10 Things You Need To Be A Successful Camera Operator (And 5 You Don’t!)
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.
The 10 Things You Need:
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
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.
The best advise I was ever given when I started out was spend A LOT on your tripod. Yes, Aldi
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,
People, and by this I mean everyone, underestimated the importance of sound. When you’re starting out your likely to spend your money
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.
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
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 email@example.com, or god help me, @hotmail I assume they’re not seriously invested in their career. If I see one that’s firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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
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
Three, suddenly every business related purchase you make is discounted by 20%. Buying a tripod? Bang 20% off the price. Buying those lenses? Bang
5 Things You Don’t Need:
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.
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.
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
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
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
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…