technician”.

  3. “Photography as a business is not about operating cameras. It’s about operating a business and applying the rules that govern successful businesses: advertising, marketing, networking, professionalism, instilling confidence, igniting word of mouth, leadership, standing out, evolving, defining your offering, building a team of talented people… etc. ”

    I’m going to have that sentence engraved and mounted on my wall. It sums up nicely what it’s taken me two years of floundering to figure out!

  4. Yep, right on the head. The camera operators are at Olan Mills, Life Touch, Bella Babies, etc. and they are all paid near what you have written here.

    I have to agree with the fact that it is more about the business than the actual time looking through the viewfinder. I surely wouldn’t worry about the younger generations as a whole. They are not taught core business skills.

  5. This article is right on, I’ve spent the last year revamping my marketing, sending out e-blasts and making cold calls. I’m now at the point where, when I call up someone on a cold call most of the time the know my name. I shoot mostly corp and educational stuff that nobody really sees in public much. So I flew under the radar for years, it feels good calling up folks and they say oh sure I like your eblasts etc… it greatly increases my chances of scoring a meeting. I do still believe though that it is who you know, but it’s our job to make them know us.

    • “…it’s our job to make them know us.”

      Great line to express a core photography marketing philosophy, especially when one is marketing themselves to other professionals whose ultimate function in one shape or another is also marketing, albeit for the end client. I feel like younger photographers have to come to understand that to stay in business you must be in this thing for the long haul, and often in an all or nothing situation. The greater the risk, the greater the reward, and often that reward comes after many years of mastery.

  6. Thanks Rob, this is a really good point for all photographers to be aware of. It’s not just the tools and it’s not just the talent. A photographer needs to be able to sell him/herself and be in the business of being a creative partner in their their client’s needs.

  7. I love the final benchmark sentence. Marketing seems to be such a daunting task to people who haven’t really had to do it before. Especially going from a full-time job to full-time job making. Then figuring out who you are, your personal vision, what makes you different and why. It’s all about taking that first steps and figuring it out from there.

  8. “It’s who you know, not what you can do” is a false dichotomy. You have to know someone first, in order to know what you can do for them. But as I like to say, “Who you know should be part of what you know.”

  9. “Photography as a business is not about operating cameras. It’s about operating a business and applying the rules that govern successful businesses: advertising, marketing, networking, professionalism, instilling confidence, igniting word of mouth, leadership, standing out, evolving, defining your offering, building a team of talented people… etc.

    As a benchmark your appearance in the PDN 30 should be accompanied by your 3rd year of direct marketing, a spread in a great magazine, successful portfolio meetings and the completion of an intense personal project.”

    … and then?
    Plenty of photographers hit all those goals well, and still struggle in business. A real study of this industry using business and economics might show just how rare (and poor) the return on invest has become. Who would benefit from this study? Not the schools, the coaches, the workshops, the equipment manufacturers, the associations, or publishers.

    In advertising (and some other commercial work) the image maker does not control the creative. They are subservient to the CD/AD/client. More than a camera operator (maybe they operate lighting and production too), but not that much more. Editorial may be different, but the return is also ‘different’.

  10. Nice, I’d like to add that being in PDN’s 30 under thirty is a great venue for emerging artists and I’ve seen photographers like Jeffery Lamont Brown springboard their careers because of PDN’s 30 under 30. Let’s see PDN do 40 at 40 and 50 at 50.

    • David, I believe they took the “under 30″ off around the second year. But this contest has been going on for at least ten years. What might be interesting is to see a retrospective over the course of the decade plus of all those published. Where are they now? How much time and money have they spent over the course of their career? What is the ROI? How does this relate relative to other career choices?

  11. I’d forgotten how good the “monkey pictures” were — a lot better than most of the animal shots on Flickr!

    Business Idea of the Day. Maybe I should do the lighting, and get a monkey to be the button pusher.

  12. I like the frankness. No beating around the bush that our profession is in dire straits for the most part, with some many forces downgrading revenue. What one hopes is that it is temporary. That there will be a “market correction” at some point. Low talent and low fees can only carry the day for so long before things begin to decompose.

  13. Scott rex ely

    I think the missing ingredient to this equation is capital procurement to run one’s business.
    All of those other notable attributes are just parts to an elaborate ego fed pipe dream if not properly funded.

  14. Being in the PDN 30 is the best thing that has happened to my career. However it would never work by itself. You have to stay visible, at all times.