How To Be a Better Camera Operator – Part 3: EQUIPMENT

24 Feb

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Welcome back to part 3 of my “How To Be A Better Camera Operator” series (if you haven’t read part 1 and part 2… what are you waiting for?! Haha). In this post we’ll be looking at Camera Equipment – there’s lots of information flying around all over the place about gear, so sometimes it can be very tough to see what’s really important about the kit you use. In this post I’ll try to cover what you need, why you need it and how to make sure it keeps doing what you want it to do!

This one’s a long one, it’s hard to condense this kind info… So without further ado, buckle up and let’s begin!…

As there are so many different cameras out there I’m not going to discuss the ‘right’ camera to choose or use, as this largely depends on the type of work you do and anyway, as I’m sure you’ve already discovered there’s so much stuff online now about all the various cameras that are available, their pros and cons, special features and …well the internet groans under the strain of it all!

In fact every time I Google ‘DSLR‘ I’m sure I can hear my laptop give out a little whimper. Bless it!

A bad workman always blames his tools. It’s not the camera, but the person behind it.

One thing I will say though is that having the latest, all singing all dancing camera with the brand new bells and whistles doesn’t make you a better camera operator. Similarly just because you have Microsoft Word on your computer doesn’t make you a better writer than William Shakespeare. I think you’ll all agree that even though good old Will had nothing but an unpretentious sharpened goose feather to work with… he kind of managed ok!!!

Seriously though, I think so many people out there get sold down the river with the idea that by shelling out their hard earned cash on the latest digital camera craze it will somehow suddenly and miraculously propel them to the dizzy heights of a well seasoned cinematographer, who’s rubbing shoulders with the likes of JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg! – Forgive my flippancy here – most unlike me I know … but guys, you know deep down inside it just isn’t the case.

Sorry gear hires companies and sellers of the latest digital devices, but somebody has to tell it how it is 🙂

And before you rush to your keyboards and challenge me on this… yes I know how brilliant the Red Epic is and how clever Canon’s DSLR’s are and how superb the Arri Alexa  is and all the other amazing gear out there and how the images are totally stunning… but I hope you get my drift here! Sometimes I see inexperienced ‘camera operators’ on shoots, nervously hiding their lack of expertise behind all the latest gizmos and toys, and guess what mantra’s murmured by industry professionals?… ‘All the gear…No idea’. – Guys…please don’t fall into the trap! Sorry about the rant… now back to the story!

Camera Care

He’s ok but what about the poor camera!

Looking after your camera is number one. It’s simple…Look after your equipment and your equipment will look after you.

Remember film and video equipment is highly sensitive and precision built so don’t throw it around like it’s an old saucepan! Treat it with care and respect.

If you hire camera kit, treat it as if it’s your own, don’t mistreat it because it’s ‘just hired’ – that’s just totally unprofessional. Remember, if you don’t look after hire gear then the hire company you get it from probably won’t hire it out to you again. Simples. Respect all equipment at all times!

Your camera is a mechanical and electronic thing of beauty, your weapon of choice, so please really try to appreciate the incredible technology and expertise that has gone into manufacturing it. Look after it and it will serve you well, abuse it or misuse it and it will bite you in the ass! If you neglect your camera and a shoot goes down the pan because of your lack of care, production aren’t going to be happy bunnies!

So how can you make sure your camera doesn’t drop you in the proverbial poo?… well…
Here are a just few DO’s and DON’TS:

  • GULP!… No… Rain cover… *trembles*

    DO: Always have a rain cover handy if you are filming outdoors. Also use a lens cap ready for the lens. Pretty obvious really, water and electrics don’t mix! To protect the lens from rain a great tip used by loads of camera assistants is to use disposable shower caps (the sort you sometimes find in hotels) because they are elasticated it only takes a second to snap one over the lens: it’ll protect it between Takes from those potentially damaging and annoying rain droplets.

  • DO: Also use a rain cover if you are filming in a dusty environment, to protect the camera and, between Takes use a lens cap to protect the lens. If you do get dust on the lens you’re a failure (… only kidding) DON’T use a lens cloth to get it off, dust can be extremely abrasive so wiping it off can easily scratch the lens’ front element, use compressed air or Dust Off to blow it away.
  • When you’re not using the camera, DO keep it in safe place and protect it from anyone who is not crew…and that includes production staff – bless them, they mean well but they often don’t appreciate how fragile gear really is.
  • DO: Keep your camera clean and regularly serviced by qualified service engineers. Do everything you can to prevent your camera developing a fault on location. Sometimes this is unavoidable… things just happen that are totally out of your control, but regular servicing by expert engineers is the professional way of making sure your gear is in perfect working order. You can only work at 100% if you have total confidence in your gear, so keep it in tip top condition.
  • If you have a foreign shoot pending DO get the kit serviced before you go. If you’re abroad and something becomes faulty, it’s far more difficult and stressful to resolve the problem than it would be at home. If you are flying to a location on a commercial flight ALWAYS carry the camera on-board as hand luggage; never leave it to the fate of the luggage handlers… we’ve all seen suitcases being thrown onto aircraft… DON’T leave your camera to the same fate. Incidentally when you go through airport security your camera will have to go through the X-ray scanner. It’s also essential to have a fully charged camera battery on the camera because security often want you to power up the camera so they can see it’s actually a real, operational camera. Never argue with security staff, just do exactly what they request. Don’t get annoyed if they seem pedantic; remember they are all there for our safety!
  •  If you’re carrying the camera on a shoulder strap, DO be mindful of striking the camera on objects like door frames or other obstacles. Not paying attention can cause significant damage like smashing the viewfinder or knocking the lens out of calibration… shudder.
  • “It buuuuurns!”

    When you’re filming outdoors on a sunny day, and your eye is away from the viewfinder, angle the viewfinder down towards the ground, away from direct sunlight. The viewfinder has its own lens which can focus the sun’s rays and cause major burn damage to the viewfinder that is very expensive to repair.

  • DON’T leave the camera unattended at any time especially if the public are nearby, you may come back after that well deserved coffee to find your pride and joy has vanished into thin air!
  • DON’T leave the camera unattended on an extended tripod (especially on a breezy day). If the camera is high on the tripod, it’s basically quite unstable – so take care!
  • DON’T allow anyone to bring food or drink anywhere near film or video equipment. If a coffee tips over your camera, monitor or lens, it’s not going to do it any good at all, it’s really bad practice and totally unprofessional.
  • If you are shooting on a tape format, open and close the camera tape door gently. When the camera ejects a tape the door tends to automatically spring open quite abruptly, while this is designed to happen, it’s good practice to place your hand lightly over the tape door and cradle the door as it opens. Once the tape is removed from the camera, close the door immediately to prevent any dust and foreign objects getting into the camera mechanism.
  • DON’T leave your camera in baking in the sun, it may overheat, especially if it’s powered up for any length of time, shade it with an umbrella or lastolite reflector (see my blog here about reflectors).

The Tripod – Your three legged friend

Phwoar… now there’s a tripod!

The poor old tripod gets a pretty bad rap, nobody really seems to rave about it. It doesn’t have any fancy buttons to press and you can’t look through it and marvel at the amazing shot you’ve just framed. No, it just stands around lonely and dejected and you tolerate carrying it around on your shoulder because you’re obliged to (feel bad yet?…).

But the truth is, a good tripod is like a good friend… and as we all know you can always rely on a good friend. My trusty Ronford F4 weighs a ton and has legs as stiff as a geriatric with chronic arthritis, but we’ve been together over 30 years and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Despite its little foibles, it’s rock steady and its pans and tilts are as smooth as the day it was made… it has never let me down.

An essential element of good camera operation is a good tripod and there are many fantastic types on the market.  Most common are the fluid head variety, here a viscous fluid is used inside the tripod head to smooth out the mechanics of the head motion during panning and tilting. (There are also geared heads used in the feature film industry). My advice would be to use a Ronford, Vinten or Sachtler tripods, they are not the only great tripods on the market but they’ve been around a long time and have become accepted as industry standard.


Please don’t get one of those wretched efforts that looks like it was designed by an ambidextrous contortionist whilst smoking some illicit substance! These ‘tripods’ with weird emaciated legs that are impossible to extend unless you have a third hand and, if you are lucky enough to have a ‘bubble’,(tripod head spirit leveling device) it can only be leveled by painstakingly extending or retracting the legs! What’s that all about?!!! The professional tripod simply has a head bowl that can be loosened and adjusted and leveled without touching the legs at all. Bliss

Finally, make sure your tripod is strong and substantial, it’s all very well having something lightweight and easy to carry around but what’s the use if that it’s flimsy and unstable?

Lens and accessory boxes
How boring“… I hear you sigh! Well hang on a bit, get off my case (sorry no pun intended) and hear me out for a second. Let me just get this right, you spend a small fortune on lenses, camera batteries, monitors and all that stuff, only to carry it around in rucksack?… I see it a lot these days and it makes me cringe…. Pleeeaaase don’t do it!

Sooner or later someone is going to sit on your flimsy little cloth bag, drop it, nick it, throw it or its going to get soaked in a rain storm or crushed in the back of a crew car, and guess who gets the repair bill for that scratched lens or drenched monitor? Take a look at these Pelican cases, ok they’re a bit pricey, but trust me once you have some of these you won’t ever need any other case again…ever!

They are strong, in fact in an effort to demonstrate their strength I once saw a 4 wheel drive Land Cruiser run over one and it didn’t even scratch the surface! They have foam padding inside, are lightweight, waterproof, dust proof, in fact everything-proof. Besides, the military uses them, so that’s good enough for me!

There is a theory that cockroaches would be the only thing to survive a nuclear holocaust… well whoever said that has never seen a pelican case! If that happens, none of us will be around to find out, but at least the cockroaches will have somewhere cool to hang out!

Protect your gear, don’t neglect your gear… it’s not just your financial investment, it’s your professional integrity at stake. If gear gets damaged on location and it’s due to your negligence, it’s not going to go down too well with production!

Filming Lights
If you’re on a drama you’ll have a small army of electricians, generators and just about every available lamp that you can image (and anyway lighting a drama won’t be down to you, the operator, it will be the Director of Photography who is sorting all that out). If however you work in documentaries, or smaller budgeted dramas, then you will need to have a basic lighting kit at your disposal.

My advice for documentary shooting is that you will need some form of soft light to enable you to lift the general light levels for wide shots. You can used a 2kw blond and bounce it off a reflector or if you’d prefer, Kino Flow’s are also a great soft light source. You will also need something for filming localized areas and interviews…

I love Dedo  Lights, they are perfect – they are small and very compact, and they provide a precision light source because they have an amazing Aspherics optical lens, a bit like a Fresnel lens but far superior. The lens improves light output, enhances the smoothness of the lit area and gives you incredible barndoor control from both the flood to spot positions.

Dedos are just perfect for lighting small areas such as filming products or interviews. They also have gobos so you can make backgrounds look more appealing and interesting (see my post on gobos here).

And Finally…
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:

“Look after your equipment and your equipment will look after you.”

Remember people, keep your standards up there! I challenge you to join the ranks of those industry professionals who work to the very highest standards, those who truly master their craft and become inspirational and significant members of the film and TV industry. You can do it, you just need to use what I’ve said, get out there and get going!

I really hope you’ve found this short series useful. I actually run a Camera Operators/ Lighting Course so click the link or get in touch, if you’re interested in coming and learning in person! Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Sign up for free stuff in the form on the right! (coming soon)… Cheers for now!


Free Spirit Film & TV
Film, TV & Online Video Production.
Camera Course UK

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6 Responses to “How To Be a Better Camera Operator – Part 3: EQUIPMENT”

  1. EllJW February 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    What a bloody brilliant blog! I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to actually find some hard, useful facts about film production. The Internet seems to be full of arm-chair enthusiasts that just bicker about techspecs and here we finally have something worth reading. You’ve got years of experience here, bundled up in bite-sized blogs for us all to learn from. Please keep them coming. Thank you.

  2. EllJW February 24, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    … and its funny! Humour makes this blog unique.

  3. reelization May 31, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Reblogged this on Reelization.


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