How To Be a Better Camera Operator – Part 2: TECHNIQUE

16 Feb

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Welcome to part 2 of my “How To Be A Better Camera Operator” series (if you haven’t read part 1 click here). In this post we’ll be looking at Camera Techniques – what tricks or techniques do you require, or could you improve on, to be the very best Camera Operator you can be? Read on!…

Part 2:
10 Camera Operating Techniques

1. Operate a variety of  different cameras

Seems to me there’s a new camera launched onto the market every other day! (Well maybe not, but you get my drift!)

TV Producers and Directors can, and do, dictate which cameras we use, it’s their prerogative.  It’s your job is to be proficient with a variety of cameras, not just one. Being able to operate with at least 4 different types of camera that are commonly used in the industry will give you flexibility, and that flexibility gives you a tremendous advantage over your competitors. Call Hire Companies and ask if you can go and familiarize yourself with a few different cameras.

*Hire companies will normally be ok with this as they would rather know that you can competently use one of their cameras rather than try and work it out on a shoot and change all the settings! So long as you eventually hire camera kit from them they will be more than willing to help, but never exploit their good will.

2. Compromise…to a degree

In the film and TV industry compromise happens every day. You compromise with the Producer, the Director, the Sound Recordist, even the weather… you name it!

Compromise is good, to a degree – you’ve got to be flexible. But  remember – when you concede too much and it starts to seriously affect the standard of the work you turn in then it’s time to reconsider. By being too amenable on location you can box yourself into a corner which can force you to turn in substandard work. When the producer or director views disappointing footage, guess who gets the irate call…you do!

So compromise a little, but stop if it’s going to really affect your work in a detrimental way.

3. Keep ahead of Technology

It’s a fast moving industry which is in a constant state of flux, none more so than on the technological front. Keep ahead of all that is going on; be aware and adaptable to change.

In most professions it’s essential to be current with technological developments. Imagine the consequences if a neurosurgeon who didn’t keep ahead of the game (granted, our work isn’t as critical but I hope you get my point!). In certain professions like commercial aviation the flight crew have to be ‘current’.  Regular check out flights are imposed upon them by law, they have no choice. Why should our profession be any different? Ok there’s no law that says you have to do this but for your own professional reputation you should impose these standards on yourself.

4. Be the Directors second pair of eyes.

This applies mainly to documentary shooting or if you are shooting and directing your own material.

Always keep an eye out… perhaps not quite as extreme as this guy, but you get the point.

Obviously peering down a lens can give you a ‘tunnel vision’ view of the world. It takes a bit of practice but while you’re filming you can use your other eye intermittently to assess what is going on outside the camera frame, doing this will enhance your shooting ability considerably. This is particularly valuable in documentaries as you can quickly adjust the shot to take in vital action that you would otherwise be unaware of (note: on cameras with flip-out monitors this is even easier to achieve). The director will love you for it because some things happen so quickly in documentaries that they just can’t be directed; this is when you, the camera operator are in the driving seat.

It’s also important if you are filming in a potentially dangerous situation such as on the edge of a race track. Looking down the long end of the lens can lure you into a false sense of security, as everything seems so distant. If a car spins off the track near to your camera position you may be totally unaware of it until it hits you!  It’s has happened to me on several occasions and keeping your other eye open has saved both myself and my camera from a potentially disastrous situation!

5. Shoot ‘Usable’ Footage

Whenever possible make all your footage useable. Don’t wave the camera around when it’s running while you attempt to frame a shot or while you’re discussing a previous Take! Imagine how frustrating this is for the poor editor who is watching the footage waiting for you to settle on the shot, it’s meaningless, lazy and unprofessional. Once again, you’re not going to be in the edit with the director or editor to backup your sloppy work. As a general rule don’t turn over (run the camera) until you’ve framed the shot!

When the camera is running make sure all camera moves (pans, tilts, tracks and zooms etc) are smooth and steady.

6. Develop Speed and Efficiency

This is you – being quick and efficient.

We are all familiar with the term ‘Time is Money’ and it is never more so prevalent than in the film and TV industry. A production going over schedule has a serious knock on effect on the budget. There are literally hundreds of reasons why a production can go over schedule, bad weather, various technical problems, actors/TV presenters’ performances and directors wanting to do retakes…the list goes on and on!

Virtually all of the above are out of your control, but as a camera operator, or for that matter any member of the crew, you should make it a priority to do your job as effectively and efficiently as you possibly can.  Don’t slow the production down because of your failure to be expert at what you do. From a Director or Producers perspective if you are slow and incompetent and you cost the production money you won’t be asked back on the next shoot. Alternatively if you are fast and efficient it will be noticed and looked upon favorably for future bookings.

7. Turn in flawless footage – ALWAYS!

Your job isn’t to shoot footage that is just acceptable; your job is to shoot footage that is exceptional!

Make sure you always over deliver and turn in the very best material you possibly can every time.

In the industry there is an old saying  ‘You are only as good as your last job’. No matter how good you have been in the past, no matter all that great footage that you’ve shot over the years, if you turn in bad footage just once…that’s what you’ll be remembered for. It has to be right …every time! If you’re thinking, ‘That’s harsh’, it’s not…not a bit of it…it keeps you on your toes and keeps your standards high at all times.

Professionals are never lazy or slapdash in what they do!

8. Don’t overshoot

Overshooting means filming far more footage than is actually required. This is extremely bad practice, but for some reason it seems to be quite common. Frankly it drives me (and my fellow professionals) absolutely crazy!

As a camera operator on drama this may be out of your control as the Director may want to go for another take for a better acting performance or numerous other reasons. However in documentaries, especially if you are shooting and directing the footage yourself, it is very much within your control. You need to develop the discipline and confidence that once you have the shot you want you don’t need to do it again!

Retaking the shot for no reason at all creates many problems… here are just a few:

  • It shows crew and production that you are not confident in knowing you have the shot or sequence you need.
  • If you are filming a performance, actors or presenters will lose their spark and spontaneity if you keep asking them to do take after take for no apparent reason.
  • It becomes very draining and frustrating for those in front of the camera and those behind the scenes because they feel like it’s all a waste of time – which it is!
  • Last but not least there’ll be mountains of footage to wade through in post production, which will ultimately cost the production time and money.

I’m not saying you can’t film another take if you’re not happy. All I’m saying is don’t do another take just for the sake of it!

Remember its quality not quantity that counts.

9. Edit in Camera

Make sure your footage will cut together.

In drama this isn’t so critical because the Director will have a clear idea of what is needed and tell you all the specific shots he or she requires to create a particular sequence. In documentaries, especially stressful unpredictable situations that you have no control over, you are responsible for shooting sequences and getting all the necessary cutaway’s (pick up shots) so that the sequences you are filming cut together seamlessly.

We call this ‘editing in camera’. When filming in certain situations like war zones or riots the director relies on you, the camera operator, to get all the necessary material. In these situations everything happens so quickly that it’s simply impossible for a Director to tell you what to shoot and how to shoot it. It’s all down to you and it’s your responsibility to make sure you have all the material to make a sequence work in the edit.

This guy’s got the right idea.

10.  Clearly state when the camera is running

When the camera is running everyone on the shoot should know it.

As a professional camera operator it’s your job to state clearly (out loud) that the camera is running. It’s important for the Director, the crew, presenters and actors to know this. It immediately stops people talking and moving around on set and creates a sense of anticipation and focus.

This is one of the advantages of shooting using a Clapper Board or Digislate  because it’s very obvious to everyone that the camera is running and the Take is about to happen.

————————————————————————————————–

Anyway, there you have it 10 clear techniques that will definitely put you above and beyond others out there. These things are expected of you, but all too often in today’s industry, these qualities are rare. Put these into practice, truly master them, and I promise you, you’ll be in demand.

If you enjoy my blog, please share it with your friends – I’m trying to get this info to the people who really want it. Also, if you want to meet me in person, talk or get training, I actually run courses for Camera Operators so click the link or get in touch if you’re interested in coming and learning in person! (Sorry…Shameless plug). Oh and enter your email address into the form on the right to receive free chapters from my new e-book on “How to break into the film & TV industry”. The book will be finished shortly and will be followed by another book on Cinematography – cool.

Incidentally, after talking about slating above, here are some great tips on using a Clapper Board.

Thanks for reading!

Chris.

Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.

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20 Responses to “How To Be a Better Camera Operator – Part 2: TECHNIQUE”

  1. Nathan Williams February 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    Mostly great tips but as a documenty director (and sometimes shooter) I’d beg to differ on a couple. For instance (5) – don’t run the camera until you’ve framed the shot.
    A lot of people now like the Borne / 24 style of shooting where you start with a zoom or reposition and include whip pans at the end of shots etc. I’ve sat in edits hunting for the moments and wishing the camera operator had started rolling earlier. Yes of course, such style decision ideally should be discussed before the shoot. But including them gives options and directors won’t always ask (or even think about) such things until the edit.

    (10) – Make sure everyone knows the camera is running. Again, not necessarily on a doc. Sometimes the most interesting and relaxed moments occur when its not been made obvious the camera is running. Of course, people should never be deceived – but a good operator will sometimes start shooting or keep rolling without big shout of TURN OVER.

    But hey, all rules are meant to be broken!

    • freespiritfilm February 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

      Hi Nathan,

      You make some very valid points and everything you have said is correct –
      I’ve shot and directed countless emotional, heartfelt interviews that don’t require you to shout out that the cameras rolling, in the fear of spoiling the moment or disrupting an interviewee’s concentration, in the same way you’d probably quietly end-board the take, but I honestly thought that would have been very apparent in the moment so chose not to include it. I’d be amazed if a camera operator got to a position of filming an important interview without any understanding of subtlety – it’s less technique and more common sense.
      Regarding the Greengrass approach to shooting, it is popular these days, but as you’ve said if that’s what the director wants, he should clearly state it before he gets to the edit – it’s his job to make sure he’s got a clear idea about what the style of a doc will be and to communicate that to his crew. That’s what being a director means. As an operator, filming unnecessarily ‘just in case’ is also a luxury that is only available now, in the digital age – before, rolling unnecessarily on film would have cost you film stock – money and quite possibly, if you did it too often, your job. These standards are what separates the average operator from the very best – unless it’s stated, you should never waste stock OR the editors time when he has to trawl through all your framing just because you thought it might be useful in the edit.

      I’m just trying to offer the basic foundations of what being a camera operator is. It’s very difficult to get everything down on here, as you can imagine the blog post would be enormous, so it’s perfectly understandable that you found specific examples of where these tips might not apply, and they were totally valid.

      Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the post nonetheless and thank you for commenting. I know it probably doesn’t sound like it, but I really do appreciate you taking the time to get in touch 🙂
      All the best,
      Chris

  2. reelization May 23, 2012 at 3:54 am #

    Reblogged this on Reelization.

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    • freespiritfilm June 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

      Thanks for your feedback 😀 It’s always wonderful to hear that people are enjoying the content on here; please be sure to share it with anyone else who might benefit from it – thnx again.
      x

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    • freespiritfilm January 20, 2014 at 1:16 am #

      Cheers Michael, great to know you’re enjoying it, send over any q’s if you have them 🙂

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  6. Class Action May 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

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  7. Joseph Ade Adeyinka January 4, 2015 at 11:56 am #

    I am an amateur and a damn fresh start-up (call it novice if you like) but I think the materials made helpful reading to me.
    Thanks.

    • freespiritfilm April 3, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

      I’m really glad you enjoyed them Joseph 🙂 If there’s anything I can ever help with, please let me know!

  8. Festus Jackson-Davis April 1, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

    I have really learnt from the tips, I look forward for more of this thank you.
    “If you’re on-time, you’re
    already late! ” I want more clarification on this motto.

    • freespiritfilm April 3, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

      It’s simple really – you should never aim to arrive on time, you should aim to arrive early. Only when you arrive early are you ever ready to start on time. Does that make sense? Haha. Thanks for the support 🙂

  9. Juma Ali Simba March 17, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

    In fact after finishing reading your article on how to become a good or professional camera, I was applaud of it and found a lot that i have forgotten and need t know them!

    • freespiritfilm March 20, 2016 at 9:17 pm #

      That’s awesome to hear! We’re so glad it was helpful! EW

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