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How to be camera operator

I’ve been a camera operator for 19 years, I’ve run my own Manchester video production company for 15 years and I’ve ran a hire studio in Manchester for 11 years. I say this to give a context to this article, and so you understand the advice offered below is hard-earned; forged from starting out with nothing but PD-150 camera and a dream to earn a sustainable living from being a camera operator. Advice I hope will help the countless graduates and enthusiasts that every year flood into a fast-changing and highly competitive career in video production.

sStudio filming for Blue Peter Anniversary image
Camera Operator for Events image

The 10 Things You Need:

Lenses

Since around 2010 people have fallen in love with the look and the phrase of what’s been called “depth of field”, the sharp focused “look” you get with changeable camera lenses. Lenses are a horribly expensive proposition when you’re starting out and most of those reading this will opt for prime lenses. Whatever brand you choose you need to ensure they have a low f-stop value. Really anything more than 2.8 won’t work for you. Mostly they are sold in sets but which do you really need?

A wide angle/fisheye? Unless you’re filming a battleship for your video production that’s somehow been placed in a tiny office so you can’t move backward you’ll never use it. A 100+mm? It’s not really going to help you in an interview unless you hate people and want to be in a separate room. Overall your best bet might be to sink your cash into a fixed f-stop zoom lens. I have a Sigma 28-70mm but a 24mm-70mm is even better. Yes, primes are good but on a practical level, they’re, er, impractical.The chances are your client has paid for a day of shooting, maybe in his or her office. Which means s/he wants interviews and GV/B-roll. Unless they’re familiar with filming they’re more than likely to have not allowed adequate time in their schedule for you to stop and swap lenses every 5 minutes. To them, it’s an unnecessary, time-consuming process. Ah, you say; “but I will tell them that in order to carefully craft the images they require I, as a master camera operator, will need more time to film.” And I for one would have no qualms about saying this. But this article is for when you’re first starting out. Maybe you’ve begged and negotiated to get this job. It’s your first job and you want to please the client and you’ve agreed to film everything s/he wants in a day, or worse an afternoon. If you’re under this pressure as much as you may want to reach for the Primes go for the zoom lens. As long as you’ve got a good one with a stable and low f-stop across the whole range you’ll be ok.

Hire a 4k camera image
Corporate video filming image

A Tripod

The best advise I was ever given when I started out was spend A LOT on your tripod. Yes, Aldi have a great one for £50 but has it got a fluid head? Does it pan smoothly? Is the tilt like silk? Can you put a Arri Alexa on it and not worry it’s going to buckle. Clients love movement in their shots, but before you buy a slider buy a heavy duty and tripod; spend the kind of money you’d reserve for a mid-range camera and look after it like it’s your livelihood.

Lights

You’ve no doubt left University armed with the mantra of “3 point lighting, 3 point lighting”. It’s drummed into you. The truth is the only way to fully achieve 3 point lighting is to walk into a completely dark space, like a studio, and light it from scratch. If you’re in an office guess what, there’s already lights there. So you can either accentuate that light or overpower it with your own. My advice would be to buy a set of flicker-free LED lights. I’m not a big fan of LED’s but you can get a set of reliable bi-colour panels relatively cheaply. Please don’t buy an imported set from China, yes they’re cheap but the wattage on them means they’ll flicker and fail. They have no ballast so though you may be quite happy on location when you review the footage you may get shutter roll. Also, don’t buy a set of work lights from B&Q – your client won’t like it!

Microphones

People, and by this I mean everyone, underestimated the importance of sound. When you’re starting out your likely to spend your money of everything else but a good microphone but remember that though the visuals are important a they are half the story. The rest is sound. You’re unlikely or unwilling to hire a sound recordist so buy a good microphone. I started out with Sennheiser ME66 and it just wasn’t up to the job. It was an omni-directional mic.  So if I was filming in an office location YES I heard the participant but I also heard the guy behind me arguing with a client on the phone, the person in the corner whinging that they didn’t want to be on camera, all that guff. Buy a good directional microphone. The Sennhieser 416 is still a remarkable and now very affordable microphone. Please don’t buy one an eBay, you don’t know what hell it’s been through. Buy one brand new and a stand (not a poll!) to stand it near your speaker during interviews.

Product Filming image
Presenter filming image
Event filming image
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Location filming camera operator image

A Car

Sorry, you’re gonna need transport. I railed against learning to drive. Give me the chance now and I’ll hop a train but with so much kit you’re going to need a reliable car. I once got an early gig in my video production career solely as I could drive and my competitor couldn’t. Sadly it can come down to something as arbitrary as that.

A LinkedIn profile

There’s an ad that says “your clients are on Linkedin” and it’s true. LinkedIn is a great place to not only have a presence but also to find work. I’ve scared up a few clients who’ve just generally posted about wanting a video. More and more businesses are turning to it a platform to find what they’re looking for. Once a month update your skills and Linkedin profile and stay active, ask questions and encourage discussion.

A Showreel

An old adage says that a builder never fixes his own house and the same applies to camera operators. If you’re behind the camera all day when you get home the last thing you want to do is start chopping together you’re finest moments. This is particularly true if you’re the type of videographer who is highly critical of their own work and is always looking for that “iconic shot” in every project. My advise; get off your high horse and see what clients see in you and make a showreel. It doesn’t have to be long but don’t make it too diverse. If you’re tired of filming your friend’s band and want to develop your corporate clients don’t fill your reel with guitar solos. If you can make a series of short one-minute reels aimed at different sectors. Your clients don’t have the time (or often the imagination) to see how your skills can adapt to suit different genres so keep your showreel “on message”.

An Email Address

It’s a simple thing but I’m as guilty as the next person. If I advertise for a collaborator on a project and I get an email from jobloggs@gmail.com, or god help me, @hotmail I assume they’re not seriously invested in their career. If I see one that’s jobloggs@acecameraman.com I’ll take notice. Businesses are just the same, they don’t want someone who seems fly-by-night and a generic email address screams unprofessional.

People Skills

Film is the most collaborative medium. Think of the end credits of a movie; all those names have worked together to create the movies you watch. If you’re on a set with dozens of people or if you’re with an interviewee trying to get them to talk enthusiastically about pensions you’re gonna need to communicate. What’s more, you may need to compromise. If you’re a filmmaker whose turned their skills to more commercial ventures then you need to adjust your expectations. Interviewees aren’t actors, you’ll need to work with them, reassure them if they struggle and encourage as they improve. By the same token the person who hired you to shoot isn’t Steven Spielberg, they know about their business but they don’t know framing, pacing, composition. You need to educate them without judgement or frustration. You also need to be confident; 9 times out of 10 you won’t know where you’re walking into and need to light and work in that space and make request of others that’ll help you fulfil your clients brief. 8 times out of 10 the person who booked you hasn’t told anyone your coming so there’s’ the annoyance of negotiating your way into the location at the start of the day.

Added to all this is my favourite expression; “managing client expectations” which is giving them a realistic interpretation of what they can expect within the budget and timescales. Speaking of budget; you also need to be capable of negotiating your fee which can initially be quite stressful.

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Filming with John Thompson image

Get VAT Registered

What? I’m just starting out! I don’t know if my video production business will work! I can’t afford the extra time and money it’ll take me to become VAT registered. Well, the process is quite simple, you also don’t need to hit the threshold to get registered. As for the cost I didn’t become VAT registered until 2007 (at a clients insistence). My accountancy bill doubled as I now had to submit every quarter but the benefits outweigh the costs. I’d say it was the best business decision I ever made.

One, you’re suddenly much more attractive to businesses. Follow the logic; BIG companies are VAT registered as their turnover is large. If you’re VAT registered when they hire you they can reclaim the VAT on you which makes you much more attractive to them.

Two, if you’re VAT registered you are perceived to be successful. Though you can opt in it’s automatic when your turnover hits £85,000. As a camera operator you’re basically saying when you add your price +VAT that you’re sooooo good at being a camera operator you earn over £85,000 a year.

Three, suddenly every business related purchase you make is discounted by 20%. Buying a tripod? Bang 20% off the price. Buying those lenses? Bang have 20% off. Renting kit? Have 20% off. Really, being VAT registered is something to seriously consider.

Tony Walsh filming image
Camera operator with FS7 image

5 Things You Don’t Need:

A Camera

I’ll give you a minute to scroll up and re-read the title and then I’ll explain. You don’t need a camera. As much as I love my Sony FS7 in 4 years it’ll be a doorstop. And so will any camera on the market today. Moores Law dictates that technology doubles every year. Now I’m not saying you don’t need a camera to be an operator or have a video production company; you just don’t need to buy one. There are so many cameras on the market and clients have very specific needs it’s best to stay fluid. A company like Procam in Manchester will happily rent you a camera of your choice and a lens adapter so your precious lenses can fit it. If you have a basic understanding of cameras and how they work you can generally figure out how to use them quite quickly. They are just a tool to get what you need. Think of it like renting a car; learn how to drive one and you can soon learn to drive them all.

A Drone

Yes, drones are cool. Nothing beats a drone shot. A high angle shot of your clients premises makes him or her squeal with delight but again I’m saying use them, don’t buy one. There are an ever-increasing number of drone operators available; it’s a really competitive area. Not only that, though the prices of drones have dropped the insurance costs and legislation around them has grown. Next year even more regulation comes in. Make this headache someone else’s problem. Why? Because even though the drone shot is magical it’s usually taken hours to achieve. Technical glitches, crosswinds, faulty remote controls mean that you need to allow time to get that special shot. So if you have one day to shoot your interviews, B-roll and now a drone shot something is going to give.  If your client requests a drone then go ahead and agree but calmly say that you’d either need an extra day for those shots (which will make them pull a face) or, luckily, for an extra few quid, you have a very reliable operator you use who can get that shot while your filming the main video. Your client will gladly agree.

A Website

I said you need an email, not a website. If you’re starting out you can’t be sinking money into a website, especially if you don’t have much of a CV. Your only option is to build your own site but, more than likely, this self built drag and drop site will suck. Building your own website will mean you’ll have to constantly update the plugins, back it up, run regular checks, and update it with your latest exploits. Sounds like a hassle doesn’t it? Yes, in the future have an all singing, all dancing website but now sink your money in kit. Today you don’t need a website. Instead, create a Facebook page, have an Instagram profile live on social media. Consider this; Facebook pages for 5-star hotels look identical to the local B&B’s. The look of Facebook pages is no frills and can be made in seconds. Start a page called Jo Bloggs Ace Camera Man and invite all your friends to like it, invite all your clients to leave a review and promote the heck out of it. If you bought a website to get that email address I said you needed, you can redirect your website url to your Facebook page. That way when clients do check up on you it goes to a popular and well-liked Facebook page.

Dependents

I’m not talking about family I’m talking about people you think you need: So the phone rings and you get booked on your first job. Elation gives way to panic; “I can’t do this job on my own, can I? I know John is free. I know John from college and he’d love to help me out. Let me ring John and he can carry lights and the client will think it’s value for money as it’s not just me, and then John will get experience, and he’ll be friendly face because, god knows, I don’t want to walk into an office of people I don’t know and film them, yes, John is good with people, he can hold a sound pole”. Next thing you know you’ve agreed with John that in return for him coming with you you’ll split the fee with him so now you’re working for half what you thought you were and John, who didn’t want the job, or did and wasn’t motivated to get the job himself, is now earning half a days pay for showing up.

It’s a common thing, and perfectly natural to want a friendly face in your early jobs but the sooner you get used to taking the safety wheels off and working alone the better. I made the mistake when I started of bringing along passengers to my early jobs, it can be an expensive mistake in your formative video production career.

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Filming with Nick Park image
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BBC filming image
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Pride of Britain Awards filming image

Working for free

Deranged, psychotic and dangerous he may have been but The Joker got it right in the film The Dark Knight; “If you’re good at something never do it for free”.  To start a career as a camera operator or as a video production company and to focus on making money is a recipe for disaster. You have to naturally love filming or telling stories with pictures. That is why so many of us initially work for free, and even more fail in this career as a result. People will take advantage; either because of your enthusiasm for their project or because of the highly competitive nature of the industry means they can ask you to drop your price – often to nothing. Yet if you don’t charge for your services then you are essentially valuing your skills at zero. That’s why you scrimped and saved to afford your lenses, that’s why you studied the works of Tarkovsky, that’s why you spend the day before prepping kit and blocking shots. To get paid nothing? Or even better (and my personal favourite) “for the experience”. I do have a sure fire way to ensure this never happens to you. If you’re interested comment and I’ll tell you my solution.

I do need to make distinction though between being asked to work for low money and choosing to work for low money ; often a job comes along that intrigues you and in this instance it is OK to lower your price. A metal forger who didn’t have a lot of money but wanted a video making approached me. As it’s a very visual skill I opted to film it (not for free – never for free!) but for a discounted rate. My reward was that video is the most viewed of my videos on YouTube and that his company thrives to this day. It’s a personal decision what you will and won’t do to achieve your ambitions but please, really, do not work for free, you’re better than that.

Every year 1000’s of graduates flood into Manchester’s Media City seeking fame and fortune as a camera operator or to start a video production company. I hope this advice is useful, I hope you take it on board, I hope you achieve your dreams and I wish you well. Now…

get shooting!

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